Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 40
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 2003 Volume 40 Number 2, Pages 41–62
A HISTORY OF THE MAIN LINE AIRPORT
Imagine traveling west along tree lined Swedesford Road in far western Tredyffrin Township. Passing the intersection with Church Road (originally called Bulls Corner, where the advancing British Army was sighted by an American picket in September 1777), the landscape changes abruptly. As you cross into East Whiteland Township a seemingly endless array of office buildings stretch out, comprising the Great Valley Corporate Center. Exactly one-half mile west from Bull's Corner you reach the intersection of Valley Stream Parkway. Casually glancing to your "one o'clock position," you notice a mature tree across the intersection, taller and fuller than other vegetation in sight. But this is nothing out of the ordinary; just another tree within just another suburban office park.
In fact, the land that surrounds this particular tree marks the birthplace of aviation in Chester County. This is where "barnstormers" performed, pilots were trained for war, and vertical aviation history was made. The intent of this narrative is to help a few recall, and most to become acquainted with, the role which the Main Line Airport played in the development of American aviation.
Any examination of the Main Line Airport should begin first with a consideration of its land. The earliest records of the Great Valley describe a dense, primary growth forest stretching east and west "as far as eye can see." But the soil was fertile, and if back breaking labor was applied to felling trees, removing stumps and rock, and tilling the soil, the land would offer sustenance to a farmer and his family. While earlier title to this particular property was assuredly held, the first deed for which we have a record cites a John Phillips as the owner in the year 1798. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show a succession of owners, with familiar Valley names like Bartholomew (1812-72), Menkins (1872-1907), and Hughes (1909-16).
In 1916, Lewis Hughes sold the southern half of his 140-acre farm to William B. Devaney, a successful 52-year-old engineer who, for many years, was employed as the superintendent of the Howellville quarry in Tredyffrin Township. Seventy acres represents a fairly small farm when one considers that perhaps 30 acres were set aside for feed crops for the animals, and an additional 4 or 5 acres for buildings, gardens, and orchards. Family tradition suggests that although it remained a working dairy farm, Mr. Devaney probably purchased the farm, to be known as Twin Brook Farm, more for an avocation than as an income-producing property.
In an aerial photograph taken in the mid-1920s, a large white farmhouse stands near, and facing south, onto Swedesford Road. Immediately east of the house is a stand of large deciduous trees, one of which remains today as noted in the introduction above. Continuing east is a large multi-level fieldstone and frame barn, with a red galvanized roof, built around 1851. A red frame coach house lies adjacent to the main barn. Another smaller barn, a springhouse, and several other "out buildings" are also visible. From these structures, and this property, William Devaney and his family raised a herd of prize Holstein cattle and operated the Blue Rock Kennels, specializing in English Pointers.
Let's now introduce one of William Devaney's two sons, Charles. A man "born with a wrench in his hand" and a keen knowledge of the internal combustion engine, Charlie coupled these talents with a love of speed. By the end of the second decade of the century Charlie had already developed his reputation as a racecar driver, well known on tracks along the entire Eastern Seaboard. This passion for speed would lead him to its natural extension: the new frontier of powered flight.
In the immediate post World War I years, the War Department was selling much of its surplus aircraft, most still in their original assembly cartons, and some for as little as $200. The principal aircraft being "surplused" was the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny. The only American aircraft that played a major role in World War I, over 90 percent of North American combat pilots had learned to fly in the Jenny. Because they were accessible, cheap, and a fairly "forgiving" aircraft to fly, the Jenny now became the airplane of choice for a new generation of pilots. Charlie had to have one, and with his father's financial assistance, a plane was purchased and the crated aircraft delivered to the farm.
Charlie's skill as a mechanic enabled the correct assembly of the Jenny, and an agreement with his father provided the use of one of the farm's pastures for occasional use as an airstrip. In the period 1920 to 1922, in an era before any government regulation of flight existed, Charlie taught himself to fly, taking off and landing from the pasture, and becoming the first in Chester County to own and fly a plane. A humorous stipulation supposedly made by his father specified that Charlie and the Holsteins would not use the pasture at the same time. While Charlie did not give up his "day job," (he worked for years as an auto mechanic at the Alan C. Hale Buick dealership in Wayne, Pennsylvania, ending that career in 1935 as service manager), his love of, and skill in, aviation would galvanize Charlie for the rest of his life.
In the spring of 1928, two Chester County men, John D. Jacob and Carmen Van Lear (who was later to die in a Chester County plane crash), each purchased an airplane and talked William Devaney into allowing them to share the pasture with Charlie. By late summer it was becoming clear that the three plane owners would need a more adequate facility. After a search of the area, in February 1929 Jacob leased several farm fields located south of the Paoli Pike near Goshenville and cleared them of fences and trees. He spent several thousand dollars to lay out runways and build six hangars, and named the new airfield Sky Haven.
The Devaney pastures would not remain quiet for long. On February 27, 1929, William Devaney, strongly influenced by the health issues that would take his life two years later, sold Twin Brook Farm to the already famous rotating-wing inventor E. Burke Wilford. Wilford purchased the Devaney farm for the purpose of designing and flight testing an aircraft variation which he called the "gyroplane." This modification of pre-existing autogyro designs by Juan Cierva and Harold Pitcairn was part of the ongoing attempt, then, as now, to continually refine a technology and build a financial success from those changes. The farm, initially purchased under the Wilford name, was transferred in May to a newly created entity of which he was president, the Philadelphia-Main Line Airport, Incorporated. While initial prototype work on his gyroplane was being completed in New Jersey, Wilford had the large barn on the new property modified to serve as hangar and workspace. The word PAOLI was prominently painted on the barn's roof to guide pilots, who at that time relied exclusively on "visual flight rules" for their navigation.
In December 1930, the twin-propeller, single-seat, open-cockpit gyroplane, which Wilford had named Configuration No. 1," was transported to the "Philadelphia - Main Line Airport" for taxi testing. After eight additional months
in which the original aircraft was redesigned behind the closed doors of the large barn, Wilford's team of mechanics and engineers introduced the second configuration called the "WRK." Beginning on August 5, it was this prototype in which Lt. Frank Brown made almost 200 flights over the airport and the Great Valley throughout August 1931. In an interview with Burke Wilford in 1966, he described how his strange looking helicopter predecessor, which took off like an airplane, and was then able to land in a very short space, flew. The gyroplane, he said, was:
...pulled down the field by a standard power plant and propeller mounted in front, and lifted into the air by four rotating blades mounted overhead on a free-wheeling disc. Their lift proved a suitable substitute for that once offered by wings.
While autogyros had already been flown in Europe and even in Pennsylvania, Wilford's "WRK" was the world's first autogyro to successfully fly with a rigid rotor.
After using the Airport as his research and development site for almost two years, Wilford decided to permanently move his entire operation from Paoli late in 1932. He relocated to a much larger former World War I training center and seaplane base located on the Delaware River in Essington, Pennsylvania, 15 miles south of Philadelphia. There he reincorporated the business as the Pennsylvania Aircraft Syndicate Ltd. It was also in Essington that a structural failure in the third gyroplane configuration resulted in a tragic crash in 1934, which killed the pilot and caused Wilford to temporarily abandon his entire autogyro project.
In another of his real estate "slights-of-hand," Burke Wilford, in February 1931, had transferred the title to the Philadelphia - Main Line Airport in the name of his wife, Catherine. She held formal ownership to the land for the next four years, and with the move of Wilford's operation to Essington, a search began in earnest for someone with whom a lease of the Paoli airport property could be made.
In December 1932, after almost four years in which Sky Haven Airport had flourished and expanded, the Chester County court ordered John D. Jacob, the field's operator, to immediately cease all flight operations. Several adjacent farmers and the Rush Hospital for Consumptives had filed suit the previous year alleging that the airport constituted a nuisance. Witnesses would testify that the great noise made by planes, together with the dense volume of dust sent up, became exceedingly annoying. Low flying over adjoining properties was also complained of as being extremely dangerous. Patients at Rush Hospital, it was claimed, were retarded in recovery as a result of the operation of the planes nearby.
Jacob, having exhausted all legal remedies to keep Sky Haven open, now negotiated with the Wilfords to lease the Philadelphia - Main Line Airport and transfer his flying business there.
Thus started, in early 1933, an energetic growth period for the Airport as a nation's fascination with flight seemed able to take people, at least temporarily, from the cares of the Depression. Despite the general austerity, interest in aviation in all its forms was unbridled on the Main Line and throughout Chester County. Throughout each week, and especially on weekends, spectators would drive from far and near to the Airport to watch the excitement. Passengers would buy short flights in open cockpit biplanes; student fliers would take training flights with one or another of the instructors operating at the Airport; and the owners of a growing number of private airplanes added flying hours to their log books.
John Jacob, now the Airport's manager, began making improvements to the field and buildings. Devaney's main barn, fitted to serve as Wilford's development center, was "rehabbed" once again as a fixed-wing hangar. A new workshop on the barn's second floor allowed planes to be prepped and painted according to aircraft procedures, and repairs made to woodwork used on airplane wings, and to metal fuselage and engine parts. Also, to provide something for everyone, the lower level of the barn became a pistol shooting range, and out at the northeast corner of the airport property the Cohort Gun Club constructed a popular trapshooting range drawing membership from all along the Main Line.
The purchase of an additional tract of land directly east of the property substantially added length to the east-west runway, which, due to the prevailing winds sweeping up and down the valley, made it the primary strip. A contemporary review stated that the Airport now had:
...a runway exceeding by several hundred feet the length of any airport in this section of the country, and capable of taking off and landing the largest of aircraft with a wide margin of safety.
Military pilots, especially naval aviators stationed at Mustin Field at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, regularly visited the Philadelphia - Main Line Airport in what were their state-of-the-art military aircraft. In the memorable summer of 1934, the American Legion Air Circus was held at the Airport. Thousands of spectators came to Paoli from all over to watch well-known pilots compete for prizes as they raced their planes around the pylons. Observers described having never heard such a tremendous roar of engines as the competitors flashed by the crowds.
A quite different interest for spectators and aviators alike focused on the Main Line Glider Club, whose members silently rode the currents high above the field. A contemporary newspaper article describes a typical Sunday afternoon in which:
...one member after another soars hundreds of feet into the sky in their gliders, which are nothing more or less than a pair of wings, tail, and a few feet of tubing welded together and resembling an airplane minus a motor. Using a tow car and 1,000 feet of cable, the gliders are launched into flight the duration of which is from one and a half to four minutes, with the pilot sitting in a tiny bucket seat fastened on the skeleton framework of the nose with no protection from the weather.
In January 1935, the Glider Club secured a Federal Department of Air Commerce license for one of its two-place gliders, which was being used as a trainer. By this time in regulation history, when using a glider for commercial training purposes, it was necessary to have the craft licensed the same as for an airplane. Since there were at that time only 45 licensed gliders in the entire United States, the Main Line Glider Club was pleased to be a part of that elite circle.
In the spring of 1935, two events occurred for which we do not have complete explanations. On March 4, the Philadelphia - Main Line Airport, Inc. sold for $1.00 the ownership of the 83.29-acre property to yet another entity of Wilford's creation called Aircraft and Airways of America, Inc. Contemporary
accounts call the transfer simply a technicality, but the "why" remains murky. The second change was the announcement in April that the Airport Manager, John Jacob, for reasons unstated, was leaving the management of the Main Line Airport. His role would be assumed by a former flight instructor named A. F. Schachterle. What became of John Jacob is unknown to us.
1936 was a strategically important year for the Main Line Airport. (To eliminate confusion with the City of Philadelphia, the use of the word "Philadelphia" in the Airport's title had been dropped by the mid-1930s.)
In June, Demorr Aeronautical was incorporated. The Demorr Aeronautical Corporation could best be described as the business vehicle by which Charlie Devaney, who had remained active in aviation at the Airport and beyond, could now leave his position as service manager at Hale Buick and "jump into aviation with both feet." Charles, as president, along with his close friend "Nick" Morris, a highly respected pilot and flight instructor and now vice president of Demorr (a contraction of Devaney and Morris), set out to become an airplane sales and service organization of prominence on the east coast. Using the Main Line Airport as their venue, Demorr succeeded in achieving their dream, becoming the exclusive eastern seaboard distributor for Ryan Airplanes of San Diego (manufacturer of Lindbergh's Spirit of Saint Louis, and later the fabulous Ryan ST), as well as the Philadelphia area distributor for Piper Aircraft of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, considered America's leading light plane manufacturer.
On November 14, 1936, the substantial influence which E. Burke Wilford had had upon the Airport for years officially ended with his sale of the property to the legendary Curtiss-Wright Corporation of New York. Curtiss-Wright would
retain formal ownership for the remainder of the decade, and Mr. Schachterle continued as Curtiss-Wright's on-site representative for the next four years.
The success of Demorr, and the new ownership by Curtiss-Wright, were both catalysts for Airport growth. There were also two additional catalysts. One was the Main Line Flying School, owned and operated by Paul Gingrich, whose reputation as an expert flight instructor had allowed him to graduate more student fliers than any other flying school in eastern Pennsylvania. The second was the Main Line Aircraft School headed by Daniel D'Ambrosio, who believed that growth in aviation would be limited only by a lack of qualified mechanics to service the emerging technologies, and who organized a school at the Airport to train airplane and engine mechanics. All promoted reputation and growth opportunities.
A document currently at the Chester County Historical Society, dated November 1936, and originally secured in the office safe at the Main Line Airport, provides a succinct description of the field:
The airport is a landing field of 89 acres, prevailing winds are east and west, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Location by air navigation Latitude 40°03' North, Longitude 75°30' West. " Altitude 300 ft. net drainage, 3 landing strips east west 2100 ft., NE and SW 1950 ft., NW and SE 2000 ft. Entire field available. 12 ship capacity, 40 student pilots, 20 graduated. Over 100,000 yearly visitors.
There is no record of any regularly scheduled commercial traffic, or U.S. Airmail service, operating through the Main Line Airport. There are, however, several references to flights into and out of the airport arranged through local commercial establishments. One example is a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft that visited the Main Line Airport on at least one occasion. Sponsored by Matthews Ford, a Paoli automobile dealership, this famous aircraft provided short rides for many adult and child spectators, its repeated take-offs and landings providing, for most passengers, their very first airplane ride.
Physically, the appearance of the Airport was changing as buildings were added or removed, and the uses of existing ones again modified. The large barn was now used less as an aircraft hangar, but the coach house continued to hold equipment and vehicles. A temporary sheet metal hangar had been constructed, located diagonally north and west from the farmhouse, with its large sliding doors facing Swedesford Road. An elongated wooden shed located directly adjacent to Swedesford Road east of the main barn was converted to a permanent "Tee" hangar, its front facing north, and used for aircraft storage and repairs. Additional "Tee" hangars were constructed
immediately west of the farmhouse. The Airport's physical presence and influence on the area continued to become more pronounced.
By the late 1930s, war in Europe appeared inevitable. If America became involved, large numbers of trained pilots would be needed for military service. One response to that need came as a proclamation by President Roosevelt in December 1938, announcing the creation of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). This plan, administered through the Civil Aeronautics Authority, was one of the largest government sponsored vocational education programs of the period. It was designed to serve both war-preparedness goals and New Deal economic ends. It annually allowed 20,000 eighteen-to-twenty-seven-year olds, primarily college students, to become qualified to obtain a private pilot license at government expense. The program would give a substantial economic boost to the light-plane industry, and the network of small airports associated with civilian aviation throughout the country. The CPTP did indeed help thousands of small airport operators make financial ends meet until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.
For the Main Line Airport, the Civilian Pilot Training Program was a godsend. Their CPTP program began in 1939 and was primarily directed to providing flight training and certification to young men from Villanova University and West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University). The U.S. government paid virtually all the fees for a student's flight training, creating an unaccustomed cash flow to the instructors and the Airport that, until then, had been making due by serving a relatively few wealthy patrons less affected by Depression austerity. Nick Morris and Paul Gingrich, who were normally the two full-time flight instructors at the Airport, were now able to hire several additional instructors to fulfill the increased mission.
During all the hundreds of training flights flown in and out of the Main Line Airport during the CPTP period, there was only one recorded accident. A student pilot in a Piper J-3, coming in final approach toward the northwest, snagged the plane's undercarriage on the telephone lines that ran parallel to Swedesford Road. The resulting crash badly damaged the plane but, fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
The inflow of cash enabled Demorr to purchase several Piper J-3s as flight trainers; a 1936 four-door Ford sedan to transport student pilots back and forth from the Paoli train station and West Chester; and, in 1940, enabled the construction of a large aircraft hangar with dimensions of 100 by 60 feet. With an operating height of 14 feet, it was designed to accommodate the DC-3, the
largest airplane of its time. An interesting note concerning this hangar was that, to reduce construction costs, Demorr acquired the large overhead trusses, required to eliminate vertical support beams, in "used" condition from an airport in South Carolina, and had them shipped to Paoli by rail. With the completion of the new hangar, the temporary sheet metal hangar was demolished.
By 1940, the War Department was accelerating its war preparations, and Curtiss-Wright, the owner of the Airport since 1936, would clearly be playing a major role in armaments production. The company that was to manufacture the P-40 Warhawk fighter, the C-46 Commando transport, and the Navy SB2C Helldiver dive bomber now desired to divest itself of non-essential assets. Demorr Aeronautical was at the right place at the right time. On April 4, 1940, Demorr purchased the Airport from Curtiss-Wright Corporation for $42,000 and assumed full management of the site. Charles Devaney remained president, Nick Morris, secretary and treasurer, and J. Morton Caldwell (of the Philadelphia jewelry family) became vice president. By the end of 1940 the airport was considered one of the busiest and best equipped airfields of its size in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
America's entry into World War II brought drastic changes to civilian flying. During the war the Main Line Airport was, by necessity, in a state of semi-hibernation as severe rationing of aviation gas made it very difficult to fly for pleasure. The Airport's use as a training ground for the CPTP continued until early 1943 when the government decided that it now had a pilot glut.
For the Airport, it was good while it lasted. Fortunately, in 1942, Demorr Aeronautical had been able to apply its machining equipment and experience to secure a sub-contracting agreement with N.A.F. (Naval Aircraft Factory) Philadelphia to manufacture ailerons for a large flying boat known as the PBN Catalina. Demorr built component parts for 156 aircraft during the period 1942-45. It was reported that these parts went to assemble Lend Lease Act aircraft destined for the Soviet Union.
The Airport never completely closed to aviation during the war. Charles Devaney's son Bob tells of a friendly relationship established between the Airport and a Naval aviator stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard late in 1944 and into 1945. This aviator apparently had substantial autonomy in accruing flight hours with the Navy's newest and fastest fighter, the Grumman F8F Bearcat. The F8F was produced too near the end of hostilities to see much combat, but was, in fact, the fastest propeller-driven aircraft produced during World War II. Bob tells of several occasions when this pilot would roar down the Great Valley and over the airport with his 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R2800 radial engine screaming (the F8F's 2,000-horsepower engine was essentially identical to one of four found on a B-29 Superfortress bomber), scaring livestock and agitating neighbors. Then, the F8F would touch down on the airstrip, the aviator would spend a few moments on the ground talking to A Grumman F8F Bearcat fighter which often visited the Main Line Airport in 1944-45 one and all, and, on at least one occasion, with the whine of a police siren in the background, take off again with a roar. With the F8F's capacity to fly almost vertical from takeoff to 10,000 feet, the sight and sound must have been unforgettable.
In one memorable incident, the aviator landed his Bearcat and taxied over the grass strip to the farmhouse where, leaving the engine idling, he climbed down and went inside the flight office (built in the rear of the farmhouse and facing out onto the field) to get a cup of coffee. The ground was spongy from days of rain. The heavy fighter, equipped with narrow tires ideally suited for a carrier flight deck but not a sodden former pasture, and vibrating heavily in its normal idle mode, began to sink into the mud until the giant propeller was almost spinning into the ground. Fortunately, through the efforts of several brave volunteers with shovels and the use of the Airport tractor, the F8F was somehow extricated from its muddy grip, and our aviator was able to take off with perhaps some explaining to do back at the Navy Yard about how his undercarriage got so muddy.
In the years immediately following World War II, private aviation experienced explosive growth. The Airport boomed once again, in part because of the new Gl Bill of Rights that would pay tuition and expenses for ex-GIs wishing to pursue flight training as a qualified course of study. Small fields like the Main Line Airport richly benefited from the largess of the government's programs, along with the general increase in discretionary spending of average people wishing to fly and enjoy themselves after the privation of the Depression and the war. Among the notable individuals who took flight training during this time at the Airport was a young man named Charles "Pete" Conrad, who would later became Pennsylvania's first astronaut and commander of the Apollo 12 moon mission in 1969. Conrad served as a grass cutter for the large, grassy expanses of the runways in exchange for flight lessons. Nick Morris acted as his primary flight instructor.
Private airplane sales also rose sharply as pent-up demand could now be satisfied, and Piper PA-11's and PA-12's were in especially high demand at Piper distributors like Demorr Aeronautics during the immediate post-war period.
There was a brief period immediately after the war when the specter of terror upset any sense of peace and prosperity in the Great Valley and at the Airport. Bob Devaney recalls that in 1946 the "Valley" experienced a series of deliberately set fires to homes and farms. Genuine alarm gripped the area, and Demorr's nightmare of a conflagration fueled by aviation gas required resolute action. Bob Thomas, Charlie Devaney's brother-in-law (and before he was drafted as the driver of the Ford shuttle for the student pilots) had recently been discharged from Naval service. Thomas was invited, along with his wife, to take up residence in the farmhouse. His job: provide "site security" to the Airport grounds. Thomas got the word out that his recently "liberated" Navy M-l Carbine, and a Thompson submachine gun, would be used without hesitation to protect the property. Apparently his clear warning was taken seriously, because no attempt was ever discovered to "torch" the Airport structures or airplanes. Ultimately, several Paoli volunteer firemen were arrested and convicted of these arsons. Bob Thomas and his family continued to live in the old farmhouse for the next six years.
Quite another quandary presented itself to Demorr in late 1946. An attorney from Philadelphia, representing an anonymous company, made an unsolicited cash offer of $152,000 to Charlie Devaney for the Airport's buildings and land. This was an unprecedented sum for real estate in the "Valley" (and a 262% increase in just over six years since the Demorr purchase from Curtiss-Wright).
By January 1947, unable to determine why such an outrageous sum was being offered, Charles decided to reject the offer. This decision demonstrated not only his shrewdness, but also his ability to tolerate risk. And the risk that he undertook became significantly more apparent as, in the next two years, the aviation bubble burst throughout the country and the Airport's revenues dropped sharply from their immediate post-war highs.
Charlie's decision to reject the initial offer paid off handsomely for him and the other Demorr principals three years later. In January 1950, he signed an agreement with the representative for the still undisclosed company to allow, for $35,000 cash, a 9-month option for the party to potentially buy the Main Line Airport. If the anonymous company decided to back away from the purchase, Demorr would recover over 80 percent of their original purchase price to Curtiss-Wright. If the buyer chose to move ahead and exercise the option, a remaining purchase balance of $195,000 would be due, for a total sale price of $230,000. At almost $2,800 per acre, this would be the record high for land in the area. Either way, this was a "win-win" for Demorr Aeronautical.
The "why" soon became apparent. By February 1950, three drilling rigs were working non-stop taking core samples at the north end of the Airport property, which, as everyone in the area already knew, sat atop a limestone substrate. Long time residents had grown used to their well water coming white from the tap. Although the sediment would settle in a glass, the lime taste was distinct if not unpleasant.
Then, for the first time, the name Bethlehem Steel Company was mentioned. The puzzle was solved. The three basic raw materials for steel production are coal, iron ore, and limestone. Using the then-dominant Bessemer refining process, great quantities of limestone were required to act as a flux to purify the molten iron. Integrated steel companies at that time desired to dominate their sources of limestone as well as those of iron and coal. If the core sampling validated what local folk already anticipated, this airfield would soon become a limestone quarry.
And indeed, on September 26, 1950, the purchase option was exercised. Demorr Aeronautical Corporation sold the Main Line Airport to the Monroe Coal Mining Company, as agent for Bethlehem Steel, at the agreed price of $230,000. Charles Devaney's gamble had paid off very well indeed. As a part of the final agreement, Demorr would be allowed full business possession of the property for two additional years, thereby allowing a period of career transition for the principals.
On a personal note, some three months before the purchase agreement, in a letter dated June 11, 1950 to his sister in Washington D.C., who had invited Charlie and the family to drive down for a visit, Charlie responded:
Our Ford is getting in bad shape so we can't go anywhere right now, but if Bethlehem takes the place I think we will really break out for a while...
And break out they did. The lessons Demorr had learned about business in general, and manufacturing and military subcontracting in particular, now provided the firm with a new future. After "winding down" the Main Line Airport in early 1952, the machining operation, which Charles and Nick had built in one of the hangar buildings, was moved into a brand new machine shop, still under the name Demorr Aeronautical Corporation, and located on Moorehall Road (present Route 29) near Route 30, on the site of the present Bob Evans restaurant in Malvern. During almost twenty years of operation, Demorr would act as a contract designer, machine builder, and avionics manufacturer. Demorr Aeronautical Corporation continued in business until 1970.
Charlie Devaney passed away in April 1976 at the age of 76. Nick Morris died five years later in April 1981, also at the age of 76.
With the sale to the Monroe Coal Mining Company (Bethlehem Steel), a new future lay before the Main Line Airport. Fixed-wing aviation had dominated the airport during the two decades since Burke Wilford last flew his autogyro over the Great Valley. However, all that changed with new land-use regulations created by the new owners of the land. With the departure of Demorr Aeronautical from the airport, Bethlehem placed a prohibition on fixed-wing takeoffs and landings. That prohibition was reinforced by the placement of barbed wire fencing to subdivide the original runways for the temporary use as cattle grazing pastures.
To provide security and enforcement for the airport grounds, and all the adjacent properties purchased by Bethlehem, Bethlehem established a permanent caretaker to oversee all the holdings north of Swedesford Road. John Tompkins, a retired police officer, became the full-time overseer, and lived in a house provided by Bethlehem that stood where the North Valley ridge met Moorehall Road, west of what is now Valley Stream Parkway near Route 29.
It is now time to introduce the creative genius of a flight test engineer named Haig Kurkjian. Kurkjian had started work for Kellett Aircraft Company on their XR-8 helicopter project. Departing Kellett in 1945, he worked for Piasecki Helicopters (known today as Boeing Helicopters) for almost two years, and then, in the spring of 1947, began teaching at the Quaker City School of Aeronautics in Philadelphia. It was there, with space provided by the school, that he began designing a helicopter of his own design that he would name the HK-1. Haig was one of a group of aviation visionaries who saw aircraft as a natural extension of the automobile. He prophesied that:
The HK-1 is the first step toward a ship that will be marketed in the Cadillac price range, a ship that will virtually eliminate the necessity for urbanization by making commutation and private transportation in general far faster and safer than automobile travel.
In 1950, the HK-1A was transported from Philadelphia to a farm in Cedars, Pennsylvania, where assembly was completed and the first test flight flown. The prototype was able to briefly hover about 4 feet off the ground. The rotors, however, were judged insufficient for sustained flight, and a vibration required a blade redesign. But the encouragement generated by that first flight, together with the formal incorporation of Haig-K Aircraft by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on December 1, 1950, energized Kurkjian to launch an immediate search for venture capital. He knew that funding, as much as technical innovation, would ultimately determine whether the H-K project would succeed or fail.
Haig became aware, in early 1952, that the old Main Line Airport would soon become vacant. He successfully negotiated a year-by-year lease with Bethlehem Steel, enabling Haig-K Aircraft to use all existing Airport buildings, and sufficient portions of the property, for use in rotary-wing development. Bethlehem Steel made it clear that they had purchased the Airport for their long-term future needs and did not intend to begin quarrying for at least 30 years. (In fact, the Robertson farm, located across Swedesford Road just west of the airport, which had been sold to Bethlehem in the summer of 1951, had been granted a "life tenancy" condition to their sale. The Robertson family continued active farming until 1960.)
The officers of the Haig-K Aircraft Corporation (Haig Kurkjian, president; Toshiyuki Fukushima, vice president and treasurer; and George Hall, secretary) considered the facilities, terms, and future all favorable for Haig-K. In the winter of 1952, the firm moved its machining equipment, and the HK-1, to the Airport. The 6,000-square-feet main hangar would be used for repairs and maintenance, with a portion adapted as a wind tunnel. The five adjacent "Tee" hangars, totaling almost 6,000 additional square feet, were adapted as machine shops.
Haig's son Dan Kurkjian recalls that the downstairs of the old farmhouse was used for engineering offices, while the upstairs served, in the early years, as living accommodations. During the early 1950's George Hall, the firm's secretary and one of its engineers, lived upstairs with his family. In 1960, when the Halls moved into a house in Malvern, the Kurkjian family actually lived upstairs for a period.
When Haig-K moved to the Airport, the old barn, with the word PAOLI still visible on the roof, continued to be useful for equipment storage. All that changed on October 15, 1954 as Hurricane Hazel, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit North America, blew ashore near the border between North and South Carolina. So fast was its movement inland that it reached Pennsylvania by that evening. Hazel's intensity and speed combined to produce the highest sustained wind gusts ever officially recorded in the Delaware Valley: 98-miles-per-hour. Power was knocked out to more than 80 percent of area homes, many for more than three days.
Among the casualties of the storm was the barn, so badly damaged by the winds that Bethlehem Steel, concerned that the structure might collapse and kill someone, ordered its superstructure razed. The litter of beams and roof were removed, leaving only the heavy stone walls remaining. The adjacent carriage barn, where Wilford had kept his autogyro, fared better from the storm and remained useful as a garage for years to come.
And what about the HK-1? Kurkjian had developed a completely new rotor system that successfully eliminated the vibration problems evident in the earlier test flight. All were encouraged by the success, and the prophetic words from the 1954 Haig-K Prospectus seemed to bode well for the firm's future:
Because of the low initial cost and the inherent safety of such a design, the field of private ownership appears most promising. The production of such a machine in a two place category . . . would open an entirely new vein in the helicopter market. The
HK-1 . . . should be immediately competitive at the initial price of $11,000-$12,000, and a market leader when quantity production permits the figure to be cut in half.
(As a point of financial comparison, the comparable cost of a two-place Bell 47D helicopter was $35,000.)
By 1957, after 9 years of research and testing, the HK-1 became the world's first helicopter to successfully fly utilizing a multi-Vee belt drive for both main and tail rotors. The HK-1 was able to hover for extended periods, and flew successfully on many occasions at the Airport and through the Great Valley.
Regrettably, the HK-1 proved to be a technical rather than a financial success. Haig-K Aircraft could not acquire the millions of dollars of venture capital required to obtain flight certification for their revolutionary new helicopter from the newly founded Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). This was a crushing realization.
By 1959, Kurkjian decided that the only pragmatic course for Haig-K Aeronautics was to use their machine shops and their team of skilled draftsmen, engineers, machinists, and mechanics to create an engineering and research and development consulting business for use by other aviation companies and individuals. The largest of these customers would be Bell Helicopters.
Arthur Young, the brilliant rotary-wing inventor who founded Bell Helicopters in the early 1940s, continued to own a farm directly across Swedesford Road from the Main Line Airport. Arthur maintained a very warm personal relationship with Haig Kurkjian. This personal trust, and the professional respect generated by Haig-K's development of an innovative variable diameter rotor used by Bell, resulted in Haig-K being granted status as an FAA approved repair station for the Bell Model 47 helicopter during the period 1963 through 1973.
The Bell 47 is one of the most famous helicopters of all time; familiar even to the layman in its Korean War "medivac" configuration from the TV series M*A*S*H. Haig-K was authorized to complete any and all airframe and engine repairs at their Looking southwest, the large hangar and "Tee" hangars serve the Haig-K Aircraft Corporation in 1956. Remains of the old barn rise behind the large hangar. The Burroughs parking lot lies across Swedesford Road. Main Line Airport facilities. They, in fact, built at least a half dozen Bell 47s "from scratch" at the Airport. (At the time, FAA regulations allowed an authorized station to salvage an aircraft identification tag from a wrecked helicopter and then build a new aircraft under the original identity.) On several occasions, Haig-K "scratch built" from the frame up, a brand new helicopter whose official paper trail would show it to be a used aircraft. Under this perfectly legitimate method, Haig-K was able to sell "new-used" helicopters to buyers at a price significantly lower than buying that same aircraft from the Bell factory.
By the 1960s, steelmaking technology was changing, and brutal competition shifted the worldwide steel industry away from American dominance. One of the responses by American steel producers was to sell off their long-term limestone holdings to free up assets and generate cash. In June 1964, Bethlehem Steel Company sold its properties in the Chester Valley, including the old Main Line Airport, to Atlas Chemical Industries, Inc. of Wilmington, Delaware. However, Atlas continued a passive ownership of the land, and Haig-K continued with "business as usual."
In 1972, the British company Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. (ICI) acquired Atlas and once again land title passed. It was under ICI, however, that a strategy began to emerge for subdividing its Great Valley land holdings for commercial development rather than for quarrying. In 1974, Rouse & Associates, later known as Liberty Property Trust, purchased the first 650 acres of what would become the Great Valley Corporate Center.
In 1976, Haig's son Dan Kurkjian, an experienced pilot and flight instructor, became the last person to fly an aircraft at the Main Line Airport. As part of a Bicentennial celebration at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, former site of Harold Pitcairn's helicopter plant, Dan flew an "Air and Space" Model 18A autogiro over Willow Grove Naval Air Station and then flew it back to the Airport in Paoli.
During its 25 years of occupancy at the Main Line Airport, Haig-K had subleased portions of the 12,000-square-feet of building space to generate additional cash flow for the business. A portion of the main hangar had been sublet to a small auto body shop. In 1977, sparks from an acetylene torch ignited what became a conflagration that totally destroyed the hangar. The trauma to Haig-K was devastating, as all the equipment and assets within, even the original HK-1, were irretrievably lost. This tragic incident, coupled with the loss by fire three years before of three of the "Tee" hangars, brought an end to Haig-K's use of the old Airport. The company abandoned the land completely the following year. Haig Kurkjian would die of cancer in 1981 at the age of 62.
In 1978, the same year that Haig-K Aircraft finally departed the Great Valley, a company called Shared Medical Systems (SMS) broke ground for a large data center, with a corporate headquarters to follow two years later. SMS was one of the first occupants of the many to follow in the Great Valley Corporate Center. It is ironic that those SMS (now Siemens) buildings today sit almost precisely at the juncture where the fixed-wing runways of the old Main Line Airport intersected.
In October 2001, citing low steel demand and competition from imports, the former steel colossus, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the firm that had orchestrated the purchase of the Main Line Airport in 1950, filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. As of this writing, total liquidation is in process. Nothing remains constant.
Today, only that single tree stands to give us a reminder of the daring and resourceful men and women who "pushed the envelope" of their dreams, and the story of flight itself. They, and the Main Line Airport, must not be forgotten!
In preparing this narrative I received unstinting assistance from several individuals to whom I wish to express my gratitude for their ideas, information, photographs and encouragement:
Richard and Robert Devaney. Interviews in Malvern, Pennsylvania by the author over the period July 2 to September 14, 2002, as well as frequent e-mail correspondence concerning their perspectives and little-known facts about their father, Charles Devaney, president of Demorr Aeronautical Corporation, and the Main Line Airport and the surrounding land during the period 1916-52. They were vital to this project.
Mary Robertson Ives. Letters to the author dated June 11 and August 16, 2002 concerning her recollections of living on the Robertson farm located near the Main Line Airport.
Daniel Kurkjian. Interviews in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania by the author over the period July 8 to September 20, 2002, and frequent e-mail correspondence. Dan shared his invaluable recollections about his father, Haig Kurkjian, president of Haig-K Aircraft Corporation, the Airport during the period 1952-78, and simplified concepts and nuances of rotary-wing flight.
James Lear and Isador Isakoff. Volunteers in the Archives Division of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, West Chester, Pennsylvania. They contributed many anecdotes of rotary-wing history that provided a clearer context in which to place the many significant rotary-wing events at the Main Line Airport.
Other references are acknowledged as follows:
Clara Wagner "Berwyn Around 1920" Tredyffrin-Easttown History Club Quarterly, Vol. 15 No. 4 (October 1970) pp. 66-74.
Malvern's 50th Anniversary Book, 1939. The Main Line Airport.
Curtiss-Wright History - The Spirit of Innovation (company website); http://www.curtisswright.com/company/history/default.aspx
Franklin Fact Archive, Monday October 16 - Hurricane Hazel; http://whyy.org/tv12/franklinfacts/oct1600ff.html
Richard S. Tipton, Arthur Young, Maker of the Bell; http://www.arthuryoung.com/maker1.html
Wilford WRK Gyroplane, 1931; http://www.gyroplanepassion.com/WilfordWRKGyroplane.html
Haig-K Aircraft Corporation Prospectus, 1954, as viewed in its entirety at the American Helicopter Museum.
"Personalities in the Helicopter Industry... Presenting E. Burke Wilford." American Helicopter (July 1949) pp. 18-20.
Dominick Pisano, To Fill the Skies with Pilots: The Civilian Pilot Training Program, 1939-1949 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
Frank K. Smith and James P. Harrington, Aviation and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute Press, 1981).
Chester County Recorder of Deeds Archive, West Chester, Pennsylvania. A complete deed audit for the Philadelphia-Main Line Airport and the Main Line Airport for the period 1929-1950, conducted September 10, 2002.
Bloomberg News Service, June 7, 2002. "Bethlehem Steel Corp. Delisted from New York Stock Exchange."
Chester County Historical Society. Library. Newspaper clipping files. (West Chester, Pennsylvania).
Page last updated: 2014-07-01 at 21:04 EDT