Tube City Almanac

April 08, 2005

Flying the Nostalgic Skies

Category: default || By jt3y

Remember when all of the Port Authority buses used to be painted pretty much alike, so that you knew they were Port Authority buses? When PAT went to its "Ride Gold" marketing campaign (which beat its old marketing theme, "Not as Bad as You Think"), they decided that every bus had to be painted "distinctly." That resulted in the current mish-mash of bus paint schemes --- buses with giant shiny swirls, buses with "Welcome to the Neighborhood" in Esperanto scrawled along the sides, and now, buses with the names of historical figures emblazoned on them.

The other day, I saw a bus from the West Mifflin Garage --- I think it was Number 5439, but I didn't have a pen or paper --- with the name "Clifford Ball" on it. Do people know who Clifford Ball is? He's been mentioned here before. Needless to say, I recognized the name, and was tickled to see that a prominent resident of Our Fair City was remembered by Port Authority.

Cliff Ball was a McKeesport car dealer --- he sold Hudsons and Essexes --- who in 1919, while on a drive through Dravosburg, saw a bunch of biplanes circling for a landing in a field. Ball drove over to see what was going on and happened to meet aircraft designer and stunt pilot Eddie Stinson. (Stinson would eventually found the airplane company that bore his name, and which eventually became part of General Dynamics.)

Stinson took Ball for a ride in his plane, and Ball decided that the future of America was in aviation. He soon began rallying prominent McKeesporters to his cause, and a Republican congressman from Our Fair City, U.S. Rep. Clyde Kelly, introduced legislation authorizing the Post Office Department to award contracts to private companies to carry mail via airplane. (Until that point, the U.S. Army Air Corps was carrying all of the mail, and several army pilots had been killed.)

In 1925, Ball and Barr Peat, an engineer from what was then Mifflin Township, borrowed $35,000 and purchased 40 acres on the hill above Dravosburg --- the same pasture land where Ball had watched Stinson and his friends land --- from farmer Harry Neel to create Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport. It quickly became popular with pilots, supplanting several smaller airstrips around the region, and spawned a restaurant and inn across the road called the Airways Tavern. (The Airways, which closed a few years ago, was destroyed in a fire earlier this year.)

Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport was renamed Bettis Field in 1926 to honor World War I flying ace Lt. Cyrus Bettis, who died after being in a plane crash that year.

Ball and Peat were awarded a contract to carry mail from Cleveland to Pittsburgh in March of that year, but service didn't begin until the following April 21. Their firm, called Skyline Transportation Company, had two Waco 9 biplanes; a third was added a short time later. The planes were christened "Miss McKeesport," "Miss Pittsburgh" and "Miss Youngstown" to describe three of the cities on the route that STC flew, and the airline soon was known as "Clifford Ball's Airline." The few passengers carried had to sit on postal sacks in the open cockpits of the plane; that first year, Ball carried some $58,800 worth of U.S. mail. (One of the early passengers was comedian Will Rogers, who used to fly into Pittsburgh, sitting on sacks of mail in one of Cliff Ball's planes, to do broadcasts over KDKA radio.)

Ball won admiration from other airline pioneers for being able to fly successfully in and around western Pennsylvania; in an era before radar, sophisticated weather instruments or good navigational equipment, the hilly terrain intimidated many pilots and companies. McKeesport and Ball were further honored on Aug. 23 when Charles Lindbergh flew his "Spirit of St. Louis" into Bettis Field about three months after his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Ten thousand people greeted Lindbergh when he landed; he was met at the airport by Pittsburgh Mayor Charles H. Kline and other dignitaries, then ferried to Pitt Stadium in Oakland in a motorcade. (It was an appropriate enough visit --- the propeller for the "Spirit of St. Louis" was manufactured by Standard Propeller Company of West Homestead!) A national balloon race was launched from Bettis Field in May 1928, but ended in tragedy when several crafts were struck by lightning, and one racer died.

In the meantime, Cliff Ball's airline kept growing. In 1928 it officially added scheduled passenger service and in August 1929, the company (by then called "Clifford Ball Inc.") added a route from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., via McKeesport. Soon it was flying a whole fleet of planes, including a Ford Tri-Motor, a four-passenger Fairchild FC-2, five (one source says four) New Standard D-27s, and seven additional Waco 9s that had been repossessed by a bank for non-payment of liens against them.

In 1929, Cliff Ball joined two of his partners in selling their shares of Bettis Field to aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright, and in November 1930, Clifford Ball Inc. was itself sold for $137,000. The buyers --- Pitt professor Charles Bedell Monro, his brother-in-law, Fred R. Crawford, and Pittsburgh attorney George Hann --- paid $137,000 for the company, which they renamed Pennsylvania Air Lines Inc. In 1931, PAL carried 7,000 passengers and in 1932, operating from its headquarters at the brand-new Allegheny County Airport about a mile away, PAL carried nearly 9,000.

The Depression and a government scandal involving the mail contracts forced PAL to cease operations for several months in 1934; in 1936, PAL merged with a competitor, Central Airlines, to become Pennsylvania-Central Airlines and was soon the fifth-largest airline in the United States. Its headquarters remained near the entrance to Allegheny County Airport (in the building currently used as the Allegheny County Police substation), but in 1941, it moved to National Airport in Washington, D.C. Eventually it would change its name to Capital Airlines, and in 1961 it was merged into United Airlines.

Meanwhile, the loss of commercial airline traffic, and competition from the larger, better-equipped county airport nearby, sent Bettis Field into a long, slow decline as a private field. Increased air traffic during World War II, and the planes that Curtiss-Wright was constructing for the war effort, helped build traffic somewhat, but in January 1949 it sold Bettis Field to Westinghouse Electric, which closed the airstrip and began constructing an atomic power laboratory for federal government research.

And yet there's still much evidence of the property's former tenant; the Bettis security office near the intersection of Bettis Road, Lebanon Church Road and Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard still looks pretty much the same as it did back when it served as the administration office for Bettis Field (though the control tower that once graced its roof is long gone). The two buff-brick buildings along Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard are still obviously former airplane hangars, and they remain in use today, though no longer for aircraft maintenance.

So if you see the PAT bus named "Clifford Ball" chugging along the 56C McKeesport route some day soon, you'll know how it got its name. Let's just hope that it doesn't live up to that name --- unlike Cliff Ball's airplanes, buses work much better when they're planted on terra firma.


To Do This Weekend: In keeping with our Almanac theme today, why not go look at a restored bus tomorrow? The members of the McKeesport-based Antique Motor Coach Association of Pennsylvania are unveiling a restored 1947 GM bus repainted in the colors of the North Hills' Harmony Short Lines at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh's Strip District. Rides will be given for $12.


Sources on today's Almanac:

Baptie, Charles. Capital Airlines: A Nostalgic Flight Into the Past (Annandale, Va.: Charles Baptie Studios Inc.), 1996

Davies, R.E.G. Airlines of the United States Since 1914 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press), 1972. | [Buy it here!]

Hartman, Jim. "Bettis: Pittsburgh's First Airfield," Homestead & Mifflin Township Historical Society Newsletter, April 2002.

Wissolik, Richard David, editor. A Place in the Sky: A History of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport (Latrobe, Pa.: St. Vincent College), 2001. | [Buy it here!]

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