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Bellefonte Airport is first stop in 100-year commemoration of transcontinental airmail

CHRIS MORELLI/THE EXPRESS Pilot Christopher Polhemus landed a vintage 1931 Pitcairn Mailwing at the Bellefonte Airport earlier this week. Polhemus, from Carmichaels, Pa., helped commemorate the 100-year anniversary of transcontinental airmail.

BELLEFONTE — One-hundred years.

It was exactly 100 years ago this week that a DH-4 biplane filled with U.S. mail landed in Bellefonte. The pit stop in Centre County was the first on a cross-country trek that began in Long Island, N.Y., and would eventually end in California.

The DH-4 biplane made history in 1920, so it was only fitting that 100 years later the Bellefonte Airport commemorated that historic event. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Christopher Polhemus landed at Bellefonte Airport in a vintage 1931 Pitcairn Mailwing, joining a relay team of pilots flying across the country. The stop in Bellefonte commemorated the town as a stop on the first transcontinental airmail route 100 years ago.

After landing at the Bellefonte Airport, Polhemus who hails from Carmichaels, Pa., talked about the significance of the event.

“It’s a pleasure to come on over here and meet with some like-minded people. The airmail is real near and dear to our hearts,” Polhemus said. “This is kind of the headquarters right here of the East coast airmail operations. I wanted to make sure we got it over here and got to be part of the event.”

Before Sept. 8, 1920, regional airmail service started two years prior. However, the route was rather short, linking New York and Washington, D.C. Then, in 1919, planes were carrying mail between Omaha and Chicago. Things changed again as the routes began taking pilots across the country. According to Polhemus, those early pilots dubbed themselves “The Suicide Club” due to the somewhat challenging nature of navigating the skies without any form of modern technology.

Polhemus noted that pilots took their lives into their hands every time they took to the skies.

“I can’t imagine. Those guys were iron men. That’s what they were. They were heroes,” he said.

Things are a bit different these days. Polhemus said that Tuesday’s flight couldn’t have turned out better.

“It was beautiful; crystal clear skies. I left Nemacolin Woodlands about 7:40 (a.m.), went to 5,500 feet. Not a cloud in the sky. I spoke to Johnstown tower, went right overhead their airport and then, of course, University Park coming in here. Couldn’t have been nicer. Not a ripple. It was just beautiful. The forecast was perfect. The airplane is running flawlessly. It’s really nice,” Polhemus said.

According to Polhemus, getting a chance to take part in the event was “an honor.”

A small crowd of local dignitaries greeted Polhemus and his vintage Pitcairn Mailwing.

John Elnitski, manager of the privately-owned Bellefonte Airport, said that in a normal year the airport would have hosted a large crowd for the event. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crowd was kept relatively small.

“It would have been great if we could have invited everyone. Elementary schools could have had field trips, things like that. I think the pandemic of 1918-19 (Spanish Flu) was associated with the same time (airmail) was flying. That kind of lines up eerily,” Elnitski said.

Still, even without a big crowd, Polhemus basked in the day.

“It’s fun, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “This is the most gorgeous part of the country, coming across the hills and the mountains, it’s just beautiful.”

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