HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — Hagerstown played a vital role during World War II by building modern training aircraft. When Japan attacked the Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the United States was training its pilots in Stearman biplanes.
Stearmans were inadequate when it came to training American, Canadian and British pilots who would confront Japanese Zeros and German Messerschmidts in the air over the South Pacific and Europe when World War Two began.
Hagerstown got into the aviation business after World War One. Officials at Maryland Pressed Steel hired Italian aircraft designer Guiseppe Bellanca to help them break into the business. Bellanca built only one plane, a Model C.D. that was test flown from a grass airstrip at the current site of South Hagerstown High.
The airplane was built at the Pope Bicycle and Automobile Factory on Pope Avenue. After WWI, sales of airplanes nosedived and Bellanca went bankrupt, but one of his employees teamed up with a local shoe manufacturer and formed the Kreider-Reisner Aircraft Company. Together, Ammon Kreider and Lewis Reisner designed and built a plane that won two trophies at the Philadelphia Air Races in 1926.
“That got them some real notoriety,” Kurtis Myers, curator/historian at the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, said.
They decided to build the Kreider-Reisner C-2, and cash in on the popular sport flying market. Kreider-Reisner built their first airplanes in a garage called the “Little Green Shed.”
About 200 Challengers were built, but the market dried up when the nation’s economy began to stutter and head south.
A year before the Great Depression struck in 1929, Kreider and Reisner sold their company to industrialist Sherman Fairchild who survived the economic downturn, built a big factory on Pennsylvania Avenue and began building airplanes again in 1931. The building is currently being converted into a “hops” storage facility for the beer industry.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it became evident to Fairchild that a mono-wing trainer was badly needed. Fairchild and his team of engineers designed the PT-19 which closely resembled the flight characteristics of a modern fighter plane. In 1941, Fairchild Aircraft Company won a contract from the U.S. Army Air Corps to build almost 7,000 PT-19 trainers.
The “Hub City” was already well-known in the railroad industry; the crossroads of lines like the B & O and C & O Railroads. Now it would become one of the largest manufacturers of airplanes; military and commercial.
Hagerstown was a perfect place to build planes. It was home to light manufacturing. There was a skilled workforce of machinists and tool die makers. There was also a booming furniture industry in Hagerstown. Craftsmen didn’t need specialized training.
Aircrafts built at Plant No. 1 were towed to the Hagerstown Airport and flight tested. Fairchild hired a local pilot to put its planes through their paces over Washington County.
Richard A. Henson operated a flying service and stayed with Fairchild Aviation Corporation until the 1960s when he left and formed HAG, the Henson Air Group, and later bought WHAG, a TV station in Hagerstown that was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Hugh Breslin, a young University of Maryland graduate, was hired as a salesman at WHAG that later became WDVM and served as its general manager until he retired.
“Dick firmly believed that this great community where he lived deserved to have a television station, said Breslin.
When the Washington County Board of Commissioners shot down Henson’s proposal to make Hagerstown a hub for commuter aviation, Henson left Hagerstown for Salisbury on Maryland’s eastern shore and made millions when he sold his operation to Piedmont Airlines.