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posted: 7/1/2013 7:59 PM

Decorated military pilot helped build Palwaukee Airport

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  • Esther Noffke

    Esther Noffke

  • Esther Noffke

    Esther Noffke

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

Esther Noffke of Wheeling was one of the original fly girls during World War II, the first female military pilots to carry out flight-related missions.

But when an author was preparing a book documenting those pilots' role in history, she had just one request.

"I just don't want us to sound frivolous," Noffke told the author of the 1992 book. "We weren't frivolous; we were really serious."

After the war, Noffke took her passion for aviation to the Northwest suburbs, where she was among the first three employees of Palwaukee Airport, helping to grow the air field from a flight-training school to the full-fledged business airport now known as Chicago Executive Airport.

Noffke died Friday. She was 91.

She joined Priester Aviation as a flight instructor in 1945 and later served as George Priester's assistant after he purchased the airport. She was credited with much of the development of Palwaukee, now called Chicago Executive Airport.

"She was one of the most focused persons I've ever met," said Charlie Priester, whose father, George, worked with Noffke and Ed Konefes to build Priester Aviation, starting in 1945.

"My dad had a vision of growing Palwaukee Airport," he added, "and Esther was the behind-the-scenes person making it happen."

Noffke worked as a flight instructor at Palwaukee after earning her own wings with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in 1943. Of the 111 trainees who started in her class, she was one of only 49 to graduate from the program and earn her wings.

Nationally, from 1942 to 1944, more than 25,000 women applied to the WASP program, which was designed as a civilian program for women to serve as pilots and relieve men for overseas duty, according to Armed Forces press records. Of those, only 1,102 women were accepted.

Noffke received her pilot certificate in June 1944 and was assigned to fly B-26 aircraft at McGowen Field, in Boise, Idaho.

She kept photos and other memorabilia from her historic flying days, as well as the early days of Palwaukee, in a section she transformed into a small museum.

Noffke also showcased her Congressional Gold Medal, which she and 200 other surviving WASP pilots were awarded in 2010 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Her national recognition came after Noffke was elected to the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997.

Just last month, Charlie Priester said, Noffke decided to donate her collection to Southern Illinois University and its nationally ranked aviation department, where a scholarship in her name has been established.

Noffke never married, but is survived by her sister, Hilda Schultz, and brother, Edward (Maggie) Noffke, and many nieces and nephews.

Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday until a funeral Mass begins at 11 a.m. at St. Raymond de Penafort Church, 311 S. I-Oka St. in Mount Prospect.

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