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That '70s Airshow

Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.

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Robert Harding Breithaupt—“Breity” to everyone who was anyone in the aviation business in the 1960s and ’70s—holds court at table number 6 in the Antique Airplane Restaurant, which his family has owned since 1964. From his corner perch by the door, he greets each diner, usually a member of Reading’s graying community and almost always someone he knows. He pushes back his chair and cranes toward the belly of the gloss-black 1927 Monocoupe, N6731, that hangs from the beams. It’s the airplane in which he learned to fly. He had it trucked 15 miles across town from the airport via the West Shore Bypass and installed in the restaurant in 1967.

“It’s still licensed. Gas it up and fly it right out,” he winks to the ladies at the next table. Breithaupt, 84, reaches up to rock the airplane. The lunchtime patrons lower their forks, and John Cianci, a retired controller from the Reading Airport tower, reassures the ladies of the Monocoupe’s solid anchor. Breithaupt retakes his seat and resumes the conversation about the National Maintenance & Operations Meeting, or, as it was known for decades, the Reading Air Show.  

“Reading was considered the best show in the world in the ’50s to the early ’70s,” says Breithaupt. “We came before the Oshkosh thing got big, and we ran the show out of our own pocketbook.

“This was a trade show,” he says. “It wasn’t selling balloons to the kids.”

At its peak, Reading boasted a daily professional registration of 12,000. Its roster of exhibitors was a roll call of the big guns of aviation: Rockwell International, Grumman American Aviation, Boeing Vertol, AVCO Lycoming, Bell Helicopter Textron, Aerospatiale Helicopter, Pratt & Whitney, and Beechcraft, Piper, and Cessna. It was also a favorite venue for suppliers to the industry: AC Spark Plug, Teledyne Battery, Marathon Battery, Alcor, AVEMCO, Collins Avionics, BFGoodrich, Texaco, Mobil, Esso (later Exxon), and Shell. From humble beginnings in the 1940s, the show grew until in the late 1960s and ’70s, it rivaled the biannual Paris show in attendance, if not in prestige. In 1980, it ended. Maybe it got too big for its britches.

Breithaupt and Alfred M. “Sime” Bertolet bought Reading Aviation Service in 1941, when it was a sales and maintenance operation for light aircraft, dealing in little Ercoupes and Luscombes. They taught civilian pilots to fly and later got a U.S. Army contract for military pilot training. After World War II, during which Breithaupt flew B-24 Liberators in the China-Burma-India theater (he’s never without his CBI belt buckle), RAS founder Brooks McElroy, also a military pilot, rejoined the company. In 1949 the trio launched the National Maintenance & Operations Meeting.

“The initial shows were a thank-you party for our best RAS customers,” says Breithaupt. “We invited them for the Pennsylvania Dutch food. We had no airshow. We had FAA dignitaries to speak, and seminars.” The first performances, he says, were simply ad hoc presentations by some of the pilot-customers who happened to have flown their airplanes to the site. They had no schedule of acts.

“It was largely military surplus,” says Cianci. “Everyone who had an airplane after the war suddenly became a barnstormer.

“An event like ours was a family reunion,” he says. “Initially the show was free, then within five years we charged for exhibitors to set up. Then we expanded to two days.” Eventually it became a week-long event, and by the mid-1960s, commercial registration was $5 a day or $10 for the week.  

RAS also expanded into a leading modification center with government contracts for converting, overhauling, and painting C-47s and other military aircraft. It continued flight training and started a charter airline business, which led to the establishment of scheduled Reading Airlines, renamed Suburban Airlines in 1969. RAS sold Navions (Breithaupt sold 173 himself) and added Pipers and the popular twin-engine Aero Commander.

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