Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 5, 2008
Byline: Sally A. Downey

C. Robert Mills, 87; ran Phila. Seaplane Base

C. Robert Mills, 87, retired owner of the Philadelphia Seaplane Base in Essington, died March 29 at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. He had been in declining health because of congestive heart failure in recent years, his son C. Robert "Skip" Jr. said.

Over more than 50 years, Mr. Mills trained pilots to fly seaplanes; hauled planes in and out of the Delaware River; maintained aircraft; repaired hangars, and amassed 20,000 hours of flying time in many types of aircraft. He received the Wright Bros. Master Pilot Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award.

Philadelphia Seaplane Base was established in 1915 by Mr. Mills' father, Frank, to train aviators for service in World War I. Initially Frank Mills leased the property, which had been the site of the Lazaretto, a 19th-century quarantine station. He purchased it from the federal government in the 1930s.

Mr. Mills, whose father taught him to fly open-cockpit biplanes as a teenager, worked for Pan American Airlines in Miami as a mechanic's helper after graduating from Ridley Park High School. He returned to Essington in 1940 to help run the business when he learned that his father was dying.

During World War II, the base was closed for security reasons. Mr. Mills joined the Navy and flew torpedo planes from the escort carrier Santee in the South Pacific. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his participation in the attack on the Japanese battleship Yamato in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. After the attack, Mr. Mills was forced to ditch his aircraft and spent two days on a liferaft before being rescued. He remained in the Navy Reserve for 20 years.

Following active duty, he returned to the seaplane base and operated it with his brother Bill. He also became a multi-engine and instrument instructor and was an FAA examiner, flying with aviation school students. In the 1970s he co-owned Downtown Airlines, an air taxi service.

He and his family lived on the base and he was active in the community. He served as president of the Tinicum Township School PTA. In the 1960s, he was president of the Tinicum Township Board of Commissioners and was active in Republican politics. He was a member of the Essington Fire Company.

After his brother died in 1987, Mr. Mills continued to run the business until he sold the base to developers in 2000. He then fulfilled his dream to retire to Florida, his daughter, Holli Anne Crane, said. He moved to a home on a lake in Crescent City.

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Mills is survived by his longtime companion, Elizabeth LaBree, and his former wife, Shirley Hollingsworth.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. John the Evangelist Church, 16 W. Third St., Essington. Friends may call from 10 a.m. Mr. Mills had been a church usher and an accounting and rector's warden.