Sunday, September 25, 2016

100 years of flying in the wild blue yonder

John Seburn, president of Hagerstown Aviation Museum, talks about the 100 years of aviation in Washington County.

In 1908, the Wright brothers amazed the world with their flying machines.

Eight years later, Hagerstown made its own mark in aviation history.

This year, Hagerstown Aviation Museum is celebrating the town’s 100th anniversary in the aircraft industry.

The museum will host Wings & Wheels 2016 as an official centennial anniversary celebration from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at the main terminal area of Hagerstown Regional Airport on Showalter Road. The event is free.

“This is 100 years we’ve had avi-ation history in Hagerstown that still continues today,” said John Seburn, president of the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, the mission of which is to educate and preserve Hagerstown aviation history.

First flight

Aviation started in Hagerstown in 1916 with the Maryland Pressed Steel Co. Seburn said the company wanted to build a training plane for World War I.

“They hired Giuseppe M. Bellanca, who was an airplane designer and pilot of that time,” he said. “He came to Hagerstown and designed and built, essentially, the first plane built in Hagerstown and flew it off the field at what is now South (Hagerstown) High. That was the early flying field. (The plane) was built on Pope Avenue in the old factory building that still stands.”

The plane that was built was called the Bellanca C.D., which was so successful that the company built a second one that was more refined and had a bigger engine.

“They only built a few of them, and World War I ended, and the hopes of selling these planes also ended,” Seburn said.

Bellanca left Hagerstown to build planes somewhere else, but a pilot named Clarence Chamberlain, who was a barnstormer in the 1920s and later was the first to take a passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight, took the Bellanca C.D. to airshows and barnstorming events. At the time, there were only two flyable Bellanca C.D. s left, but Chamberlain said one caught on fire. He crashed the other ones, and parts were the only things remaining of the planes.

Those who visit the Wheels & Wings event will be able to see a Bellanca C.D. fuselage.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be great someday to find some parts of these early airplanes? We assumed none of them existed, knowing Chamberlin’s story that one burned and one crashed, and there were just parts left,” Seburn said.

He said they were contacted by a man in Colorado who said he had it in his hangar.

“He sent us pictures. Lo and behold, it was actually a Bellanca C.D. fuselage,” Seburn said. “We ended up acquiring it. We’re debuting that at the Wings & Wheels. It’s a whole wooden fuselage on wheels, and we’re going to have a display around that. We’re really using that to celebrate the 100th anniversary.”

Kurtis Meyers, vice president/historian for the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, said aviation has a bigger impact on Hagerstown and Washington County than people might realize.

“Over the last 100 years, it has brought in a diverse crowd of people who would have not been here otherwise,” he said. “From people who came strictly to work in the manufacturing plants to manage the companies and even design the airplanes and engineers, you can go right down the list,” Meyers said.

Beginning of Kreider-Reisner Aircraft Co.

After Bellanca left Hagerstown, one of his employees, Lew Reisner, started an airplane business, Reisner Aero Service, by buying, fixing up and selling World War I surplus airplanes.

“They were so successful that they thought they could make a better airplane,” Seburn said.

In 1923, Reisner partnered with Ammon Kreider, a local shoe manufacturer, to form Kreider-Reisner Aircraft Co. Together they designed and built — with the help of friend Frederick Seiler — the K-R Midget. Building on the popularity of the Midget, the company crafted the C-1 Challenger in 1927.

In the beginning, Kreider-Reisner was building airplanes at what Seburn said was nicknamed “The Little Green Shed,” which was basically a garage.

At one time, Kreider-Reisner employed 70 people and saw the need for a landing strip. In 1928, the company purchased the land where the Hagerstown Regional Airport now stands. In 1933, the City of Hagerstown purchased it.

Seburn said Kreider-Reisner continued to build planes until the late 1920s, when Sherman Fairchild, who was already building aircraft in New York, took an interest in the company.

“So he bought interest in the company, enough that he moved here,” he said. “And he started building airplanes here in Hagerstown.”

Fairchild comes to Hagerstown

Fairchild’s purchase of Kreider-Reisner was made at the All-American Show in Detroit in 1929 and became known as Fairchild Aircraft.

When Fairchild officially came to Hagerstown, he started to build a new factory on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“That’s right before the Depression started,” Seburn said. “So they built this big factory, they were cranking out airplanes, and then the Depression hits.”

Fairchild Aircraft managed to survive the lean years, and by 1931, it was building planes again. The newest one was the Fairchild-22, or F-22, for which they asked Richard “Dick” Henson to be a test pilot. He continued to be a test pilot for the company until the 1960s. Today, the Hagerstown Regional Airport field bears his name.

With the production of the F-22, Seburn said Fairchild saw success.

“It was fairly affordable for the early 1930s, when a lot people didn’t have a lot of money,” he said.

Fairchild continued to produce the F-22 — then later the F-24 — as well as other models such as the engine cargo airplane the C-31, until the eve of World War II.

“At the beginning of World War II, there was a great need for a new training plane for the Army Air Corps to train new pilots how to fly airplanes,” Seburn said. “At that time, most pilots learned how to fly with biplanes, which were World War I airplanes with the two wings. Fairchild designed a low-wing trainer plane that resembled the fighter planes of the 1940s.”

Fairchild won the contract with the Army Air Corps and started to build the PT-19 trainer, which became the company’s bread and butter.

“And what was unique here in Hagerstown was that there were a lot of companies here that built furniture, organs, a lot of woodworking experience in Hagerstown that this PT-19, the whole wing was made out of wood. The tail was all wood. The fuselage was a steel tube with fabric, but the bulk of the airplane was made out of wood,” Seburn said. “All the people here in Hagerstown already knew how to build things out of wood. And Moller Pipe Organ helped to build wings. The different furniture companies were helping to build parts and pieces. Foltz Manufacturing built a lot of the metal parts, the welded parts.”

One of the biggest calls for a large workforce came immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.

“The next day, they needed 3,000 workers to build thousands of these training flights,” Seburn said. “So there weren’t enough here in town, so people moved from all over the country, actually. They heard they had work here and needed help in the factories. That’s when Hagerstown really started expanding. There’s a lot of developments like Hamilton Park that were specifically built for workers of Fairchild. Also, of course, the income coming in from the government contracts. It grew Hagerstown immensely during the war.”

Meyers said the town was booming because of the number of jobs that needing filling at Fairchild.

“Jobs were probably more diversified at that particular time than Hagerstown had the capacity to come up with on their own,” he said. “It brought in a number of people from other places that had the ability to do certain specialized things.”

That’s why Fairchild had such an impact on the local community.

“It’s estimated that around 10,000 (aircraft) were produced here primarily over 70 years,” Meyers said. “And probably of those 70 years, within 40 years, a majority of them were built. About 50,000 probably worked there over that time period of the 100 years. That’s a huge group of people.”

Meyers said it’s estimated that about 10,000 people worked at Fairchild from World War II to the early 1950s.

“You take 10,000 out of the community of Hag-erstown of 30,000, that’s over one-third of the population of Hagerstown,” he said. “That’s big for one company to have.”

Fairchild continued to produce planes, but by the late 1970s and ’80s, it limped along as military contracts started to dry up and it faced competition from bigger aircraft producers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The last aircraft built at Fairchild was the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

“There was a little training plane they were trying to get funding for, but it kind of died on the vine,” Meyers said. “The problem with that is Fairchild wasn’t the biggest bug in time. They had to slide off and get into other things just to pay the bills.”’

Fairchild production halted in Hagerstown in 1984.

Trying to save history

The Hagerstown Aviation Museum started as a casual chat among Seburn, Meyers, Henson and others while they were setting up for a Fairchild homecoming and home show in 1995. Visitors kept on stopping by their make-shift display asking if it was a museum.

In 1996, a museum board was formed.

“Ever since, we’ve been working at creating a museum,” Seburn said. “It really got a big kick-start in 2006, when the C-82 was up for action in Grayville, Wyo. That’s when things really took off about acquiring airplanes. We went to the auction. We raised money to go the auction, hoping we had enough money to get the C-82 and bring it home. We were successful in that and flew it home. And shortly after the story got out about us bringing home the C-82, different people with old Fairchild planes started calling donating their PT-19s and other Fairchild planes. Around that time, the C1-19 was also donated.”

The project is important to Seburn, whose grandfather worked at Fairchild from 1941 to 1966.

The museum now has about 20 aircraft in its collection, about two-thirds of which Seburn said are Fairchild aircraft built in Hagerstown.

Seburn said the museum’s mission is “to track down these airplanes that are representative of what happened here. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. Some of them have been airplanes that we never anticipated being able to get. We are extremely happy that we did. One or two of them we would never thought we would get. It’s exciting to see it all come together.”

There is a possibility that an outdoor airpark that is more accessible to visitors will be created.

“We’ll also have more outdoor displays,” Meyers said. “The next step would actually (be to) get housing for the small airplanes that need to be inside. Hopefully, we can do that near there. It probably won’t be all under one roof because it’s not realistic at this moment.”

Meyers said the 100th anniversary is amazing.

“It’s really fascinating and that it continued to happen here for as long as it did, and it still does,” he said. “We’re kind of lucky.”

The future

Phil Ridenour got his start 20 years ago at Hagerstown Regional Airport as fire chief for the on-site fire department. Today, he is the airport director and can watch the aircraft take off and land from his office window.

There are 130 operations a day at the airport, Ridenour said.

“That could be the same plane doing multiple training missions or 130 different airplanes,” he said.

Today, there are 700 to 800 people employed on airport property, but Ridenour said the economic impact reaches further than that. The last Washington County Economic Impact Study said there were 14,047 people employed as a result of the airport being here. Some of those jobs are off-site.

Ridenour said the Hagerstown airport is a fully certified Index B airport through the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Being fully certified allows us the opportunity to provide commercial service,” he said.

Allegiant Air provides two flights a week to Orlando/Sanford, Fla. Southern Airways Express has two flights daily to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh International Airport, as well as one flight to each destination Saturday and Sunday.

Ridenour said it’s exciting to see how the airport has grown in the last 15 years. One of the biggest projects was expanding the runway in 2007 from 5,140 feet to 7,000 feet to make room for larger aircraft.

The airport also attracts high-tech jobs and those for manufacturing specific components. One such business is Sierra Nevada Corp., which Ridenour said employees about 600 people.

“It’s always good to have those types of jobs for Washington County,” he said. “The hopes would be that we continue to grow that for the county and continue to grow the airport, to bring new businesses to the airport and continue to support the businesses we already have.”

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the airport costs the county a lot of money.

“And I’m here to tell you it doesn’t cost the county a ton of money,” Ridenour said. “The airport, from an operational side, we are self-sufficient. We get a small amount of money from the county. When I say small amount, it’s $14,000 or something like that to supplement our budget from an operational side. The county does help us with some of the capital-improvements projects, but the majority of the capital improvements we do here in Hagerstown, we usually get a grant from the FAA. That grant is 95 percent FAA, 2 1/2 percent state share and 2 1/2 percent county share. The county usually pays 2 1/2 cents on the dollar for the majority of the capital improvements we do at the airport. The other projects we don’t get grants for; we usually pay for those out of our operating budget.”

Ridenour said there are plans to expand services at the airport and bring in more companies that are associated with aircraft. A business came in to replace the avionics shop, where repairs are done on radios and navigational aids. There are intentions of bringing in a company to replace the closed interior shop.

“One of the other things we are targeting is a large aircraft paint hangar. We have several large paint hangars on the airfield, but none of them are capable of holding a large aircraft. One of the things we identified is to attract a large aircraft-painting facility. The other things are cargo for commuter cargo, smaller aircraft — nothing huge like BWI. I wouldn’t want to do that in the community.”

For Ridenour, the joy of seeing planes take off never really goes away.

“When you work the flights, you kind of get the one on one with a lot of the customers when they check in. A majority of them are excited to get away from town for a little while or see their families and so forth,” he said. “That never goes away, especially when you see the kids.”

If you go ...

WHAT: The Wings and Wheels Expo 2016

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, rain or shine

WHERE: Hagerstown Regional Airport, 18434 Showalter Road, Hagerstown

COST: Free admission

CONTACT: Go or call 301-733-8717. For museum information, go to For airport information, go to

MORE: Highlights include:

• The Air Heritage Museum’s Fairchild C-123K “Thunder Pig” will fly in around 10 a.m., make several passes, land and be open for tours.

• The New Horizons Band concert at 1 p.m. will feature marches, patriotic music and a march composed for Fairchild Aircraft in 1952.

• A 1948 Fairchild C-82 Packet and 1953 Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar will be open for tours.

• All visitors will receive a free 14-by-28-inch color poster of the museum's aircraft collection.

• By making a $100 donation, visitors can experience open-cockpit flying.

• Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 36 will make free airplane rides available to those ages 8 to 17 throughout the day.

• The National Capitol Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force will attend and display a World War II TBM Avenger torpedo bomber.

• The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s 1945 Douglas C-54 “Spirit of Freedom” will be on display and open for tours of exhibits on the Berlin airlift of 1948.

• Radio-controlled model airplanes will be on display.

• Turbo the Flying Dog will attend with his children’s books.

• Cruise-in of antique and classic cars, trucks and motorcycles. Free registration; the first 100 vehicles will receive a dash plaque. Fire, law- enforcement, rescue, construction and historic military vehicles will be on display.

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