Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

More than twenty million passengers found their way into, through, and out of Pittsburgh International Airport during 1999 alone. (The figure breaks down to six hun­dred flights daily to one hundred and nineteen domestic destina­tions and ten foreign destina­tions.) Had they been attempting to reserve seats on a flight departing Pittsburgh in 1927, passengers would have had to vie for one flight with one open cockpit seat en route to one destination.

A passenger could only hope that his or her destination was Cleveland, Ohio, and that the inconvenience and discomfort of sharing a cramped seat with several sacks of United States airmail was, at the very least, tolerable. The situation was about to change dramatically with the creation, expansion and, ultimately, the mergers of several of Pittsburgh’s fledgling airlines. From these mergers and rapid increase of flight routes emerged, in 1941, the country’s fifth largest airline company, Pennsylvania­-Central Airlines.

Entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast Clifford O. Ball found himself the owner of seven WACO 9 biplanes at his small Bettis Field, a grass airport near McKeesport, southeast of Pitts­burgh, in Allegheny County. He acquired the aircraft when their owner failed to pay storage charges and abandoned them. Ball’s interest in aviation grew in part from his friendships with barnstormers flying in and out of Bettis Field. These pilots – many of them daredevils – were work­ing their way across the country by entertaining crowds of spectators with aerobatics and selling rides on biplanes.

Ball’s purchase of an airplane for public sightseeing flights generated enough revenue to enable him to pur­chase Bettis Field from owner Barr Peat. With the financial help of several part­ners, the newly incorporated Pittsburgh­-McKeesport Airport Company built a refreshment stand with an attached pilot’s apartment at the field.

For an aviation company to even dream of prospering in the 1920s meant securing an airmail contract was impera­tive. By 1927, Ball, operating as Clifford Ball, Inc., had secured Contract Air Mail Route 11 (CAM-11) between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Ohio. Notorious for its poor weather, this corridor immediately proved to be a challenge for pilots; forced landings because of bad weather and mechanical problems were common. Pilots followed railroad tracks linking the two cities by day, and relied on the surreal glow of the steel mills by night.

One spectacular incident nearly claimed the life of a CAM-11 airmail pilot. During a winter night flight, ice covered the fabric wings of his biplane. The aircraft stalled and nosedived – headed directly for the industrial area that formerly occupied Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. The pilot was able to parachute to safety as moments later the plane crashed into the ice-filled waters of the Ohio River near The Point. The pilot’s adventure was not yet over, though. Narrowly missing a wet landing, his parachute became entangled several feet above the ground on a flagpole. He was rescued but the mail had to be retrieved from the bottom of the frigid Ohio.

In addition to the WACO 9s, Ball’s pilots flew a Pitcairn Mailwing and a Travel Air J-5. One of his original WACO 9 biplanes, The Miss Pittsburgh, is on display at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Although it is not restored to airworthy status, it serves as a reminder of an age when lone pilots, often in marginally safe aircraft, endeavored to deliver the mail.

Within a year of inaugurating CAM-11 airmail service, Ball purchased several Fairchild FC-2 single engine monoplanes, enabling him to carry four fares per flight at the speed of ninety miles per hour on the Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pitts­burgh route. Carrying mail provided most of his working capital while the passenger’s fares supplied much-needed cash for operating expenses.

The success of his original route prompted Ball to add a new destination. The purchase of a Fairchild Model 71 in 1929 opened the potentially lucrative Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., route. At a speed of one hundred miles per hour, six passengers could reach their destina­tion in one hour and forty-five minutes. The Washington-Hoover Airport, located on the Virginia side of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, had a distinctive design: a public highway ran through its center. Safety became a concern as traffic lights controlled the flow of cars and trucks when an airplane was about to land or depart. (The Pentagon now stands on the site occupied by the Washington-Hoover Airport.) Another challenge posed by Pittsburgh-Washington route was transiting, at low altitudes, a portion of the meteorologically unpredictable Allegheny Mountains.

Ball sold his holdings in what had been renamed Pennsylvania Airlines to a trio of Pittsburgh business leaders, who christened their enterprise the Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation (PAIC). C. Bedell Munro and Frederick W. Crawford had originally planned to develop a passenger and airmail airline to link Pittsburgh and New York City with a company tentatively called the Pittsburgh and Eastern Airline. Munro, a University of Pittsburgh professor and Crawford, his brother-in-law, outlined their ideas to prominent local attorney and business­man George R. Hann. The well-connected Hann encouraged Munro and Crawford to “think big” and plan a large-scale aviation operation. Timing was perfect.

Western Pennsylvanians did not want to be neglected in national aviation planning and so local leaders advocated ambitious plans. PAIC, backed by more than two hundred individuals and organizations, collected more than one million dollars to ensure the region would be at the forefront of national aviation progress. Participants wanted as much passenger and mail service as possible to go through Pittsburgh.

With Hann, Munro, and Crawford in leadership positions, PAIC cooperated in the formation of the nation’s first transcontinental airmail route. Postmaster General Walter Brown did not want two weak companies – Western Air Express and Transcontinental Air Transport­ – competing for the lucrative contract. Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corpora­tion managed the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport and the Harrisburg Airport, both of which were considered important links in the proposed transcontinental system. The merger of Western Air Express and Transcontinental Air Transport as equal majority partners and Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation with a five-­ percent interest created Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc., precursor of the familiar TWA serving travelers today.

The postmaster general was satisfied. A contract was awarded to Transcontinen­tal and Western Air, Inc., in August 1930 and the first flight, utilizing a Ford Tri­-Motor airliner, took place on October 25. Pittsburgh had succeeded in establishing itself on the national aviation scene.

As successful as the transcontinental mail route service promised to be in 1930, Pennsylvania Airlines was not a particu­larly viable company. Expansion of new services and routes lagged, and operating capital dwindled as the Great Depression began to take a toll. The company’s two dozen employees were hard pressed to keep the airplanes in flight and the airline in operation. Hard decisions had to be made in order to save the company. The only way to accomplish this, company officials believed, was through route expansion and the acquisition of new equipment. Their only other alternative was to abandon airline operations.

Pennsylvania Airlines renewed its efforts to survive in 1931 by introducing to the fleet the modern ten-passenger Stinson Model “T” tri-motored airliner. Equipped with improved instruments and radios and designed for passenger comfort, the airplane quickly became popular with travelers. The company increased the frequency of its flights between
Cleveland and Washington from once a day to three. The number of passengers burgeoned from an estimated total of one thousand in 1930 to nearly nine thousand two years later!

Traveler patronage, airmail, and express package shipments increased dramatically when a dozen Ford Tri­-Motor airliners were added to the company’s schedule. Able to accommo­date twelve passengers, the Fords had improved performance over the Stinsons and were able to operate under “instru­ment flying conditions,” making night and inclement weather
flights safer. Cruising at an average speed of one hundred and seven miles per hour, with a range of five hundred and seventy miles, and flown by two pilots, the Ford Tri­-Motor was the ideal airliner in what would once again become an unsettling period of corporate transition and turmoil.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order cancel­ing all existing airmail contracts in early 1934, which crippled most of the major airlines and forced Pennsylvania Airlines to curtail most flight operations. Postmaster General Walter Brown of the former administration of President Herbert Hoover, along with the airlines holding airmail contracts, were charged with conspiracy in the awarding of lucrative con­tracts. Although the accusation was later proven to be unfounded, financial havoc wracked the air transport industry at a time when many companies were succumbing to a precarious economy ravaged by the Great Depression.

President Roosevelt ordered United States Army pilots and aircraft to fly the mail on the suspended commercial routes. Inexperienced in flying at night and in inclement weather, the Army pilots proved to be dismal substitutes. Two-­thirds of the route miles were not flown. In the few weeks the Army flew the mail, twenty-six crashes accounted for the deaths of twelve military pilots. The first week of operation was the most treacher­ous as five died in seven days.

By early March 1934 it proved all too obvious that the costly alternative of using the Army was a failure. Postmaster General James Farley, using the provi­sions of the Air Mail Act of 1934, re-bid the routes. His decision to rebid included an important provision: new and future contracts would not be awarded to any company that had previously held a contract. Pennsylvania Airlines was disqualified from submitting a new bid. Not to be outmaneuvered, however, its resourceful shareholders formed the new, if not improved, Pennsylvania Airlines and Transport Company (PALTC), acquired the assets of Pennsylvania Airlines, and prepared a new bid. With the new bid, PALTC fully expected to resume passenger and airmail flights as before.

For the employees and stockholders of the Pennsylvania Airlines and Transport Company, the challenger arose in the form of Central Airlines, Inc. Central Airlines, originally known as Pittsburgh Airways, had grown sporadically from 1930, the year it had offered express and passenger service to Newark, New Jersey (the airport serving New York City at the time), Philadelphia, York, and Pittsburgh. The fleet utilized three single-engine Travel Airs, one Ford Tri-Motor and four Lockheed Vega 6 passenger planes. The schedule called for eight row1d trips daily with a travel time of two hours and fifteen minutes.

Pittsburgh Airways vied in 1930 for the central transcontinental airmail route, joined in its effort by three small airlines, including Ohio Air Transport Company. After losing the contract to the TWA alliance, Pittsburgh Airways entered receivership by order of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

Central Airlines was formed in 1934 under the leadership of James Condon. Condon had led Pittsburgh Airways in 1930-1931, and by 1934 had secured the financial backing of John H. Coulter and Richard W. Coulter, whose fortunes stemmed from the nearby coalfields. Condon’s renewed interest in aviation was sparked by the availability of the airmail contract lost by Pennsylvania Airlines.

The new bid included the Post Office Department mandated route extension from Cleveland to Detroit – an attractive incentive. Central Airlines substantially underbid PALTC and two other compa­nies to win Air Mail Route 14. Central promised three round trips a day between Washington and Detroit, including a stop at its new corporate headquarters location at the Allegheny County Airport, west of McKeesport.

Pennsylvania Airlines and Transport Company was again faced with the prospect of ceasing operations or continuing by offering only passenger and air express package service. Still headed by Bedell Munro, the company saw as its solution intense competition, including aggressive expansion and exerting pressure on Central Airlines. The airmail contract had been lost but Pennsylvania Airlines’ leaders believed seven years of safety and service could be exploited to the fullest.

From the outset, competition between Pennsylvania Airlines and Central Airlines was extreme and bitter. Both companies added new equipment, cut fares, and duplicated schedules to the minute. In waging this battle, both were losing money at a rate neither could afford. In July 1934, Munro acquired the assets of Kohler Aviation, which gave Pennsylvania Airlines route extensions to Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Milwaukee. Kohler’s airliner fleet consisted of six-passenger Loening amphibians, capable of landing on land or on the water – a necessary safety precaution in the event of mechanical trouble while transiting Lake Michigan between Muskegon and Milwaukee.

Central Airlines improved service by adding Ford Tri-Motors and Stinson Model “A” type tri-motors. The smaller nine-passenger Stinson was one of the first aircraft equipped with a retractable landing gear, which helped to reduce wind resistance and increase cruising speed to one hundred and fifty-six miles per hour.

Competition manifested itself in several ways, sometimes childish but more often than not driven by each company’s desperate desire to survive. Both airlines claimed to own faster aircraft, although they were flying the same models of Fords on many of their routes. Schedules were intentionally drawn up with nearly identical arrival and departure times. It was not unheard of for the flight that arrived first to often “clean out” the terminal of all waiting passengers, leaving few or none for the other. Employees, including flight crews, refused to speak to each other – this Pennsylvania Airlines matched Central Airlines’ prices, but at such unrealistic rates it became obvious to all involved that neither company would survive. Pennsylvania Airlines emphasized the frequency of its flights and the experi­ence of flying seventy-five thousand passengers a year. It also advertised amenities such as cigarettes and maga­zines and two pilots on every flight.

Possibly the most important advan­tage touted by Pennsylvania Airlines was its purchase of six modern twin­-engine high-speed Boeing Model 247 airliners. Originally built for United Airlines, these one hundred and eighty mile-per-hour craft provided comfort­able transportation for ten passengers and two pilots. With no engine mounted on the 247’s nose, additional space could accommodate up to four hundred pounds of income-generating express packages and radio equipment.

Central Airlines made national news when The New York Times published an article headlined “First Woman Airline Co-Pilot Flies Plane From Capital to Detroit With Seven Passengers.” Pitts­burgh native Helen Richey, an experienced pilot at the age of twenty­-five, flew round trip between the two cities on December 31, 1934. The newspa­per reported Richey “made a neat three point landing at City Airport here to inaugurate her appointment as the first woman in the country to be named co­pilot on a regular mail and passenger airline.” Asked to provide a memorable quotation for the momentous occasion, Richey responded rather plainly, “We had bad weather over Cleveland,” adding she wanted “a cup of coffee and something to eat.” Richey had been flying since the age of ten and had received her transport pilot License in 1933. By the following year, she was one of the most experienced pilots – regardless of gender­ – in the United States. She held the midair refueling endurance record for women at nine days, twenty-one hours, and forty-two minutes.

Richey’s commentary flowed more freely when she “resigned” from Central Airlines ten months later. It became public knowledge that Department of Commerce air officials had “merely suggested” to Richey’s superiors that she not fly the heavy tri-motored planes in bad weather. Unnamed bureaucrats claimed “it was not an order, not an attachment to her transport license,” adding “it was just an informal suggestion made to the airline.” Richey’s supporters retaliated by asserting that such suggestions made her career as a commercial pilot impossible.

Two years of fierce competition and internal struggle at Central Airlines led the two airlines to discuss the possibility of a merger. On September 21, 1936, the companies officially incorporated as Pennsylvania-Central Airlines. The new entity consolidated headquarters at the Allegheny County Airport and Bedell Munro retained his position as president. Most important, the airline set the stage for unprecedented growth and improve­ment. Pennsylvania-Central Airlines modernized its fleet with the purchase of eleven Boeing Model 247D airliners and the disposal of the original six 247s and the three remaining Stinson Model “A” tri-motors. The Boeing 247D, from which design features of the World War II Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” evolved, was faster, quieter, and more comfortable than the original 247. Mechanically the new variable pitch propellers, improved deicers and redesigned cockpit windows all con­tributed to a safer flight. Two of the company’s Boeing 247D airliners exist in museum settings. One is on display at the National Aviation Museum near Ottawa, Canada, and the other has been restored to airworthy status at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington. Neither, though, have been restored to their Pennsylvania-Central Airlines livery The company rapidly added new destinations, including the cities of Norfolk, Chicago, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Buffalo, Saginaw, and Traverse City. Soon to be served would be Birmingham, Chattanooga, Clarksburg, and Morgantown. Pennsylvania-Central was also keeping track of a new airport being planned on the banks of the Potomac River, near the nation’s capital.

In time, passengers, airmail, and express packages surged beyond the capacity of the Boeing 247Ds. The Douglas DC-3, which had been in production since 1936, seemed a logical solution to the dilemma. This twenty-one-passenger twin-engine workhorse was equally adaptable as a passenger airliner or as a cargo freighter. A few years later and with the military designation of C-47 or R4D it would prove its worth to the war effort as a freighter, paratroop jump ship, ambulance, VIP transport and glider tow. Eventually production of the DC-3 / C-47 for airline or military customers would exceed ten thousand and six hundred aircraft. Historians believe that nearly one thousand DC-3s scattered throughout the world are still airworthy!

In 1939, Pennsylvania-Central Airlines received its first three DC-3s, maintained thirteen Boeing 247Ds, and employed three hundred and fifty people, including sixty-five experienced pilots. Within a year, the fleet grew to eighteen DC-3s and four Boeings. One of its original DC-3s still flies – but now as a “celebrity.” Based in southern California, it appears in full­-length motion pictures, television shows, commercials, and music videos.

Along with new aircraft came new challenges in serving travelers who were becoming more sophisticated with each passing year. The company organized a passenger service department to coordi­nate food service on many of the longer flights. The airline employed “hostesses” to serve refreshments and meals and to ensure passenger comfort and safety. (A macabre anecdote circulating among travelers during the pre-hostess days – ­akin to what is today known as an Urban Legend – centered on a fictitious passen­ger who mistakenly opened the rear exit door instead of the restroom door.)

Pennsylvania-Central Airlines – as well its predecessors – was well known for its excellent safety records, including recognition by the federal government, but the crash of a newly delivered DC-3 carrying a full load of passengers ended the company’s record. Delivered on May 22, 1940, by the Douglas Company’s California plant at Long Beach, the airplane was delayed for takeoff from Washington to Pittsburgh on August 31, 1940, because of inclement weather. Onboard were twenty-one passengers, two pilots, a hostess, and one airline employee. The passenger manifest included U. S. Senator Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota who was traveling to Min­neapolis for a Labor Day weekend speaking engagement. At the controls was Captain Lowell Scroggins a “million mile” pilot with twenty years of flying experi­ence.

About twenty minutes after takeoff Captain Scroggins encountered a severe thunderstorm at the foothills of the Blue Ridge range near Lovettsville, Virginia. Witnesses on the ground reported that heavy rainfall and thick fog reduced visibility to nearly zero. Lightning strikes had also been recorded in the vicinity of the crash site.

Because of the lack of visibility at ground level no witnesses actually saw the impact; numerous reports, however, indicated that the airliner seemed to be struggling for altitude and both engines sounded as if they were at full throttle. The DC-3 hit Short Hill Mountain at 3:40 P.M. and disintegrated on impact. There were no survivors. Local rescue efforts were hampered by confusion as to the exact location of the wreckage, blinding thunderstorms, and flash flooding that made nearby roads impassable.

The crash might have been caused by what is described in modern aviation terms as “wind shear,” or a sudden violent down draft known as a “microburst.” Both conditions, frequently associated with thunderstorms and their effects, are sometimes magnified by proximity to mountains. In defense of his airline, Pennsylvania-Central Airlines Operations Vice President James Carmichael stated that the company’s pilots were instructed to fly around thunderstorms or skirt their edges. No pilot had ever been reprimanded for turning back from a storm if in his judgment they had to return to their point of origin or divert to an alternate airport. Captain Scroggins and his co-pilot J. P. Moore may have assumed the line of storms they were approaching would be passable. During the investigation, a pilot who had been flying at an altitude of three thousand feet about eight miles from Lovettsville at the time of the crash described the weather as “routine” with good visibility. The official report issued by the Civil Aeronautics Authority cited turbulence and lightning as the causes of the tragedy. Airline officials made public statements to reassure the public that their airplanes had flown more than seventy­-one thousand flights – logging a total of 113,102,709 safe passenger miles – between Washington and Pittsburgh without a single fatality.

Route expansions continued through­out 1941. However, the major news from PCA was the announcement that corporate headquarters, employee training, and heavy aircraft maintenance work was moving from its cramped and outmoded facilities at the Allegheny County Airport to the newly-opened National Airport in Washington, D.C. The corporate move from Pittsburgh was completed by April 1942.

Pennsylvania-Central Airlines continued to serve Pittsburgh during World War II. Many of its DC-3 aircraft and flight crew members were assigned to the growing war effort with most of them serving in the Air Transport Command, commonly known as ATC, and affectionately called “All Terrified Civilians” by its members. Pennsylva­nia-Central Airlines changed its corporate name to Capital Airlines in 1948 and introduced first-class sched­uled service between New York and Chicago by creating “Nighthawk” flights. The fifties, recalling the turbu­lence of the thirties, witnessed five costly accidents and mounting debts. Teetering precariously on the abyss of bankruptcy, the company was, in 1961, acquired by United Airlines, which gave employment to more than seven thousand Pennsylvania-Central Airlines employees.

During its brief but brilliant history, Pennsylvania-Central Airlines took to the skies with hundreds of thousands of passengers, giving each the gift of flight. In spite of its checkered financial condition and unscrupulous marketing efforts, Pennsylvania-Central Airlines delivered what it had promised: to guarantee a place for western Pennsyl­vania in the development and history of the nation’s aviation industry.

 

For Further Reading

Baptie, Charles. Capital Airlines, A Nostalgic Flight Into the Past. Annandale, Va.: Charles Baptie Studios, Inc., 1984.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Cearley, George W, Jr. Capital Airlilles, World’s No. 1 Propjet Airline. Dallas: George Cearley Jr., 1988.

Davies, R. E. G. Airlines of the United States Since 1914. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., ed. The American Heritage History of Flight. New York: American Heritage Publishing Corporation, Inc., 1962.

Larkins, William T. The Ford Tri-Motor. Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1992.

Serling, Robert J. When the Airlines Went to War. New York: Kensington Publishing Corporation, 1997.

Trimble, William F. High Frontier: A History of Aeronautics in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Van der Linden, F. Robert. The Boeing 247, the First Modern Airliner. Seattle: University of Washington Press for the National Air and Space Museum, 1991.

Yenne, Bill. The Pictorial History of American Aircraft. New York: Exeter Books, 1988.

 

The author acknowledges the gracious assistance of Barbara Hanson, archivist, United Airlines; Neal Hough, Instructional Media Center, Lincoln University; Pete Malashevitz and Russ Strine, Mid Atlantic Air Museum, Reading Regional Airport; and the staff of the Interlibrary Loan Office, Langston Hughes Memorial Library of Lincoln University.

The author dedicates this article to the memory of Ralph Hoffmaster and Charles Baptie and to the members of the Capital Airlines Association, Annandale, Virginia.

 

Neal Carlson is a member of the staff of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library of Lincoln University, in Chester County.