The following excerpt is from an article, ‘He Was Known as a Good Fellow’: Bellefonte and the Pioneer U.S. Air Mail Pilots, written by local air mail expert Kathleen Wunderly for the American Philatelist October 2004 issue. Besides her frequent contributions to the AP, Wunderly has also recently published the second edition of her book Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail 1918-1927 with the American Philatelic Society. Her book explores the decade that Bellefonte, the APS’ home base, was a vital piece of American history as the main Pennsylvania stop on the east-west air mail route. Wunderly wrote this piece in preparation for the memorial that would be installed at the American Philatelic Center in 2005, which honors the air mail pilots who lost their lives during this experimental period of moving the mail.
'He Was Known as a Good Fellow': Bellefonte and the Pioneer U.S. Air Mail Pilots
Sometime this month, if all goes well, a huge piece of granite will join the landscaping at the American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte, overlooking the rushing waters of Spring Creek. The rock is a 2,800-pound memorial honoring pioneer U.S. air mail pilots, specifically the thirty-four aviators who perished between 1919 and 1927.
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On September 19, 1918, Bellefonte’s postmaster, Mr. Gherrity, received a call from the office of Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger “announcing the visit of the bird-men,” as the weekly Centre Democrat reported on September 26. Praeger told the postmaster to have gasoline and oil ready for the plane. This was done, but no bird-men arrived, “greatly to the disappointment of the citizens of the town, who kept scanning the sky in the eager hope of catching a glimpse of the plane.”
The following day, “about an hour before noon the big plane appeared above the town, circled rather low a few times and gracefully glided to earth, landing in Beaver field [Thomas Beaver’s farm].”
. . . The Democrat reported that the fliers “were well pleased with the easy-landing facilities offered by the town, which is much higher than Lock Haven.”
On October 11, Captain B.B. Lipsner, head of the Air Mail Service, announced that regular service between New York and Chicago would begin November 1, “in ten hours or less and in all kinds of weather.” The stops would be at Lehighton, Bellefonte, and Clarion in Pennsylvania, and Cleveland and Bryan in Ohio.
By mid-November the Beaver farm had been selected as the site of the airmail station and within a matter of weeks a hangar was constructed. On December 16, a telegram to Bellefonte announced the imminent arrival of three airplanes from Elizabeth, New Jersey. The planes left Elizabeth at 11:00 a.m. and arrived in Bellefonte at 1:05 p.m. The first aviator to land was C.C. Eversole of Chicago, described by the Democrat as “an old timer, with a wooden leg and a grouchy way.” The first air mail to leave Bellefonte was carried by Leon D. Smith in the afternoon of December 18.
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And so it began, with Bellefonte proudly playing its vital role in U.S. airmail history. Few could argue successfully that the Bellefonte home of the APS (which has the archives of the American Air Mail Society, among other generous AAMS gifts) is not a fitting site, historically speaking, for the pilots’ memorial, but I would contend that there are other excellent reasons as well for the marker to be in this town.
In this 2015 aerial view of Bellefonte, the Bellefonte High School stands on the site of the former airfield.
I don’t know how the communities in Lehighton, Clarion, or the other stops on the east-west flight path responded to their air mail status, but Bellefonte reveled in having the airfield here. The townsfolk wholeheartedly welcomed the pilots not as guests, but as extended family, who came to their homes and shared their meals and became part of their daily lives.
And so, when one of the “air family” was injured, or worst of all, killed, the bad news was very bad news, indeed. It was a personal loss, not just a news item. This is why I feel that the monument to those who died in the service of air mail progress is, in a way, just coming home, when it is put in place of the APS part of Bellefonte.
It’s difficult to imagine, from our twenty-first-century perspective, what it was like at the dawn of aviation in the United States – the novelty, the excitement, the amazement that people felt. Some of the air mail pilots were air veterans of World War I, but many others were just young men (sometimes very young – 19 or 20) whose imaginations had been fired by the very idea of flight.
I’ve tried hard to come up with some modern-day figure of comparison to these young pilots, expressive of the glamorous aura of skill, daring, and recklessness that they had, and I can’t think of one. To compare the fliers to music or sports stars demeans them, ignoring the blunt fact that these men were risking their lives to deliver a bunch of letters.
Jim Bruns, founding director of the National Postal Museum, once said that, “The average life expectancy of an airmail pilot was about 300 hours – about that of an electric light bulb.” I’ve seen this estimated elsewhere as 900 hours, but either way, it was obviously not a likely long-term career. The pilots themselves considered their profession to be “pretty much a suicide club.”
The Centre Democrat in June 1919 called the pilots “a fine set of men – big men in scope and deeds, daring men with power, nerve, self control, and fine personalities.”
That said, most of the pilots seemed to have a lot of what would be called “attitude” today. Just look at the rakish, challenging air of William “Wild Bill” Hopson, shown in a much reproduced photo (left). The U.S. Postal Service air-brushed the cigarette out of his hand when it used the photo, but it obviously would take a lot more than an air brush to make this macho dude seem respectable! Local oral history is silent on this aspect, but I would bet that it was a good idea to lock up your daughters when the pilots were in town.
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Read more of 'He Was Known as a Good Fellow' from the American Philatelic Research Library's Digital Library collection (members only), subscribe to the American Philatelist (one of many benefits of APS membership) and buy Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail, which delves even deeper into the stories – both funny and heartwrenching – of the heroic air mail pilots.