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.

U.S. Air Mail personnel with a De Havilland DH-4 mailplane at the Bellefonte, Pennsylvania airfield, December 1923. (NASM (SI 91-10342))
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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.”

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 He amassed hundreds of photographs, wrote an unpublished manuscript about the airmail, and even sent airmail Christmas cards.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.

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