That ‘70s Airshow

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

Air & Space Magazine

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Former air controller John Cianci speaks in a confident voice known to tens of thousands of pilots as Reading Three. (Those who don’t recognize the voice would be tipped off by his license plates: “RDG-3.”) An area supervisor when he retired from the FAA in 1990, Cianci has amassed a collection of 4,500 photographs taken at Reading shows between 1946 and 1980, news clippings and memorabilia from those years, and a few unusual artifacts. The lights in his basement rec room are controlled by levers on a panel that looks like part of a sound system but is in fact the airfield lighting control panel from the old Reading tower. Switch on Runway 18/36, and runway end indicator lights over the bar come on. What were once  runway threshold lights illuminate his front walk.

Cianci was one of 12 full-time controllers at the Reading Airport; during the shows, 20 or more crowded the tower cab. “We would have holding patterns in three locations around Reading,” he explains. “In 1966 there were 118 waiting. [The FAA] had regulations that the whole runway was yours once you got clearance for landing or takeoff and that really backed them up. One pilot finally had to return to Wilmington, Delaware, to refuel.”

That year FAA officials sat in on cab operations and, based on Reading patterns, amended air traffic procedures (ATP) 7110 to apply not just to airshows but to all commercial operations. The procedures thereafter eliminated the need to reserve the entire runway for a single arriving or departing aircraft. For the first time, single-engine Cessnas could arrive in trail at 3,000-foot intervals, or depart when the aircraft ahead was 2,500 feet down the runway.

The tower was the best seat in the house for flight demonstrations, which filled the afternoons and were interrupted only long enough to allow Allegheny Airlines to fly its scheduled runs to the airport. Each commercial product was alotted a six-minute slot for display, though exhibitors could buy two slots and fly for 12 minutes. Airshow star Bob Hoover demonstrated Rockwell’s Aero Commander. “Reading was Hoover’s first civilian airshow,” says Breithaupt. “He was young and we took a chance, and paid him cash on top of Rockwell’s fee. As a Commander dealer, we always had a plane on the rack for him.”

On the weekend, Hoover also flew his P-51 Mustang in a routine that took full advantage of Reading’s topography. The banks of the nearby Schuylkill River are precipitously steep. Hoover would depart from Runway 13, then sink and streak along the river 70 feet below eye level, leading the crowd to believe he had crashed. He would then fly north and pop up to surprise the crowd at the airport’s other end.

In 1970, Cianci recalls, Hoover’s feigned crash almost came true. He had practiced his routine on Friday afternoon without incident, but on Friday evening the local utility had strung a cable across the Schuylkill, preparing to feed power to a new housing development. During Saturday’s airshow, Hoover clipped the new wire with his left wing and it ripped away almost 10 inches from the wingtip. “Three inches lower and it would have sliced off the wing,” says Cianci. Hoover kept going, the crowd unaware that he had run into real trouble.

Bill Lear chose Reading as the occasion to introduce the prototype Learjet 23, 801LJ, in June 1964. “We took off in Wichita with an FAA inspector on board for final certification, even on the way to its introduction at Reading,” recalls Gates Learjet pilot Torch Lewis. “The inspector was ‘assisting’ in the controls and inadvertently deployed the spoilers. The Learjet crashed [at the] end of the field, but the pilot and inspector both jumped out and there were no injuries.” Except, potentially, to the 23’s reputation, so Lear took action. “Bill ordered number 802LJ to a rush finish that day and installed seats,” says Lewis. “On the way to Reading he flew to Washington to pick up FAA officials, then on to the Reading show. He stepped off the airplane to a press conference for a huge crowd.”

Each year Reading Aviation Service sponsored an awards competition to promote good maintenance and, indirectly, itself. Initially, the downtown Reading Crystal Restaurant hosted the gala banquet, but it later moved onto the field, along with white-glove catering for 300 and big bands. Cab Calloway was one of the entertainers. Arthur Godfrey came one year at Breithaupt’s invitation and later became an honorary show chairman. The chairmanship evolved into a way to pay tribute to aviation heroes: Neil Armstrong flew in his Learjet to chair in 1974. In 1978, T. Claude Ryan of Ryan Aeronautical, builder of the Spirit of St. Louis, presided.

In the 1960s, Breithaupt began booking aerobatic performers to fly at the end of the day, after the product introductions had ended. Air show legends Daniel Heligoin and Montaine Mallet appeared at Reading, flying Cap-10s as the French Connection. “That’s the first time an airshow had ever seen a horizontal outside loop,” says Cianci. Reading was a favorite show of Art Scholl and his Pennzoil Super Chipmunk. Breithaupt also booked Mary Gaffaney, whom he called “the best female aerobatic performer, ever.”

Because Breithaupt catered to commercial exhibitors, the performers didn’t start flying until around 5 p.m. “My customers were the fly-ins and the exhibitors, not the drive-ins,” Breithaupt says, referring to the thousands of residents of Reading and Birch County, Pennsylvania, who were beginning to compete with aerospace executives for parking and city services.

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