The images still linger in their memories: the sound of an approaching motor, the mad scramble to the grassy field on the edge of town, the moment when the great light on the mailplane suddenly switched on, its beam flooding the waiting crowd. Finally the airplane would land, and as the ground crew closed in to refuel for the journey’s next leg, the pilot would climb ever so casually from the cockpit.
From This Story
Was it really 60 years ago that mailplanes landed nightly in the little central Pennsylvania town of Bellefonte, bearing a cargo of life and pride and excitement? Was it that long ago and more that daredevil Slim Lewis buzzed the courthouse and made the fish-shaped weather vane spin, and handsome Max Miller roared around town in his green Nash roadster? The town was even tinier then (population 3,996 in 1920, 6,200 now), but during the 1920s it performed a vital service as the first airmail refueling stop in the nation. To be young in Bellefonte in those adolescent years of American aviation was to be part of something wonderful.
Jim Kerschner, 67, a former radio station manager and now Bellefonte’s mayor, is one of several men who grew up in that era and never got over their infatuation with flying. “You can’t conceive how exciting it was,” he says. “Every time I saw a plane I’d go look. The big kick was going to the field to watch the night mail come in. I’d nag my dad to take me even though it was way past my bedtime, and when I got older I’d ride my bike. There were usually 25 or 30 people there. In my six-year-old mind those pilots were gods. I never had the audacity to speak to them.”
Max Sampsell, a retired store manager, remembers teachers dismissing classes whenever an airplane landed. “My second or third grade teacher let any of us go who wanted to,” he says, “and we’d get there somehow even though the strip was three miles away. We’d cut across farm fields.” A B-29 gunner in World War II, Sampsell found the terrific illumination of the mail airplane’s headlight “brighter than anything I saw until I was over Japan in a bomber.”
For 87-year-old Edna Barger, Bellefonte’s glory years meant lobsters. Her father was a dentist who treated the pilots at discount rates; in return, the fliers brought him buckets of live lobsters from New York. “My father would come back from the field,” Barger recounts, “and the next thing I knew lobsters were crawling across the kitchen floor.”
“I’d hitchhike to the field with a friend pretty near every day after school,” recalls Jim Saxion, 78, who retired as a furniture refinisher at nearby Penn State University. “It was just fun, riding in the rumble seat to the field with our hair flying. We’d stay and watch until the mechanics went off duty. Other times we’d go to the train station to see the 8:16 come in from Milesburg. Those were our mainstays.”
The seeds of Bellefonte’s glory were planted when the government began the Air Mail Service in 1918. That year the service sent veteran pilot Max Miller on a survey flight from New York to Chicago in search of a suitable refueling stop. Bellefonte residents were elated when the airmail operation chose their town, whose distance from New York made it a convenient landing spot for fuel-thirsty airplanes. Daily flights between New York and Chicago, with the first westbound refueling stop at Bellefonte and the second at Cleveland, began in the summer of 1919; transcontinental service was in place by 1920. When the Air Mail Service built a chain of beacons enabling transcontinental night flights in 1925, the Bellefonte installation was moved to a larger field southeast of town. By this time airmail operations had overcome a somewhat shaky start, reaching a peak of efficiency and public acceptance. These were the days of daring lone mail pilots struggling in fragile biplanes against bad weather and inhospitable terrain. Indeed, airmail charmed the entire country. In 1924 postal workers in San Francisco declined to mail to New York a man who had covered himself with $718 worth of airmail stamps.
The mail pilot who is remembered most warmly in Bellefonte is lanky Harold “Slim” Lewis. “He was the which than which there was no whicher,” Jim Kerschner says; “a showman, a hail fellow, a good pilot and well liked.” Considered the ace of the whole bunch, Lewis always seemed to get through, even when other pilots couldn’t.
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.