June 19, 2012
The forgotten Jewish aviator
As the clouds and rain gave way to evening sunshine at Maryland’s historic College Park Airport, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Washington, DC’s Adas Israel Congregation recites the kaddish for one of aviation’s pioneers who died in a crash there on June 11, 1912, exactly 100 years to that day.
A crowd gathers to pay tribute and open a museum exhibit to commemorate the Russian-born Jew who was the Wright Brothers’ most trusted instructor, and whose student became the head of the U.S. Army’s air forces in World War II.
Arthur Welsh, born Laibel Wellcher, is hardly a household name today. Were it not for his death at age 31 at the College Park, Md. airport, he’d probably be lionized along with legends of flight like the Wrights, with whom he was so closely connected.
At age 9 in 1890, Welsh came to the U.S. and settled in Philadelphia with his family. Al, as family and friends knew him, moved to Washington in 1898. He was raised Jewish, attended meetings of The Young Zionist Union and joined the U.S. Navy in 1901. He served aboard two ships until he was discharged in 1905 as a seaman, and then became a bookkeeper. He and his wife Anna Harmel were the first couple married in Adas Israel’s second synagogue, now known as the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, in October 1907.
Captivated by seeing one of the Wrights’ demonstration flights in Fort Myer, Va., in 1909, Welsh decided to become a pilot. His initial application to the Wrights was rejected, but Welsh was so determined that he traveled to their base in Dayton, Ohio, where they agreed to accept him as a student. He entered the first class of the Wright Flying School in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1910.
Welsh then trained with Orville Wright near Dayton and soon became an instructor at the Wright Flying School, where he later trained Henry “Hap” Arnold (who became the U.S. Air Force’s five-star general). He also joined the Wright’s exhibition team, and established records for both speed and altitude while he flew throughout 1910 and 1911. Welsh won a hefty $3,000 prize at the International Aviation Meet at Grant Park in Chicago in August 1911 for being the first to fly more than two hours with a passenger.
Sent to the U.S. Army’s Aviation School in College Park, Welsh in the spring of 1912 made 16 official test flights for the Army on the new Wright C plane. On June 11 of that year, Welsh and a Lieutenant Hazelhurst were attempting to meet the Army’s exacting loaded-climb test. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s (JHSGW) website, they took off at 6 p.m. and “the plane climbed to about 200 feet and then dove downward at a steep angle to gain momentum to assist the climb.” The airplane then “stalled and crashed into a field of daisies,” and “both men were killed instantly, the first fatalities at the College Park airfield.”
Paul Glenshaw, an aviation historian with the Discovery of Flight Foundation, said Welsh “was the second of only two pilots trained by Orville Wright exclusively.” Glenshaw confirmed that Welsh was the first Jewish-American pilot. Historians further believe, but cannot confirm, that Welsh was the first Jewish aviator in history.
“The Wrights were very private,” Glenshaw said this month on the 100th anniversary of Welsh’s death. “Trust was earned. They did not bring people into their inner circle very easily. By November 2011, all their pilots were gone except Welsh.”
What made Welsh different was that he “didn’t make a lot of glaring headlines,” Glenshaw said.
“He was a married man,” said Glenshaw, who added that most other early pilots were millionaires, stuntmen or racecar drivers. “Here’s a short, little guy, apparently kind of gruff but he just did sober, straight-ahead flying.”
“It was probably through [Welsh’s] sheer determination and probably a great deal of charm that he was able to get into the Wrights’ inner circle and to become their good friend,” Glenshaw added.
The cause and details of the fatal crash were not completely clear, although many observers—including journalists—were present. Welsh was apparently ejected, and crushed his skull as he crash-landed in a field of daisies. Some accounts say the wings collapsed or that the plane buckled, with one saying it fell from only 30 feet. An Army investigation concluded that Welsh was at fault, but that was disputed. Welsh and Hazelhurst were but two of 11 killed in Wright Model C flights by 1913.
Welsh’s funeral, held on June 13, 1912, was briefly postponed so that Orville Wright and his sister Katharine could come from Dayton. It was just two weeks after the funeral of their brother, Wilbur. Wright served as a pallbearer along with Lt. Arnold. Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia (which is in Washington). In his autobiography, General Arnold said Welsh “taught me all he knew, or rather, he had taught me all he could teach. He knew much more.”
Welsh’s widow died in 1926, and their daughter Aline moved to England and lived until her 90s.
The public reception marking the 100 anniversary of Welsh’s death featured speakers, the new exhibition, and descendants of the great aviator. A commemorative sign honoring his unique place in aviation history was unveiled along with an Arthur Welsh Commemorative Medal, commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) and sculpted by former Leningrad Mint Chief Engraver Alex Shagin. JHSGW President Laura Applebaum remarked that, “The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the inner circle of the Wright Brothers seemed improbable.”
Cathy Allen, former College Park Aviation Museum director, recalled how the late Adas Israel rabbi, Stanley Rabinowitz, had once insisted to her that any exhibit about Welsh should prominently say he was a Jew. Allen recalled the rabbi admonishing her by saying that, “Being Jewish is why Al Welsh is who he was”.
The Welsh exhibit in College Park runs until Sept. 3. For more information visit www.collegeparkaviationmuseum.com.