Briefing: Where it all began

Wings Field is AOPA’s birthplace

April 4, 2014

It was 1939 and war was looming in Europe. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States. The population of the country was 130,879,718. One gallon of gasoline costs 10 cents and a loaf of bread was 9 cents.

At Wings Field in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, five men gathered to plan what would become the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—AOPA. Laurence P. and Philip T. Sharples, C. Townsend Ludington, Alfred L. Wolf, and J. Story Smith were “private fliers” who recognized that the growing general aviation community would need representation in state, federal, and international realms to protect its interests.  

Wings Field is one of the oldest continuously operating privately owned, public-use airports in the United States. It was established in May 1930 by John Story Smith and Jack Bartow as Wings Port. Wings was a popular aviation field, especially among the wealthy and celebrities. It was used as grounds for developing and testing new inventions, a flight school, and a social home for aviation enthusiasts.

On April 24, 1932, The Philadelphia Aviation Country Club opened as a place for “air-minded members of socially prominent Philadelphia families,” according to the local newspaper.

It was in the second floor of the country club that the five men met to form AOPA (see “There At the Beginning,” page 58). Today that room is known as the “AOPA Board Room” and AOPA’s board of trustees for decades used it as a place for annual meetings.

Email julie.walker@aopa.org

Homecoming at FDK

BriefingAOPA’s efforts to protect, defend, and promote general aviation have continued since its inception in 1939. Over the past 75 years, the association has won many battles, ensuring that general aviation in this country is one of its freedoms. AOPA continues to advance the concerns of general aviation pilots and will celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary during its planned six AOPA Fly-Ins across the country this year, with a special emphasis on the anniversary at the Frederick, Maryland, homecoming fly-in October 4, 2014 at the association’s headquarters. 

Airplanes in the 1930s were pleasant diversions for many and the airfield became a social center for pilots, their families, and guests. Like their golf-playing counterparts, pilots in the social set chose to call their meeting places “country clubs.” The farmhouse on Wings Field was the perfect place for an aviation country club. (Courtesy of Bob Mueller)


Then and now

Wichita man recalls Clyde Cessna
A neighbor who knew him well

By Alton K. Marsh

Clyde Cessna designed the first successful Cessna aircraft in 1911, but did you know he lost interest in aviation and quit to build ponds for his farmer friends? That’s the story from a neighbor who knew him well. After school Paul Handkins and his friend, Noel Cessna, used to drive their one-horse cart to the former home of Cessna’s uncle, Clyde, near Rago, Kansas. Either they climbed the fence or Noel had a key. Once on the property the boys liked to play in the wooden airplanes Clyde had abandoned before moving his airplane factory to Wichita. The wings were gone, but the cockpit still had a control stick that raised the elevator on the tail, and that was enough to fire the imaginations of two young boys. Handkins is now 93 and lives in a Wichita nursing home.

For two decades Handkins kept the miter saw that Clyde had used to make those early aircraft—aircraft that were burned after Clyde’s death. The saw is now with the Kingman County Historical Society. Clyde had used his car- and farm equipment-repair skills to build his first airplanes at Enid, Oklahoma. When Enid bankers wouldn’t give him a loan, he moved his operations to a farm he had four miles east of Rago.

The death in 1933 of test pilot Roy Liggett led Clyde to sell the company to nephew and aeronautical engineer Dwane Wallace before returning to the farm at Rago. There, he bought a three-track diesel tractor, one of the first diesels available, and equipped it with a scraper that he used to build ponds for farmers.

“It was a cold February, and he would stop at the house every morning and have me go with him to help start the diesel,” Handkins recalled. Handkins later bought an Aeronca Champ and then a Cessna 170. The famous neighbor had a big effect on the young Handkins. “I knew Clyde quite well in his later days,” Handkins said. “He knew everything. What he said was right.”

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org

75 years ago this month

AOPA is incorporated on May 15, 1939. The top song is 3 Little Fishies by Kay Kyser. The first United States sports telecast is a college baseball game between Columbia and Princeton (winner) on NBC using one camera. The submarine Squalus sinks off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, killing 26. Hitler proclaims that he wants German troops to invade Poland—something they do on September 1.

May 1
Batman makes his first appearance in a comic book.

May 2
Baseball great Lou Gehrig ends his streak of appearing in 2,130 consecutive games after contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It will be 56 years before the record is broken by Cal Ripkin of the Baltimore Orioles.

May 3
Fifty-four Japanese bombers attack Chungking, China. They return May 4 and May 25.

May 15
AOPA is incorporated.

May 16
Food stamps are first issued.

May 19
British-Russian anti-Nazi pact is signed. Three days later, Germany and Italy sign a pact after Japan withdraws.

May 20
Pan American Airways begins trans-Atlantic mail service with its Yankee Clipper Boeing 314 out of Port Washington, New York, to Lisbon and >Marseille.

Twentieth anniversary of Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Parisis celebrated on “Aviation Day” at the New York World’s Fair.

May 30
Wilbur Shaw wins Indianapolis 500 with a speed of 115 miles per hour.

Airplanes of 1939 sharing the same birth dates

By Alton K. Marsh

BriefingCub: Sentimental Journey to Ponca City?

Every year pilots remember the Piper Cub by traveling to the former factory at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Piper Aircraft Corporation sold J–3 Cubs there starting in 1937 out of an abandoned silk mill, where Cub production remained through World War II. Nearly 6,000 Cubs were built for civilian training or military use. On July 8, 1946, Cub production was moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where it remained until 1948—when the general aviation boom went bust. Those built there had special data plates indicating they were built there. Buildings remain at Ponca City where Cub production was done, so why no journey? While AOPA is having a seventy-fifth anniversary this year, guess what else has the same anniversary? The Piper J–4 Cub Coupe with side-by-side seating was built in 1938 but introduced to the aviation world in 1939. Happy anniversary, J–4.

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org

Staggerwing

By 1939 the Beechcraft Staggerwing was going strong, then in its seventh year of production and much sought after by business executives. At 200 miles per hour, it was faster than military pursuit aircraft at first, although that was no longer true by 1939. That year the hottest pursuit plane was the experimental Lockheed P–38 that crossed the United States in February 1939, only a month after it first flew, at nearly 400 miles per hour. It tangled landing gear in some trees approaching the final destination on Long Island and crashed, but the pilot was not injured. It had taken 18 months to build the aircraft.

Bamboo Bomber

Military flight students named Cessna’s twin engine T–50, the commercial version of the AT–17 Bobcat, the Bamboo Bomber because it was made of wood, although not bamboo. It first flew on March 26, 1939, and was intended as a business airplane for customers who couldn’t afford the faster Beechcraft Model 18 Twin Beech. Military sales brought the total made to 5,400. It was the first airplane used on the television series, Sky King.


Pilot Products

SiriusXM Aviation weather receiver
New weather information offered

By Alton K. Marsh

BriefingYou’re seeing the tip of the iceberg with the introduction by Garmin of the $599 GXM 42 SiriusXM weather receiver. Sure, you’ll get cloud-to-cloud lightning with the new antenna, but that’s half of the story.

The XM weather folks have created a much better satellite signal that brings all sorts of new weather information. It requires a new antenna—not the one you got in the box free when you bought your Garmin aera 796 portable GPS. The old signal can continue to be used for years, but if you want the new services, you’ll need the new antenna. For now the GXM 42 only works on the aera 796, and with it comes a software upgrade that makes the 796 smart enough to receive the better signals. In the future the GXM 42 will be available for the 696 and 500-series GPS portable units as well (but probably never for the 496 and 396 units). The old signal will die sometime in the distant future on a date to be determined by SiriusXM.

“Garmin has developed the new GXM 42 SXM weather/music receiver to support this new signal and the new SXM aviation weather subscriptions offered for this service,” Garmin said. “Garmin plans to offer an upgrade path to the GXM 42 SXM weather/music receiver for the XM WX capable portables currently in production, including the aera 796 [available now using latest released V4.01 software], GPSMAP 696, and aera 510/560. All of these models will use the GXM 42 SXM receiver when software is available.”

The plan is to sell future aera 796 units without the antenna for $1,699 (Sporty’s sells them with an XM WX antenna, but not a free weather subscription, for $1,999). SiriusXM is expected to offer a $300 SiriusXM Rewards Visa Prepaid Card rebate for new purchases. Activation fees have been lowered to $25 and discounts are available to customers who prepay for annual subscriptions with SiriusXM. The base subscription service now includes lightning, including cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground activity; graphical winds aloft; temperatures aloft; airmets and sigmets—previously available only in higher priced subscriptions.

Price: $599
Contact: www.garmin.com; www.siriusxm.com/sxmaviation

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org

How it used to be done

There were 88 airports with 24-hour weather stations staffed only by Weather Bureau personnel providing briefings to pilots in 1939. Weather maps were prepared based on observations of 171 weather stations using teletype to report findings. The 165 weather stations located on airways used a telegraph to send reports for the clearance of scheduled flights.


College Park vs. Pearson Field
Oldest airport debate flies on

By Alton K. Marsh

Debate rages—maybe simmers is a better word—as to which airport is the oldest in the United States. While many make the claim worldwide, the battle comes down to two: College Park Airport, Maryland, and Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington.

For Jane Welsh, director of the College Park Aviation Museum, the answer is simple; the Wright brothers came to College Park to teach the U.S. Army to fly their airplanes in 1909, making it the nation’s “oldest continuously operating airport.”

For Clu Scott, who calls himself the “counter janitor” at Aero Maintenance Flight Center at Pearson Field, the answer is simple. Eighteen-year-old Lincoln Beachy landed a dirigible called Gelatine (that first aerial advertisement for Knox Gelatine) at the Vancouver Barracks polo field, later to become Pearson Army Field and then just Pearson Field, in 1905. Air mail was involved as well, since he delivered a letter to the barracks commander. “I think we were here first,” Scott said.

Just a minute there, says Welsh. That was a dirigible, not an airplane. Then she adds, there is the matter of continuous operation. While a home builder tried to fly from that same polo field in 1911, it wasn’t until 1912 that an airplane actually made it into the air. Until 1911, not much aviating occurred there.

If you want to get technical, says Pearson airport manager Willy Williamson, Kll Devil Hill was first; Huffman Prairie Flying Field at Dayton, Ohio, where the Wrights tested airplanes is second; and then comes Pearson and College Park.

“If you are talking about fixed wing, then College Park has us beat by a year. If you are talking about aviation overall, then we have them beat,” said Williamson. That almost settles it, until Williamson adds, “The air mail counts.” Sounds like debate is still open.

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org

This just in; College Park wins!

“College Park continues to be the oldest,” says Greg Shine, a chief ranger and historian for the National Park Service near Pearson Field. The NPS owns half the land where the airport is located, while the City of Vancouver owns the remaining land, said Laureano Mier, director of aviation education at the Fort Vancouver National Trust’s Pearson Field Education Center. Pearson Field became part of the Army Air Service only in 1923, and wasn’t named Pearson Field until 1925. During World War II it was home to a sawmill that cut up spruce trees to make airplanes; airplanes operated there continuously, he said.


Famous Women Pilots: Who was first?

Katharine Wright: Of his sister, Wilbur said, “If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister.”

Baroness de Laroche: First woman to earn a pilot certificate.

Bessica Raiche: First American woman to solo.

Harriet Quimby: First American woman to earn a pilot cerificate.

Katherine Stinson: First female airmail pilot and flight school owner.

Amelia Earhart: First woman to fly across the Atlantic.

Florence “pancho” Barnes: First female stunt pilot.

Jacqueline Cochran: First woman to break the sound barrier.

Geraldine “Gerrie” Mock: First woman to fly around the world.

Willa Brown:  First African-American woman to earn a pilot certificate.

Hanna Reitsch: First female helicopter pilot.

Marion Jayne: First female world-record holder for the most cross-country speed race victories.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh:  First American woman to earn a glider pilot certificate.


Volunteers Needed!

The AOPA Fly-in at San Marcos, Texas, on April 26 needs volunteers. Please visit the website to register if you will be in the area. Other fly-ins will need help too, so check the website regularly.

This month on the AOPA Jay

BriefingNew scenarios on the AOPA Jay

Sun ’n Fun Arrival: If you didn’t make it to Lakeland this year there’s still time to fly in to Sun ‘n Fun—on your AOPA Jay. Fly the Lake Parker VFR Arrival in a Cessna 172. Follow ATC instructions carefully to join the arrival, and watch for other aircraft. Do everything correctly and you’ll see for yourself why getting there is half the fun!

Dead Reckoning: Airmail in the ‘20s: Do you have what it took to be a pioneering airmail pilot back in 1921? Having been forced down by a passing squall at an emergency landing strip in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, you’re now ready to tackle the last and most dangerous part of the first leg of the transcontinental airmail route in your Curtiss JN–4 Jenny biplane. With nothing but your dead reckoning and pilotage skills to guide you (and your frayed wits to keep you company), you head west across the infamous “Hell Stretch” over the Allegheny Mountains. Can you find Bellefonte?

Don’t have your AOPA Jay yet? Find out more online.


Aerial taxicabs
A concept from 1947

By Alton K. Marsh

A current dream by visionaries today to fill the skies with aerial taxicabs is not that different from a dream of Piper Aircraft in 1947 when the Taxicub service began to fly. AOPA Pilot founder Max Karant was the first in the Chicago area to use the service. The idea then was to link small airports to larger ones, while today’s dream is to replace airlines with small but speedy aircraft that can be hailed from the sky with three days notice.

Taxicub was operated by Piper’s 1,500 dealers at the time, plus 52 regional distributors. Karant rode a Cub from Elmhurst Airport to what is today Chicago Midway International Airport. Elmhurst Airport existed until 1956 when it was sold to become an industrial park. A Chicago newspaper reported that Karant paid 12 cents a mile for his trip through the Chicago area for a total cost of $12. The aircraft used was a three-passenger Piper Super Cruiser. “The ships have two-way radios,” one enthusiastic newspaper report said.

The aircraft carried the name “Piper Taxicub” on the fuselage. Ads showed happy businessmen with briefcases talking with the pilot, who was the Piper dealer dressed in a captain’s uniform. “If you have a pilot’s license, he will rent you a Piper Taxicub to fly yourself,” the ad said. When founded at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, the goal was to fly passengers for six cents a mile, a price that was later raised.

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org


Fantasy of Flight closes
Plans to return with wider appeal

By Benét J. Wilson

BriefingPolk City, Florida-based Fantasy of Flight aircraft museum was scheduled to close to the public April 6, after owner Kermit Weeks said it failed to sustain itself. The $30 million attraction opened in 1995. Weeks said he plans to focus on Fantasy of Flight’s private event business and the design and development of a future destination attraction.

“Although we are located just 20 minutes west of Walt Disney World, we’re currently outside the center of mass tourism and not perceived of as a destination. We have a great product, but people have a misperception of what we offer,” said Weeks. “After 18 years of being in operation, it’s time we close the attraction and move forward toward creating the vision for what I know Fantasy of Flight can become.”

Weeks said that along with continuing the events business, including weddings, meetings, and corporate events, he will turn the facility into what it was originally designed for: a restoration and maintenance facility that will be needed to build future attraction elements. There are plans to open part of the collection to the public for paid admission later in 2014.

“This isn’t the end of Fantasy of Flight, it’s just the next step on the company’s journey to become what it was always meant to be—a quality attraction that uses entertainment as a means to an end for self-discovery and self-transformation,” said Weeks. A report in the Orlando Sentinel speculated that the new attraction—to appear in three, five, or more years—will appeal to a wider audience than just aviation buffs.

Email benet.wilson@aopa.org

Video: On YouTube search “Crossroadofadream:KermitWeeks”

Julie Summers Walker

Julie Summers Walker | AOPA Director of Publications, Managing Editor for 'AOPA Pilot' and 'Flight Training'

AOPA Director of Publications and Managing Editor for AOPA Pilot and Flight Training, Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.