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Taking flight

Centennial of Wright brothers' feat nears, but Tri-State area left its own mark on the evolution of aviation

Centennial of Wright brothers' feat nears, but Tri-State area left its own mark on the evolution of aviation

December 15, 2003|by Chris Copley

chrisc@herald-mail.com

The Tri-State area has deep roots in aviation history. Within 15 years of the public debut of the Wright brothers' flying machine, Martinsburg, W.Va., and Hagerstown played roles in the early aviation industry.

Hiding the Wright stuff


After the first successful flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright on Dec. 17, 1903, the brothers returned to their Ohio home and essentially kept a lid on their accomplishment.

For the next several years, they developed and improved their flying machine quietly, out of the public eye, in a farmer's field near Dayton. Their public debut came in September 1908, when Orville Wright flew the flying machine in College Park, Md., for U.S. Army officials who were considering buying it. At the same time, Wilbur Wright was in Europe, demonstrating a second flying machine to potential buyers in France, Germany and Italy.

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Airplane development accelerated after European and American aviators saw the sophisticated controls the Wrights had developed. With the outbreak of World War I, aviation evolved from a rich man's toy into a military tool. After the war's conclusion in 1918, politicians and businessowners explored commercial uses.

A highway in the sky


West Virginia aviation historian Bart Rogers said Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg, W.Va., got its start when the U.S. Army proposed a nationwide network of air travel corridors, called "airways." Because airplanes in the early 1920s needed frequent maintenance and repair, military planners wanted emergency landing fields located along the way. Rogers said the airway between Washington, D.C., and Dayton passed over Martinsburg.

"The idea of an airplane is you can go in a straight line," he said. "The Army was trying to get airports every 10 miles on the route. Martinsburg was the first airport (outside) Maryland on the way to Dayton. The strip was in a 1,200-square-foot farm field, just about where it is now."

The field was graded and a 300-foot circle laid down in white gravel. A large M was marked in the center. The field was named Shepherd Field.

Rogers said the first official Army flight into Shepherd Field took place June 17, 1923. Four thousand spectators turned out to greet Army pilots Capt. St. Clair Streett and Sgt. Roy Hooee. Both men were aviation heroes of the day.

"Hooee was from Charles Town (W.Va). He was earlier on a record-breaking flight aloft - 158 hours - in California," Rogers said. "Streett led the first flying expedition to Alaska - hopped across the U.S., across Canada, the Yukon, to Alaska."

But aviation technology advanced. Airplanes became more reliable. The need for emergency fields diminished.

"The idea of having an emergency airport was a good one with the early airplanes," Rogers said. "But aviation progressed so quickly, there really wasn't a need for it."

The airport in Martinsburg is the oldest continuously operated airport in the state, Rogers said.

Before Fairchild


From the 1930s to the 1980s, Fairchild Aviation built aircrafts in Hagerstown. Also, Hagerstown native and aviation entrepreneur Richard A. Henson launched his own commuter airline based in Hagerstown.

Fairchild's predecessor in Hagers-town was an airplane manufacturer that got its start as a small military aviation surplus shop. Lewis Reisner began selling Army airplanes and parts in 1920 at the small airfield on the north side of Hagerstown.

Local interest in aviation increased, and, in 1925, Hagerstown pilot and shoe salesman Ammon Kreider joined with Reisner to establish a Waco airplane dealership and flying service. The partners later formed Kreider Reisner Aircraft Co. to build their own planes.

The new company had a big vision. Kreider Reisner's first airplane - a midget craft 15 feet long and 20 feet from wingtip to wingtip - was entered in the 1926 National Air Races in Philadelphia and won the Scientific American Trophy, according to Jeff Scott, engineer and historian with aerospace.com.

Hagerstown historian Hubert Poole worked as an accountant with Kreider Reisner during the company's heyday. Poole said that KRA built biplanes under the Challenger brand name from 1927 to 1930.

In the Roaring '20s, aviation was hot. Challengers sold well in 1928, and future growth was predicted.

But 1929 was a tumultuous year. In April, Ammon Kreider was killed in a midair collision in Michigan. Sherman Fairchild, founder of Fairchild Aviation, acquired KRA but let the company keep its own name. A large brick factory was built beside the original shed on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown. Fairchild sold KRA to Aviation Corporation, a conglomerate trying to bring many airplane makers under one corporation, as General Motors had done with automobile manufacturers.

When KRA's new owners came to inspect the company's airplane storage lot near State Line, Pa., they were shocked to see "airplanes were tied down to every third fence post around the field," Poole said. Production was immediately slowed, then halted. Sales never picked up.

In October 1929, the stock market collapsed. Five months later, KRA was shut down. A year later, Sherman Fairchild bought back KRA and other Fairchild plants from financially strapped Aviation Corporation.

From the remains of one company, Hagerstown's Fairchild plant was born.

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