Flying Through Time, Since 1929
by Laura Lynn Yohe

This article appeared in the September 24, 2009 edition of the "Jeffersonian Democrat" newspaper's "Images" section.

PUNXSUTAWNEY - Harry Bhe, of Big Run, has vivid memories of October 4, 1929, when he was four years old, sitting on his father's lap for his first airplane ride.

His father, Harry E. Bhe had paid One Dollar (the equivalent of $12.62 today) for the thrilling adventure on opening day of the Grube Airport in Bell Township, Jefferson County.

The vintage grass airstrip, designated 01-19, where more than ten thousand people gathered that day, is still in use, now part of the Punxsutawney Municipal Airport.

Visiting the airfield again for "Airport Awareness Day" on September 13th, with a broad smile, 84 year old Harry said, "My mother (Esther) was standing there screaming at my dad about why was he taking me up in that plane. Grandma (Sigers) was there, too, but she didn't say anything."

"It was one of those open cockpit planes where we sat in the front and the pilot was in the back," Bhe continued. "I wanted to be a pilot after that, but I never got the chance."

Working as a dispatcher for the B & O Railroad, Bhe retired as Chief Train Dispatcher for CSX. He is content about his unfulfilled dream. "My grandson is a pilot," he says with pride.

Grandson Rick Young is one of the members of the Punxsutawney Municipal Airport Authority.

Perhaps it was James Ritter at the controls of his DeHaviland Moth with whom father and son rode. That pilot provided passenger rides from 1:30 p.m. until dark on Grube Field's first day of operation.

With beautiful late Summer weather for this year's occasion, Young took on the role of the pilot who gave his grandfather such a wonderful memory.

Young's plane, a Skyhawk II, and another nearly identical aircraft, provided a "first plane ride" for patient groups of people wanting to build similar memories. More than 42 flights were given with pilots Bob Beatty and Dave Beatty also sharing the duties this time.

The welcoming of aviation to the local area in 1929 was greeted with bands, dances, improvements to Punxsutawney's streets, an industrial and business extravaganza, and a large parade.

Eighty years ago, pilots flew in from different areas. Several private aircraft lined up on the grass beside the tarmac this year as well, one which has been flown around the world.

Ron Siwick, M.D. became acquainted with N35, the aviation designation for the airfield, while working for several weeks at the Punxsutawney Hospital. He flew his 1965 Beechcraft Bonanza in from Cleveland.

While the sleek white aircraft rested with its engine and cockpit doors opened, a sign on the side noted the remarkable trip Siwick made in 2008 with the immaculately kept plane.

Parachute jumping was on the schedule in 1929 and that tradition continued this year with two jumps by "The Falling Stars", the exhibition skydiving team of Bill Wilt from DuBois and Jerry Sass from Tionesta.

For Wilt, it was his 1,024th and 1,025th career jumps, not counting 71 while he was in the military.

Planned to appear that long ago October were military planes from the Army and Navy. Even the Goodyear Blimp was to be there. Unfortunately, overcast skies with a chill, blowing wind, rain and sleet, kept many of those eagerly anticipated participants away.

A recent request had been made by the Airport Authority for a static (ground) display of military aircraft to mark the 80th year of continuous service for the field which has a paved, primary landing strip (06-24), newly resurfaced last year.

Although the military was unable to support the static display, three Apache helicopters from the 104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion of the PA Army National Guard, assigned to the Johnstown Airport, thrilled spectators with three "low approaches".

Missing from this year's celebration of aviation history was the take off of a plane carrying the first air mail from the area. And there were no stunt flying exhibitions like those which delighted the huge crowd, after the weather cleared, in 1929.

The Great Depression began just days after the airport opened, but through that period, World War II, and many other historic events, Grube Field/Punxsutawney Municipal Airport has remained as steady as the beacon light which serves as a silent sentinel for pilots today.

Numerous businesses regularly use the field for transportation of personnel, equipment and parts. According to Young, one of the most notable uses of the field came during 2002 when the entire Nation was holding its breath, and praying, for nine miners trapped at Quecreek.

A needed part had been rushed through manufacture at Star Iron Works in Big Run, transported to the airfield and picked up to be delivered to those working to rescue the miners. The success of that endeavour is a stellar example of many people contributing their best to save others.

And the Punxsutawney Municipal Airport had a small role in that venture, adding another memory to its 80 years of service.

Aviation History - "The Grube Airport"

Original Article by Laura Lynn Yohe for the Tri-County Sunday DuBois, PA, October 5, 1997
: abridged by Laurie Ruth, May 2003


Preparations had been underway for several months for the day that would become a moment in aviation history. On October 4, 1929, that moment would thrill ten thousand people and mark the formal beginning of the Grube Airport in Bell Township, Jefferson County.

Planning for the celebration had begun in August of that year. A parade was planned, streets were repaved, a band was to perform, dances would be held and an impressive air show for all the spectators that came to the historic event.

As preparations progressed the parade became an industrial and business extravaganza with numerous floats planned. Businesses in the community notified the public they would close for the parade.

The list of airshow participants grew as invited flyers confirmed their intention to attend. Parachute jumps, stunt flying and passenger flights would be offered on the big day. Even the Goodyear Blimp was to be there.

As time neared, organizers were apprised that military planes of the Army and Navy would take part in the festivities with exhibition flights. The names of famous flyers of the time such as Helen Cox, Freddie Lund, Camile Zinet and Louis D. Strickler, at that time the world’s youngest licensed pilot at age 16, were expected to fly in.

The very first airmail would leave the Punxsutawney area and special airmail envelopes were selling quickly.

Automobile traffic control was to be handled by a squad of ten highway patrolmen from Dubois, an equal squad of State Policemen, and members of the Central Fire Company from Punxsutawney.

Arrows were places on highway approaches with directions given from the B-P Highway (Big Run - Punxsutawney) now known as State Route 119. The pilots were not forgotten as aerials markers were placed on The Spirit and Swartz Buildings in downtown Punxsutawney to direct them to the field.

The only preparation which could not be guided, was the weather. That Friday morning dawned with clear skies but quickly changed to overcast with a chill wind blowing that carried rain and sleet. With some clearing of the weather conditions later in the day, the celebration proceeded as planned.

Though the military aircraft, many private and commercial pilots, and the blimp did not attend due to the weather conditions, the ten thousand who gathered in the brisk temperatures were treated to parachute jumps, stunt flying exhibitions and plane rides.

At 5:00PM, that notable day, pilot Frank Datin of the Transcontinental Air Mail Service, flying a "Standard", left Grube Airport carrying the first air mail delivery of two thousand two hundred letters. He flew the historic cargo to Pittsburgh where it was routed from there, with three hundred letters bearing his autograph.

The joy of the celebration was clouded just two days later when Datin perished in a small bi-plane near Ebensberg during a stunt exhibition. But also remembered would be the pilots like James Ritter who flew passengers in his DeHaviland Moth from 1:30 PM until dark.

Follow-up:

In the late 1940s the Grube Airport was deeded to the Punxsutawney Airport Authority. At that time runway 01-19 (1985 x 100) was, and still is a grass strip. In the mid 1960s runway 06-24 (3003 x 50) was constructed and paved.