Kathryn's Report: http://www.kathrynsreport.com
By Carl LaVO, columnist
In the 1970s, I used my lunch hour at the Bucks County Courier Times to drive over to the 3M Airport just off Route 13 near the Pennsylvania Turnpike to watch local pilots bore holes in the sky.
I had no idea until recently the airstrip had a significant niche in aviation history, now lost in the rumble of industrial, commercial and commuter traffic that has replaced the runway.
The Keystone Aircraft Corporation founded the airfield in the 1920s to test fly 200 U.S. Army bi-wing bombers built in a construction hangar located nearby on the Delaware River.
“Keystone Welcomes You” and “Bristol, Pa.” were painted on the roof. The company’s 45-acre sod airfield served Keystone between 1927 and 1932. That first year, workers put finishing touches on a unique plane intended to be the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris.
The K-47 Pathfinder, emblazoned with “American Legion” for its sponsor, was a canary-yellow biplane powered by three powerful engines. The plane had a wingspan of 67 feet and a 47-foot-long fuselage that could carry additional fuel or 10 passengers.
The U.S. Navy’s top two fliers, Lt. Cmdr. Noel Davis and Lt. Stanton Wooster, would fly the craft. With Keystone’s reliable design, they were eager to prove non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was possible for the first time in human history. In doing so, the "American Legion" was favored to win aviation’s Holy Grail, the long-sought Orteig Prize.
In 1919, French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered to pay $25,000 for the first successful non-stop flight between New York and Paris in either direction. That would be worth about $350,000 today. Advances in aviation technology put the prize within reach by 1925. The first to try in 1926 was World War I French flying ace Renee Fonck in a three-engine Sikorsky S-35. Grossly overloaded with a sofa and a refrigerator, the plane crashed on takeoff from New York’s Roosevelt Airport and burst into flames. Fonck escaped. Two crewmen perished.
Next up were Davis and Wooster in the spring of 1927. After test flights at Keystone’s airfield, the plane departed for Virginia’s Langley Field where Time magazine described the aircraft as “a gigantic yellow bird.”
The two pilots opted for less powerful but more fuel-efficient Wright engines, two mounted on the lower wings astride the cabin and a third on the nose. On the morning of April 26, the aviators loaded the weight equivalent of 11,000 pounds of fuel into the fuselage and prepared for a final test flight before departure for New York to begin the Atlantic crossing.
Asked whether a U.S.-made flying machine was capable of such a flight, Davis replied, “A few years ago we held all the aviation records. We have lost nearly all of them. We make as good planes and motors as any country in the world, and we have as good pilots. I want to see some prestige in the air return to our country.”
“No two aviators are better prepared,” Davis continued, noting, “I have never piloted a better plane.”
With the weather clear for takeoff, "American Legion" roared to life. Davis accelerated down the quarter-mile runway but struggled to get aloft. The plane barely cleared pine trees as it zoomed out over Back River. Realizing their craft was too heavy, Davis circled back for an emergency landing. In doing so, the plane lost altitude and came down in marshlands on the river’s edge. The plane skidded along grass reeds, skated across a pond, then came to rest nose down in the muck. The impact tore away the forward engine and smashed the flight cabin. Both pilots died instantly.
Gruesome details made headlines around the world. The deaths made for high drama just four weeks later. Obscure U.S. Mail pilot Charles Lindbergh took flight in his single-wing “Spirit of St. Louis” for a solo crossing of the Atlantic. A storybook landing in Paris made boyish “Lucky Lindy” immortal.
Back home, "American Legion" was pulled from the swamp, rebuilt and entered passenger service in the Carribean. Keystone folded after five years and became Fleetwing aircraft company. The Keystone hangar is long gone.
Today, the airstrip is amazingly wide Runway Road, gateway entrance to bustling Edgely Industrial Park. The only sense of flying is just off the road at Sky Zone. There you can occasionally find me and my grand kids in our “Sky Socks” soaring on trampolines.
Sources for this column include Time’s “Yellow Giant” news story published on May 9, 1927 and “Abandoned and Little Known Airports” by Paul Freeman on the Web at www.airfields-freeman.com/PA/Airfields_PA_Philly_NE.htm
Carl LaVO, a retired Calkins editor, is the author of 4 books for the Naval Institute Press at the U.S. Naval Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @underCs2. Blog: carllavo.blogspot.com.
Story and photo gallery: http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com