Philip Van Reeth Sr., longtime TWA pilot, dies

Philip Van Reeth Sr.'s love affair with aviation began in the 1930s when he was a small child playing outside, his family said.After hearing a loud noise, he turned his eyes upward and spotted his first plane. He began running after it, tripped over his...

Philip Van Reeth Sr., longtime TWA pilot, dies

Philip Van Reeth Sr.'s love affair with aviation began in the 1930s when he was a small child playing outside, his family said.After hearing a loud noise, he turned his eyes upward and spotted his first plane. He began running after it, tripped over his...

02 mart 2017 Thursday 00:06
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Philip Van Reeth Sr., longtime TWA pilot, dies

Philip Van Reeth Sr.'s love affair with aviation began in the 1930s when he was a small child playing outside, his family said.

After hearing a loud noise, he turned his eyes upward and spotted his first plane. He began running after it, tripped over his tricycle and then remained on the ground just staring up at it.

"It was love at first sight," said his daughter, Jeannine. "He told us he could hardly take his eyes off it."

It turned into a lifelong passion. During his decadeslong career as a pilot for Trans World Airlines, Van Reeth was at the controls of some of the most iconic aircraft of the time, including the Constellation, Convair 880 and Boeing's 727 and 747.

"I don't think I've ever known anyone who loved being in the air more than Phil," said fellow TWA pilot Virgil Hoffman, now retired. "He not only loved flying, but he got others to love it, too."

Van Reeth, 86, who retired from TWA in 1988, died of natural causes Feb. 15 at Sunrise of Crystal Lake, an assisted living facility, his family said. He was formerly of Lombard.

In the 1980s, Van Reeth served on the aviation advisory committee of the DuPage Area Vocational Education Authority in Addison, now known as the Technology Center of DuPage, which helps high school students learn marketable job skills. In his role, he kept instructors abreast of new developments in the aviation field.

Photo gallery: Newsmakers and celebrities with Chicago ties who died in 2017.

"The air-driven gauges that pilots watch are being replaced by computer monitors," he told the Tribune in a 1985 story about the program. "So we are going to have to start teaching students how to handle that."

"He took his responsibilities very seriously, because it was important to him that students be well-prepared for their careers," Hoffman said.

Van Reeth was born and raised on the South Side, where his father worked in the steel mills. He began taking flying lessons as a teen and played hooky from school one day to ace a test that earned him a pilot's license at 16.

He graduated from Mount Carmel High School in 1948. That same year, he enlisted in the Navy and was later accepted into Officer Candidate School. He flew missions over the Pacific, hunting down enemy submarines during the Korean War, and later served in the Reserves at the Naval Air Station Glenview until 1970.

He taught his wife, Joan, whom he married in 1953, how to fly. She died in 2016.

Photo gallery: Newsmakers and celebrities who died in 2017.

Van Reeth signed on with TWA in 1954, during a period in the airlines' storied history when it was run by famed aviator and Hollywood tycoon Howard Hughes.

"When TWA was struggling financially, Dad actually got a few paychecks signed by Howard Hughes, who was drawing from his own personal bank account to make payroll," said his son Phil Van Reeth Jr., a pilot for United Airlines.

Over the years, the elder Van Reeth flew both domestic and international routes for TWA, known as the "Airline to the Stars" because it was regarded as the airline of choice by movie stars and movie industry executives.

"He met a lot of celebrities, some quiet, some a little difficult to deal with, but most he felt were very nice and great passengers," his son said.

Van Reeth is also survived by two other sons, Edward and James; a brother, Eugene; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services were held.

Joan Giangrasse Kates is a freelance reporter.

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