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 3 of 4)
There was, however, a dark side to Bellefonte’s fleeting fame. The long, low ridges that roll across central Pennsylvania like waves on a choppy sea—hard to read from the air, prey to violent weather changes, and short on flat clearings for forced landings—were dreaded by pioneer fliers. Those who endured the area called it the “Hell Stretch.” A 1921 mail pilots’ manual shows what they had to contend with: “On top of the mountain just south of a gap in the Bald Eagle Range at Bellefonte may be seen a clearing with a few trees scattered in it. This identifies the gap from others in the range. The mail field lies just east of town and is marked by a large white circle.”
With aviators forced to navigate by landmarks over mountainous country in rough weather, crashes were inevitable. Between 1918 and 1927, 43 postal pilots were killed. Charles Lamborn, who boarded with the Bellefonte undertaker, died in a crash just a few weeks after regular flights began when his DH-4 somersaulted to earth from 6,000 feet. Field clerk Charlie Gates flew to Cleveland one day in September 1920 with Walter Stevens, another Bellefonte favorite. On landing, Sevens asked Gates if he wanted to go on to Chicago, but Gates had a date in Bellefonte and decided to take the train back. Less than an hour later, Stevens died when the fuel tank on his Junkers Larsen J.L.6 exploded.
Irving Murphy was luckier. When his airplane crashed in flames on Max Sampsell’s father’s farm on the edge of town, “my dad cut him free and rolled him on the ground to put out the fire,” Sampsell remembers. Murphy eventually recovered, thanking the elder Sampsell with a gold watch. And Max Miller, the man who discovered Bellefonte for the airmail service in 1918 and for whom Sampsell was named, died in a fiery crash two years later, the year Sampsell was born.
The disappearance of pilot Charlie Ames in 1925 put Bellefonte on the nation’s front pages. Ames vanished on October 1 en route to Bellefonte from New Jersey on a night when clouds sagged below the Allegheny peaks. Field clerk Gates anxiously checked nearby emergency strips and then stood on the field, listening for an engine that never came. More than a thousand searchers combed the hills east and west of town for the next nine days. Finally Ames’ splintered aircraft and broken body were found near the summit of a mountain a few miles from the Bellefonte field. Longtime residents can still point out the gap in the Allegheny mountains that the courtly, well-liked Ames missed by about 200 feet. Manchester has the cushion from Ames’ cockpit seat with the airplane’s number, 385, on it.
Bellefonte’s last airmail fatality occurred in May 1931, when pilot Jimmy Cleveland died on a mountainside south of town. Forty years later the dead pilot’s brother, accompanied by Jim Kerschner and Hugh Manchester, among others, found remnants of the airplane and had a granite marker placed at the crash site.
When a pilot was killed, someone from the town would escort the body back to the pilot’s hometown, no matter how far away it was. Though saddened by the death of any pilot, the people of Bellefonte understood that the deaths were part of the pioneering process. Indeed, many of the crashes came in the first two years of operation as the Air Mail Service, eager to win Congressional funding, hurriedly trained pilots and set up routes.
Bellefonte’s bittersweet interlude as an airmail stop came to an end in 1933. The official reason was bureaucratic: the federal government ruled that commercial aircraft could not use fields belonging to the Department of Commerce, as Bellefonte’s did because of its radio and weather stations. But the truth was, Bellefonte had become obsolete. Now the mail was carried—along with passengers—on gleaming new long-range commercial transports that had no need to stop in the tiny town. Although Bellefonte continued to operate its radio and weather stations, the refueling service was moved to nearby Kylertown, and even that seldom-used airfield was retired after the introduction of long-range DC-3s.
For nine-year-old Jim Kerschner, life was suddenly drained of excitement. “I went back to the field and there was nothing going on, it was deserted,” he recalls. “Then I went to the strip they moved to at Kylertown, 20 miles west. I wanted to see what it was that took it all away, and there was just this one dinky hangar. I felt terrible.”