The Wright Brothers’ Airplane at Central Airport

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

The weather was favorable at Central Airport in Pennsauken on December 17, 1934, when an assorted group of men in technicians’ coveralls, civilians in long coats and fedoras, and cameramen with hand-cranked motion picture cameras assembled on the ground near the hangars. They came to witness a wooden framework covered with cloth carry two men into the air, pushed by two large propellers mounted on the back of the flimsy wings that extended from the crate. The machine was more than 20 years old, and it had not flown in a period nearly the same length. It had been built by the Wright brothers of Dayton, OH, only eight years after they had been the first humans to fly.

The Wright B Flyer, tested at Central Airport on that 31st anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight, was part of the succeeding generation of airplanes intended by the Wrights to introduce flight to men with the skill and daring to follow them. This particular airplane had been ordered and delivered to the heir to a Philadelphia brewery fortune, who had taken instruction in flying at the Wright brothers’ training program in Ohio. Grover Cleveland Bergdoll of the Louis Bergdoll and Sons brewing concern had the means and leisure, as well as the skill and daring to fly. In many ways, he personified the wealthy playboy of his day, driving fast cars and chasing women. Naturally, he was drawn to the new adventure of flying. He flew the Wright Flyer a number of times from 1912 to 1914, at one time for a flight of more than two hours.

Then came the First World War, and suddenly Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, when called upon to serve in the war against his ancestral homeland of Germany, lost his bravado and took to a different kind of flight. In 1917, Bergdoll failed to appear for his physical when drafted for the military. Instead, he went on the run, using his wealth and connections to become America’s most notorious draft dodger until he was finally arrested in 1920. In the interim, Russell Gross, the local soldier drafted in his place, served and was killed in action in October 1918.

Nevertheless, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was far from through. Convicted, sentenced and imprisoned, Bergdoll spun a story about a cache of gold he had secreted in Maryland to fund his life as a fugitive. The sum would suffice to pay fines and costs incurred by his misdeeds, and he convinced officials that he would lead them to the hiding place. Under minimum guard, he was escorted from prison and then he persuaded his keepers to spend the night hospitably at the Bergdoll mansion en route to the treasure. In a scene worthy of the full Hollywood treatment, whether as crime drama or comedy, Bergdoll’s mother produced a gun and held the flummoxed security detail captive while Grover made his escape. This time, taking no chances, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll fled the country and settled himself among relatives in Germany. Justice would eventually catch up to the wealthy deserter, when he was equally motivated to flee the Third Reich.

At this point, the multiple crimes of the flamboyant draft dodger, his accomplice mother and his brother, who was also a draft evader, resulted in action being begun to seize and liquidate assets of the family. This included the Wright B Flyer, which had been in storage since 1914.

The airplane had suffered from its years of storage. The engine was missing and so was the radiator. A control stick was partly missing as well. It needed work.

However, the year 1933 marked the 30th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight and interest in early aviation ran high. Orville Wright himself was coming to Philadelphia to be honored and to participate in the dedication of the hall of aviation at the Franklin Institute, where he was joined by Amelia Earhart.

Philadelphia’s aviation industry was principally served by Central Airport in Pennsauken Township near the City of Camden border. The new Camden County Vocational School, located near the airport, had developed training programs for aircraft technicians. Among its instructors was Arthur Arrowsmith of Camden, who was also ground supervisor for the airport.

The Bergdoll Wright B Flyer was turned over to the Vocational School for repair and restoration in December, 1933. Orville Wright, visiting the area only weeks later, offered his consultation in the project.

Such a prestigious undertaking was probably a great opportunity for the Vocational School, which had been threatened with shutdown only months earlier due to budget issues caused by the Depression gripping the country. Funding was found to keep the school open and the work went forward.

At last, one year later, the Wright B Flyer was ready to be tested. The pilot chosen was local aviation pioneer Marshall Reid. Reid was among the first pilots ever to overfly the Pennsauken and Camden areas when he piloted a flight from New York to Philadelphia, crossing from Pennsylvania to New Jersey at Tacony, and then flying south to Gloucester in 1912. He had much experience in planes like the restored Wright B Flyer. Appropriately, he was accompanied on the test flights by Arthur Arrowsmith.

A few private tests were run first in November 1934 to be ready for public flights on the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight.

So, on December 17, 1934, the Wright B Flyer with its checkered history was brought out on the runway of Central Airport. It was photographed beside a gleaming, modern twin engine airplane of the Transcontinental and Western Air fleet, used to fly air mail. The engines were tested and the propellers set spinning by hand. The plane taxied and revved its engines and stopped to be inspected, cleaned and adjusted.

Then it flew. The old Wright B Flyer sped down the runway and gathered lift beneath its wings and rose into the air, bearing the two men. It did not fly high or far on that day, but it flew, and the crowd cheered and waved. Between flights, dignitaries chattered and smoked cigars, while the mechanics surveyed the airplane’s mechanisms, and then it flew again.

After several flights and at least one undignified hard landing, the old airplane had proven itself and the skill of its restorers. In January 1934, the Wright B Flyer went to its permanent home in the aviation hall of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The airplane is still there, hung in the air. The museum also exhibits moving pictures of the test flights at Central Airport in December 1934.

Sources for this column include contemporary newspaper accounts, and web resources available through the Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Franklin Institute.

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