Prose & Photography: Richard Souza
A warm summer morning begins with a ray of orange light seeping through the dark. As the minute hand on the watch advances, that one ray becomes many rays and the orange deepens in tone. I stand on a grass air strip in Bethel, Pennsylvania and watch the sunrise… in silence. The hills in the distance stand watch over this quiet field. The house and hangars are battened up and the only brightness comes from the few outdoor lights illuminating the entrance ways. On this field I am not alone. Some aircraft sit motionless with morning dew rolling down the windscreens and wing fabric. There is a tent pitched next to one of the aircraft. Is this how they used to do it in the old days? Fly anywhere, sleep anywhere. But this isn’t just anywhere… This is Golden Age Air Museum.
What I described is exactly what you can find on any given show day. After a late night of preparing for the Wings and Wheels event, the museum volunteers get some much needed rest. The sun begins to come over the horizon and the early morning chirps of birds start to blend with the sound of human movement. The tent occupant comes out to stretch the hard earth pains out of his bones. Like a sleepy town, soon I see familiar faces coming from the campers and mobile homes that have become permanent fixtures. Before you know it, this field will be moving and shaking with people and machines. I look through my lens and with every shot I compose, I wonder, how did this come to be? Everything has to start somewhere. If you ask museum Director Paul Dougherty Jr, the answer you will get is… “it started out of a joke”.
It all began when Paul and his father, Paul Dougherty Sr., bought a wrecked Cessna 195 and set out to rebuild it. The father and son enjoyed the experience so much that they searched and found a Taylor E2 Cub. The pair were enjoying these projects and were even winning awards with these aircraft. When two aircraft turned into five, the family asked "What are you going to do with all these airplanes". Paul and his father looked at each other and responded "we're going to start a museum". It wasn't until aircraft number eight did the "joke" become a serious thought. It was then that the search for a home began.
Airports, fields and farms, the Dougherty's looked everywhere and anywhere where they could possibly put an air museum. They stumbled upon Grimes Field. This land belonged to a Walter Grimes and was purchased by an individual who wanted to build a race track. The neighbors fought against this project and eventually a veterinarian couple (and current neighbors of the museum), bought the land in order to protect it from development. While the owners loved the idea the Dougherty's brought to the table, the price tag was too steep. Jr. and Sr. continued the search, bouncing around several airports in Pennsylvania but the search kept bringing them back to Grimes Field. After a couple of years, the owners lowered the price and the planes would soon have a new home. Paul Jr. lived in a camper on the field while the “hands on duo” built a home.
The year was 1996 and a lot of work needed to be done. All the structures had to be built. Once completed, the aircraft… and Paul Jr. had a roof over their heads. In late 1998, following the legalities of incorporating and going non-profit, the Dougherty duo introduced themselves to the world and began asking for members by writing to licensed pilots. Slowly, people began to find the museum with three flying planes. Today, of the forty museum aircraft, about half are airworthy.
Golden Age is a place where time stands still. It's an island in an ocean of technology. While the structures are modern, they look old. Maybe it’s the vintage aircraft that sit inside the hangars or the bits and pieces of aircraft parts that give the character. Perhaps it’s the right dose of dirt and grime that helps transport us back in time. As much as Paul Jr. likes to keep things clean and orderly, he recognizes that it isn't always possible. He does readily admit that it adds a bit to the charm.
One show day, Grimes field transforms into a 1920’s air fest. “Circus life under the big top world” are the words from a song that best describes the atmosphere. Paying homage to the barnstorming predecessors who went from air strip to air strip putting on shows for many who had never seen a flying machine, Golden Age Air Museum puts on two Flying Circus shows each season. This show recreates the days of The Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Modern attire is replaced by WWI uniforms and leather helmets, straw hats and fedoras, flapper dresses and tommy guns. Reenactors, who come to see the show, add to the authenticity. The Flying Circus was designed to be fun for everyone and it pays tribute to the pioneer of the aircraft restoration movement... Cole Palen. This man is a hero to everyone at Golden Age and his spirit is seen every time one of their aircraft takes off. While Palen had the attitude "we break it, we fix it", Paul would rather not break anything. If something does break, all efforts are made to get it fixed because the aircraft belong in the air. After all, this is a living breathing museum, not a sterile, immaculate, Udvar Hazy. Visitors can get close and intimate with the aircraft.
You will not see aerial trapeze artists or a plane fly through a barn at Golden Age. Contrary to their barnstorming ancestors, safety is king. It is the safety of the spectators, performers, volunteers and aircraft that dictate if there is a show or event. A safe show is a happy show.
Long are the days when Paul and his father did things themselves. Everyone who works at Golden Age does so as volunteers. Some like Steve Moyer, Mike Cilruso and Eric Lunger have been there from day one. Over the years, others like Mike Damiani and Mike O'Neil followed. After a plea for help to the membership, a 14 year old Neil Baughman showed up with his mother Connie. Neil eventually got his pilot's license and he now flies all the planes. Neil is what many would call an airport kid. One of a dying breed. Kids that spent much of their spare time “sitting on an airport fence”. As Paul Jr. points out… “Kids just don’t do that anymore”. Neil is passing on the “airport kid” torch to his young son Jack. It is common for Neil to take a break from flying passengers in the WACO, just so he can take his son on a flight. Paul Jr.'s daughters are growing up on these grounds and around these planes. Paul's oldest daughter Caroline even soloed in this museum’s Curtis Jenny.
Not all volunteers have aviation experience or background. One such person is Rita Sullivan. If I wanted to find out what attracts a volunteer to this museum, I figured Rita would be the best person to talk to. When I asked the question, the simple answer I got was it was all due to a broken clothes washer. Rita took the load of clothes to the local laundromat and saw a flyer advertising the Flying Circus Show. Rita was curious and stopped by to check it out. Needless to say, Rita never left.
What brings this museum to life is not the aircraft. The flying machines, hangars and building are only the skeleton, flesh and blood. Nobody lives without a brain and a heart. Don’t look for a wizard or a yellow brick road here. The brain is Paul Dougherty Jr. and the heart that pumps the blood are the volunteers who spend every spare moment they can making sure things get done. From fixing aircraft to sweeping the museum floor, from working on an aircraft build to just being there to hand someone an out-of-reach wrench. Everybody pitches in. As busy as things get and no matter what pressing matter they have to tend to, they will always stop to help a spectator with an explanation or simply a friendly smile. Whether it be the Flying Circus Show or Wings and Wheels, the museum volunteers all know the role they are going to play. I am sure Paul Dougherty will say things do not always go smoothly, but that is to be expected. What matters is that the spectator never realizes this. They make it look flawless.
The first time I came to this place, I knew it was different. I thought that it was because, on a late fall day, I could buy a pumpkin for 25 bucks, go up on a Piper Cub and drop it on a target. The more I went back, the more I realized that the reason was because of the people. This is a place where friendships are born. It was here I first met two older Gentlemen, Don Schmidt and Wayne Arner. These aviation enthusiast met at Golden Age Air Museum in 2006. Now the two are inseparable. They are fixtures at the local air shows. When I spot them, my day is never complete unless I spend some time chatting with these two. Golden Age Air Museum will always be that place where we met.
Anyone who goes to Golden Age will leave with a story to tell. Even if that story is having witnessed Tom Beamer announce his arrival with a low level pass in his blue and yellow Citabria. My story is this one. It’s the story of a group of passionate, dedicated people with grassroots firmly keeping them grounded in one of the most beautiful settings for a museum. They are a family and transmit that family atmosphere. It’s in the air and I think that it’s just that that appeals to visitors.
When the show ends and the final plane is tucked away, all those who worked the show gather for a family meal. There is nothing better than after a long day at work to sit down and have a good meal with good company. They sit down, laugh and tell anecdotes of shows past. With my gear packed, I raise my arm and wave adieu. As I walk down the path to my car, the sound of the chatter and laughter gets fainter and fainter. I see the sun going down and I remember how this all began… with a ray of light at the crack of dawn.