Art Chester named his air racers after Popeye cartoon and comic strip characters.

By Paul Drabik

Art Chester was a true pioneer in aviation. He is a figure that represents the best of what Downers Grove has to offer. Born on December 15, 1899, Art Chester was part of a generation that forged a new technological landscape in America.

Just four years and two days later on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers would make the first powered flight in North Carolina. With that, a prodigy began to blossom in the shape of Art Chester. Art would not only become an accomplished aviator, but he would also become a virtuoso of airplane engineering and design.

Art grew up in a different Downers Grove than today’s citizens are accustomed to inhabiting. That Downers Grove was full of farmland and endless opportunities to explore.

Art and his brother Ed took to building and riding mini cars and motorcycles all over the town and ter rain of Downers Grove. However, it was at the old Cicero field in Chicago, where Art’s life would change forever. Here, a 13-year-old Art would see a plane fly for the first time in an exhibition.

Art was magnetized by engineering, design, and flying. He would take an internship drafting for International Harvester after high school. He worked as a mechanic in town, fueling his passion for his hobbies.

It was aviation, however, that compelled Art. As the U.S. entered WWI, Art and his brother volunteered. Art hoped to work in aviation and never got the chance. Once he was back in the U.S., his aviation career would take off.

He eventually bought his own plane and started taking people in town for joy rides, and a business began from his new found hobby. It was apparent that Art would go to any length to manifest this hobby into a way of life. He even jumped from a plane with a parachute to earn extra cash.

This, of course, was not a common practice in the 1920s, and the danger was significant. Yet, it also highlighted Art’s passion for aviation and willingness to go to extreme lengths to support his dream.

Seemingly, Art was born to be an aviator. Aviation was a new technology when he pursued this dream. His aptitude for mechanical engineering allowed for a deeper understanding of flight and aviation. Art would not only work on planes as a mechanic, but he would design innovations that would increase the speed and power of the planes he flew.

Drawn like a moth to a flame, Art would turn his side hustle joy-riding business into a full-blown aviation career. He would go on to run multiple small airports in places like Joliet and the northern suburbs. Art would never lose his passion for the joy of flight, however.

With the combination of his love for flight and his engineering prowess, Art’s destiny would manifest in the world of air racing. A fledgling sport of the time, air racing was about as dangerous an occupation as one could pursue.

Art Chester would not only pursue air racing, but he would also become a pioneer at the forefront of the sport. Art traversed the country for years, testing his designed airplanes and showing off his aviation skills. Art Chester would conquer the air racing world in 1930 with his victory at the National Air Races.

He named all his planes after Popeye characters, including Jeep, Goon, and Swee’Pea. Jeep won several races over a few seasons and would set a world speed record at the time of 237 mph. While flying the Goon, Chester won the Geve Trophy at the 1939 National Air Races.


“Art Chester is the greatest unknown legend of motorsports.”

-Tim Weinschenker, President of the Society of Air Racing Historians, at the 35th Annual MSHFA Induction Ceremony


Art Chester’s accomplishments in air racing stand alone as an impressive legacy. And yet, that is only half of the story. He was also an unsung hero of WWII. A government contractor hired Art to help design fighter planes. Art worked exclusively on the P-51 Mustang, the main fighter that turned the tide in the air wars of WWII. He was tasked to design everything forward of the cockpit.

Remarkably, Art decided he could improve on the design. He started his own company called The Aircraftsmen Co. building a manufacturing plant in Inglewood, CA. Here, Art saved money by producing a conical fitting for the propeller called the spinner. Commonly referred to as “The Greatest Generation,” people who lived through World War II experienced the worst human tragedy in recorded history.

People like Art Chester embodied this moniker through their dedication to serving our country against a tyrannical enemy. Art’s contribution through his work on the P-51 Mustang cannot be overstated. This airplane had broken the back of the German Luftwaffe in WWII.

It was integral to the allies’ success in liberating the continent of Europe. Art was an impressive aviator. He is also, undoubtedly, an American Hero of the highest regard.

Sadly, Art’s daredevil lifestyle eventually caught up to him in January 1949 at an air race exhibition in San Diego. He died tragically, piloting his Swee’Pea 2. Art was survived by his wife Trudy, and son Tommy.

In addition, Art’s nephew Craig Chester, and niece Sue Chester Brixie still remember their pioneer uncle and his remarkable life. Sue Chester Brixie lives in Downers Grove. She and Craig both remember living on 2nd street across from Pepperidge Farm and seeing their uncle Art pull up to the house with his airplane in tow.

He would be off to some race in Cleveland, Los Angeles, or somewhere adventurous. Craig remembers Art being a good man who was family-centric. Craig distinctly recalls his uncle Art taking his father flying to ensure the passenger seat cushion would not fall out while performing a fantastic maneuver.

Sue remembers that Art was a wonderful artist in addition to his aviation skills. They both had the privilege of honoring their uncle as he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in early March of 2023.

Art Chester was one of a kind. His story has been revived because of the indelible mark he left behind. The experiences we enjoy as Americans and “Downers Grovers” are all possible because of the people who came before us and forged a path for us to tread. History can tell us a compelling story about the people who lived in our town and changed the world.

Recognizing the accomplishments of former citizens like Art Chester can inspire generations to come. In our youth, adventure, and exploration are natural desires that compel us. In that context, Downers Grove may seem like just another town in middle America. Yet, it’s important to remember where you came from as you venture out into the unknown. That place is a piece of what makes you.

Art Chester always had a part of Downers Grove with him as he conquered the aviation world. Downers Grove, for that matter, will always have Art Chester as a homegrown hero. Congratulations to the Art Chester family for his Hall of Fame induction.

For a more detailed account of Art Chester’s life, read “The Art Chester Story” by John W. Caler with John Underwood. It is available at Amazon and other digital retail outlets.

The grand opening of Chester’s manufacturing plant, The Aircraftsmen Co., during World War II.