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Wheeling Area Takes Flight in Nation’s Early Aviation History

An 1897 photograph shows hot air balloons in flight over the West Virginia State Fair grounds on Wheeling Island. The old image was displayed Tuesday during a Lunch With Books presentation on the area’s aviation history.

WHEELING — The Wheeling area played an interesting role in the nation’s early aviation history.

Erin Rothenbuehler and Dale Rothert shared tidbits from that legacy Tuesday for the Ohio County Public Library’s Wheeling 250 series.

Rothenbuehler, who is the library’s webmaster and one of its local history specialists, told of aviation-related ventures in the Northern Panhandle. Rothert, a pilot and flight instructor, talked about the region’s airports and modern usage of aircraft.

Hot air balloons began appearing at the West Virginia State Fair on Wheeling Island in the 1890s. Air shows, featuring parachute drops from balloons, continued until 1915, she said.

Kyle Smith Aircraft Co. was founded in 1916 and began manufacturing airplanes in Wheeling. Rothenbuehler found a photograph of the plant, but could not determine its location. According to an advertisement, the company’s land model plane was priced at $3,000, while a water model sold for $3,100.

Louis Bennett Jr. — who would become the state’s only World War I flying ace –launched the West Virginia Flying Corps in Beech Bottom in 1917.

Bennett’s brother-in-law, J.C. McKinley, started the West Virginia Aircraft Co., building planes in Warwood and flying from a field in Beech Bottom. However, the company folded in 1922 when the market for single-engine planes became saturated, she said.

Jack Adams, who was a flight instructor in World War I, took the McKinley firm’s first flight from Langin Field in Moundsville. Langin, which operated from 1921 to 1932, was West Virginia’s first federally-funded field, she said.

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis plane into Langin Field on Aug. 4, 1927. He gave a brief speech at the state fairgrounds on Wheeling Island and placed a wreath on the Aviator statue — honoring Bennett — on Linsly Institute’s campus at Thedah Place.

Another famous visitor in 1927 was Ruth Elder, known as “the female Lindbergh,” who was attempting a trans-Atlantic flight. She visited because a group from Wheeling provided financial backing for her flight, Rothenbuehler said.

In the early 1930s, Capt. George Haldeman, a test pilot and Elder’s former navigator, became a personal pilot for Wheeling businessman Fred King, whose home at Echo Point was called Skyland Manor. King’s plane, Miss Fidelity, was furnished lavishly.

King and the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a 1931 “fly-in” by famous pilots, including Jimmy Doolittle and Wiley Post. King, though, went bankrupt in 1935, she said.

Fokker Aircraft Co. opened a manufacturing plant in Glen Dale in August 1928, with its maiden flight in December of that year.

Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, Wheeling produce merchant C.A. Robrecht and six others were killed when a Fokker plane crashed in Kansas in March 1931, Rothenbuehler said. Part of the plane was built in Glen Dale, she added.

After that tragedy, Fokker closed its plants in Glen Dale and New Jersey. The Marshall County site later housed the Louis Marx Co.’s toy factory.

Construction of the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport began in 1939. Edward W. Stifel Sr. worked tirelessly for its creation, she said.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Airport was dedicated in 1946 and the first commercial flight took off in 1947. Rothert said the airport was served by several sirlines, including Capital, TWA, Lake Central, All-American, United and Allegheny.

In 2004, the airport had a daily average of 144 air operations, but that number had dropped to 76 by 2016, he said. Currently, there are 72 airports within a 55-mile radius of Wheeling, he added.

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