Slim Lewis Slept Here
Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, had one brief, shining moment when airmail pilots used it as a stopover. Then they went away, leaving only memories.
- By Donald Dale Jackson
- Air & Space magazine, October 1991
NASM (SI 91-10342)
(Page 2 of 4)
Slim Lewis stories are part of the town’s aerial lore: Slim diving repeatedly to scatter a herd of bulls owned by a farmer he disliked, Slim buzzing freight trains and unnerving brakemen, Slim punching a hole in a wing by skimming a mountaintop and then complaining because he lost a fountain pen in the process, Slim dropping the Sunday paper to a friend who lived out of town. “Whenever a plane would swoop low over town we just figured it was Slim,” recalls 82-year-old Phil Wion, a former schoolteacher. “We associated him with derring-do.” Lewis survived his airmail career to become a commercial pilot; he died in Wyoming after retiring from the airlines.
Another favorite was Jack Knight, who became a celebrity when he made an all-night flight from North Platte, Nebraska, to Chicago on an unmarked route in 1921. When he landed in town shortly after getting married, the ground crew dressed a mechanic in a bridal gown and chauffeured Knight and his stand-in bride around Bellefonte in a truck ornamented with bells, shoes, and the tail section of a defunct mail airplane.
Pilot “Wild Bill” Hopson dropped airborne love letters, weighted with bolts, from airfield clerk Charlie Gates to his girlfriend in nearby Hecla Park. Hopson once kept a date in New York by climbing onto the wing of another pilot’s loaded aircraft, snuggling close to the fuselage, and holding onto the guy wires for the chilly two-hour ride.
The aviators were part of the life of the town. They stayed at the Brockerhoff Hotel or boarded with local families, played on local baseball teams, and flew exhibitions for the townfolk. “There was an intimacy between the pilots and the town,” says retired newspaper editor Hugh Manchester, another Bellefonte boy smitten by the romance of flight. “If they spotted a fire they’d buzz the house to make sure people were awake. They were heroes to the kids, girls as well as boys.”
Other aviation luminaries turned up in Bellefonte in the 1920s and early 1930s. Wiley Post and partner Harold Gatry, Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker, Will Rogers, Admiral Richard Byrd—all landed their aircraft on the little field at Bellefonte, often forced down by the always-chancy weather over the Allegheny mountain range.
Charles Lindbergh dropped by in the early 1930s. As Manchester recounts the story, the manager of the Bush House hotel took one look at the coveralled flier and concluded that he was a poor risk for the $1.50 room charge. Luckily, somebody recognized the Lone Eagle. Because of the late hour, he had the whole dining room to himself. Lindy showed up again a few years later, and this time a crowd thronged to the field when word spread that he was coming. Spying the mob as he approached the runway, Lindbergh pulled up, sending the disappointed spectators home. Ten minutes later he returned to the empty field and landed. “I think we all followed Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and the rest a lot more after the airmail came here,” says Sampsell.
Aeronautical prominence was heady stuff for a town whose political and economic muscle, along with its population, had been waning since the 19th century, when Bellefonte produced five Pennsylvania governors. The 1925 move to a larger airfield occasioned a civil celebration. The Kiwanis Club served sandwiches; the Odd Fellows band performed. Phil Wion, wearing his blue serge uniform with the gold stripe, played the trombone. “We were proud because Bellefonte was a main stop,” he recalls. “We played the national anthem and marches. It was a big occasion.”
“We felt like we were part of something,” says Manchester, the unofficial town historian. “When I was 14 I went into an airline building at the 1940 world’s fair in New York and saw an aviation map of the country and there was Bellefonte! We were literally on the map. Oh, there was pride here then. And another big thing, remember a movie called Ceiling Zero with Jimmy Cagney in the 1930s? There’s a scene where a pilot is calling Bellefonte airport: ‘Come in, Bellefonte.’ It’s right in the movie. I suppose the airmail years were like the Golden Age of Greece for us.”