'They flew by the seat of their pants': Podcast Explores Early Airmail History in Bellefonte

'They flew by the seat of their pants': Podcast Explores Early Airmail History in Bellefonte


“CENTRE COUNTY’S FIRST IN FLIGHT”: Dead Centre Podcast Dives into the Early Airmail Heroes Who Flew the Hell Stretch

BELLEFONTE, PA – The most recent episode in Centre County Historical Society podcast "Dead Centre" features a story that's near and dear to our hearts at the American Philatelic Society: that of the first transcontinental airmail route in 1918, which ran right through the hometown of the APS headquarters, Bellefonte, PA. Bellefonte's airfield and the surrounding town became the temporary home of many rough-and-ready pilots, who risked life and limb to carry mail across the Hell Stretch - an apt name for the treacherous Allegheny Mountains. 


Pictured: Gilbert Budwig with his Curtiss Jenny, 1919. Budwig was known for offering rides to paying customers in Bellefonte. Image from Hines Air Mail Collection at the American Philatelic Research Library

Inspired by the most recent Historical Society exhibition “Up, Up and Away: Sherm Lutz and the State College Air Depot” -- Dead Centre podcast #8: “Centre County’s First in Flight” takes you into the world of early airmail pilots who flew blindly across the Allegheny Mountains and were welcomed into the warm community of Bellefonte, PA. Bob Hines, who grew up hearing about the airmail pioneers from his uncle Dan Hines, narrates for Centre County Historical Society president Katie O'Toole the early history of the brave pilots.

The American Philatelic Society is home to the Hines Air Mail Collection, which features photos, correspondence, newspapers, and postcards gathered over many decades by Daniel Hines, who grew up watching the air mail planes land near his family farm, and whose brother Ellis was a plane mechanic for the early service. Hines's devotion to preserving Air Mail Service history has created a priceless research collection that the APS is proud to open to visitors and researchers who are interested in philatelic and aviation history.


Pictured (right): Charles Ames, pilot. Year unknown. (Left): Image from national papers in October 1925. More than 1000 Pennsylvania residents and National Guard troops mobilized to search for Ames after his plane failed to land in Bellefonte as scheduled on October 1st. Nine days later, the crashed plane was found on the Nittany Mountain range - Ames died on impact. Both images from Hines Air Mail Collection at the American Philatelic Research Library.

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The podcast series "Dead Centre" features stories about little-known aspects of Centre County—its history, places, and people that give this County its unique sense of place. The pilot episode of Dead Centre features another familiar story for American Philatelic Society members: how four Inverted Jennys were stolen from an APS stamp convention in 1955, and how three of them have made their way home to us. You can listen on the Centre County Historical Society’s website or subscribe to Dead Centre on your smartphone or other device. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, you'll love Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail: 1918-1927 by local author Kitty Wunderly. Wunderly draws extensively from the Hines Air Mail Collection and oral interviews from Centre County residents to paint with vivid detail the lives of the dare-devil air mail pilots - who, according to the fond memories of Bellefonte residents, would compete on clear days to fly low enough to lightly ding the weathervane on top of the Bellefonte Court House, so frequently that it stood on a slant for decades. 

Find Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail here, and read an excerpt from Kitty Wunderly's recent article "He Was Known as a Good Fellow" from the American Philatelist. 


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Great American Stamp Show

Hartford, Connecticut | August 20-23, 2020