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 4 of 4)
The airmail days turned Kerschner and fellow Bellefonte boys Hugh Manchester, Max Sampsell, and Dan Hines into lifelong aviation buffs. Hines, a former mailman who died in 1989, was the most obsessed. He amassed hundreds of photographs, wrote an unpublished manuscript about the airmail, and even sent airmail Christmas cards. “It was all he talked about,” his nephew Robert Hines says. “The airmail was his life. I think it started because his brother Ellis was a mechanic at the field. Dan was forever saying, ‘Did I ever tell you about this or that pilot?’”
Hines and Manchester both learned to fly on the GI bill after World War II, but both let their skills lapse after a few years. “I got a leather jacket, you know,” Manchester recalls, “but then I went to college and then the GI bill expired. I guess I got the Baron von Richthofen out of my system.” Sampsell took pilot training during the war but didn’t get his wings because of a freeze on hiring; he became a B-29 gunner by default. After the war, with a Distinguished Flying Cross to his credit, “I wanted to fly and I didn’t. I thought maybe I’d had enough thrills in the air. So I didn’t follow up, and now I could kick myself.” Kerschner had decided to take flying lessons, but another fatal crash near Bellefonte chilled his desire.
Phil Wion has been on an airplane only twice in his 82 years, but he knows what his hometown lost when the airmail decamped. “We were on the map,” he says. “But now people just look at you when you say you’re from Bellefonte. I tell them it’s near State College. Then I say it’s in the exact center of the state. Then I stop.”
Bellefonte’s original airfield is now hidden by the regional high school and a highway department building; across the street stand a Burger King and a mini-mall. The second field is a patch of farmland across from a lime plant. As Hugh Manchester walks across it, his eyes rise from the silent, empty field to the sky. “This is just about where the big jets start their descent to New York these days,” he says.