by Rick Hemphill
There was a time when the native roar of gasoline- powered piston engines entwined with the sweeping arcs of turning propellers. When several thousand dedicated workers put in long hours to turn out the silver aluminum-covered wings and fuselages for our Army Air Corp and then the U.S. Air Force. The freshly assembled motors lifted small trainers and then huge, for the time, transport planes into the Washington County skies as they were tested by local young test pilots prior to delivery.
As early as 1916, Giuseppi Bellanca would start building airplanes in a factory on Pope Avenue in Hagerstown. He would shortly thereafter move away from Hagerstown and go on to have a storied history in aviation.
By 1927 two local boys, Lew and Henry Reisner, had partnered with a local shoe manufacturer, Ammon Kreider, to produce biplanes from a small green workshed on Pennsylvania Avenue. The airport was a grass runway that existed where South Hagerstown High School stands today. As the manufacturing grew, a man named Sherman Fairchild bought this company and moved it to what is now the Hagerstown Regional Airport. By 1940 Fairchild was making the PT 19, a two-seat trainer that most of the American World War II bomber and fighter pilots would fly for the first time.
For another 40 years, Fairchild would continue building aircraft until 1984. After 35 years in service, the last planes built in Hagerstown still roar over Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world as the tactical ground support aircraft for the USAF. All 733 warthogs or A-10 Thunderbolts were built and test flown over the skies of the tristate and most of the people who built them still live here.
"The Hagerstown Aviation Museum's mission is to preserve over 90 years of Hagerstown's aviation heritage," says John Seburn, president of the non-profit museum, with a dedicated tone. "Airplanes were built in Hagerstown from 1928 to 1984 and over 10,000 airplanes came out of Hagerstown. We want to remember all of the folks who were involved knowing that, back in the 40's and 50's, one-third of the population of Washington County worked for Fairchild."
John's grandfather worked for Fairchild and, as a young boy, he was bitten by the aviation bug. He had even studied aircraft repair in hopes of working with the planes but the big Fairchild layoff came when he graduated from school. Although he moved on to other local endeavors, the aircraft brought him back.
"I got involved in 1995 in the beginnings of the aviation show in Hagerstown," John recalls with his broad friendly grin lighting up his face. "They had an air show and a lot of the Fairchild people were in attendance. I got involved along with Curtis Meyers, Kent Mitchell, and a few others who had a display of Fairchild memorabilia and photos, et cetera. That weekend everyone came through thinking that was a museum. We knew it wasn't, so we thought wouldn't it be great if we had one."
"The mission of the museum came about because at the 95 air show people kept coming up and saying ‘I didn't know airplanes were ever built in Hagerstown,'" John relates with an incredulous smile. "We even had a display at the mall and people would come up to us and ask, ‘Wwhere is your museum?' and we would tell them that we maintain our aircraft out at the Hagerstown Airport and they would say, ‘Wwhere is the airport? We have an airport?'"
"It took until 2005 to be incorporated as the Hagerstown Aviation Museum." John continues almost sounding surprised that it was that long ago. "But we still didn't have a place except for a display we had down at the Discovery Station in Hagerstown."
However, the big picture focus of the aviation museum was on airplanes, not artifacts. "In the meantime," John says, remembering the excitement of getting that first big aircraft, "we had been keeping track of a lot of old Fairchild aircraft around the country and there was one particular aircraft, a large twin engine C-82 Packet, also known as the flying box car, that became available in Wyoming."
"We had an emergency fund raiser," John exclaimed, as if it was a foregone conclusion at the time. "And we raised about $140,000. We went to the auction and it took all of the money we raised to purchase the last flying C-82. That was our first big activity and from that point on the local community came together to fly home the C-82."
John continues with a big smile as he is proud of the local community for their efforts in bringing aircraft back home, "Out of that effort a Fairchild C-119, (another large twin engine transport for the air force) was donated by one of the men who was running the auction in Wyoming. Two years later we raised enough money to fix that plane up and fly it back home."
That was just the beginning of retrieving aircraft for the museum. "Out of the publicity of retrieving the C-82 and the C-119 we started receiving inquiries from people who had old PT-19 trainers and other planes who had either tried to sell their plane or had seen our C-82 effort and wanted to donate them," John says proudly counting the aircraft. "We ended up with three PT 19's and one PT 26, all WWII training planes built here in Hagerstown and half of them still fly."
"We have 19 aircraft in the museum," John explains proudly. "Thirteen were built in Hagerstown and, as far as we know, we are the largest museumowned collection of aircraft in the state of Maryland. Other museums have more planes, but they are on loan from somewhere else."
"Our oldest plane is a 1928 Kreider- Reisner KR 31 that was built in their small little green shack of a factory in downtown Hagerstown," John says with that eve- present smile. "We have the green building preserved out in the back as well."
Of course, the last plane built at Fairchild has not yet been acquired. "We have been trying to get an A-10 Thunderbolt for years but they are still Air Force property," John says a bit disheartened. "They won't give us one while they are still using them. So we have to be content with pictures of them."
Their photographic collection is extensive. "The former Fairchild workers have donated photographs, models, artifacts, pieces of airplanes, and even drafting tables from the factory," John says, with great appreciation of the local communities support.
The office of the Museum is in the old Fairchild Plant, now the Top Flight building on Showalter Road, just outside the Hagerstown Regional Airport. The old plant currently houses the museum's aircraft which were taken inside the building to be spared the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. "As far as a home we are still looking at that," says John optimistically. "Until then we will be having open events so the public can see our collection. Once a month we will have an open airplane Sunday afternoon with the big planes available to the public. We will have exhibits inside the larger planes and the smaller planes will be open so kids and adults can sit in the cockpits and get the feel of being a pilot or pretend to be flying."
"That is the difference between our museum and others," John says emphatically. "Most museums you can look at the planes but you cannot touch. Here you can feel the metal, kick the tires and climb around inside to see what it was really like. We will also be giving flight rides in our World War II trainers so that people can get the feel of open cockpit flying."
The museum does not yet have all the types of planes built in Hagerstown and each new acquisition generates excitement. "Our next big project is the return of a Fairchild C-123," John exclaims with the same enthusiasm that has brought the museum from a collection of photographs and artifact to displays that fly. "The plane was in Florida and it came up as seized property by the government. I had been following all the other 123's that could or would be available and most were either too much money or they don't fly. It was up for public sale and we made an offer on it."
"The guy called me and said, John, you better start that fundraising today," John relates, showing his delight with getting the plane mingled with the stress of now having to actually get the aircraft home. "We are getting the fundraising going and we are shooting for $70,000.
The 123 flew in June and that makes this much easier," he notes, remembering some of the difficulties of bringing the other ones home.
"The plane's purchase will run $30,000 and then it will cost over $10,000 just for the fuel to fly it here, not to mention inspections and maintenance," John estimates, noting that aviation fuel costs more than regular gas. "It always costs more than you ever think it is going to be. We would like to bring it home by April 2013."
Each new acquisition helps the museum get closer to its goals. "Bringing in each big plane has generated a great deal of excitement and helped us with fundraising," John says hopefully. "We hope this will help us get a special permanent home."
Getting that home depends on the local community. "If anyone has any interest in local aviation history we would encourage you to donate," John says, making not just an appeal but reaffirming a link to local residents. "Unlike most other museums that have a wonderful collection we have a connection with the local population. Over 10,000 people worked here in this plant at one time and many people in the tristate area have relatives and family members who worked at Fairchild at one time or another. So that connection is something we have here that many other museums can't have because of their location or history."
"We want to remember," John says with conviction. "We are a twentiethcentury museum which contrasts with the history of the area where we can have first-person living history, while these people are still alive. You can actually touch the airplanes. You can walk in the big planes, climb in the cockpits, and put your hands on the controls and pretend to fly. In the flying trainers, you can feel what it was like to fly over Hagerstown 60 years ago."
As a museum they also look toward the future. "We have a lot of school groups and they get up in the cockpits and pretend they are flying and you never know where that experience will take a young person as they grow and how it may affect their future," John says reflecting on the future. "That is wholly separate from the museum experience. On September 22, 2013, we will host the next Wings and Wheels Expo over behind the terminal. All the planes will be out for people to see and the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) will be there and will give free rides for the kids., etc."
"Those who were here during the Civil War cannot still tell us new things about themselves and what went on," John summarizes with an honest conviction. "However this is local history that still has a voice."
You may donate by sending your contribution to the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, 14235 Oak Springs Road, Hagerstown, MD 21742. For more information, visit www. hagerstownaviationmuseum.org or call 301-733-8717.