By ART SEAMAN
KITTANNING, Penn., Feb. 13, 2017 — I used to fly airplanes and when I hear aviation stories I always am interested. The Sully Sullenberger story was amazing. Other stories are usually less daring. However…
I moved to the western Pennsylvania town of Kittanning in 2002 to become pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. When I started dating my wife Mary here, she told me about one of my church members “Peanuts” Helm. (His given name was Francis, but NO ONE EVER called him that.) He was a small man in stature but not in life. He had been principal at Shannock Valley Elementary School where my wife had taught for two years early in her career.
Guest columnist Art Seaman
Mary told me that each day as the students entered the school, he would greet each one by name and wish them a good day and a good day of learning. Not just some days, but every day.
Mary also told me the story that surrounded Peanuts, was that during World War II, he had flown an airplane under the Kittanning Bridge, just above the water in the Allegheny River. That seemed amazing. I lived in the manse on the river bank, just 100 yards from the bridge. From the bottom of the bridge to the water in the Allegheny is normally just 26 feet.
It was a few months before I formally met Peanuts, as he was just one of my 500 church members. I think it was at coffee hour after church one Sunday when we chatted over a doughnut and coffee. I asked him about a story I had heard about him, that he had flown an airplane under the Kittanning Bridge. He winked at me and replied, “Why, that would be illegal.” He neither denied nor confirmed the story.
In the next few years, Peanuts’ health began to decline with kidney failure and I would visit him in the hospital on occasion. I mentioned the airplane story and he would just smile and offer no explanation.
In 2006, I got a call from Peanuts and he told me his brother was coming to town, and he knew I had a boat and wondered if we could go on a boat ride on the river. I said sure.
A view from the bank of the Kittanning Bridge over the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania.
It was a day late in September and we met at the marina where we kept our boat on the Allegheny River. My wife Mary and I brought a cooler of snacks and drinks and met Peanuts and his brother at the marina. It was late in the day and the weather was nippy. We had the river to ourselves as we motored north toward the town of Templeton.
It was a good opportunity to talk old times, and we were able to draw out Peanuts on his military service and his experiences in aviation.
In 1942, Peanuts enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He went through basic training and then was assigned to an air base in Kansas. Peanuts was the perfect fighter pilot. He had 20/20 vision, stood about 5 ft. 6 in. and was in trim shape. It took more than nine months to complete flight school and, rather than being sent overseas, he became an instructor. Being an educator was a large part of Peanuts’ life.
Peanuts flew the P-51 Mustang. This was an awesome plane. Capable of flying 400 KPH and with a range of 900 miles, it was formidable in the air.
The P-51 was a single-seat fighter. The instruments were sparse — Artificial Horizon, Air Speed Indicator, Stick & Ball, Altimeter, Engine Temperature and Oil Pressure. For navigation, just a simple Omni Direction Radio Beacon. (Basically, you homed in on a commercial radio station and centered the needle.) For controls you had a throttle, prop adjustor, stick and rudder controls. A trim indicator was adjusted manually, and the landing gear was lifted by a hand crank.
Aviators during WWII had a high mortality rate. Half of them died. This was true for three reasons. First, the planes were mass-produced with little quality control, and were maintained by hastily-trained mechanics. Flight training was not sophisticated. After all this was 16 years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, and aviation was still very new. And third, there were Japanese and Germans who were shooting at you.
Here’s a telephoto view of the center span of the Kittanning Bridge over the Allegheny River. Can you imagine flying an airplane at high speed through that opening beneath the bridge?
As we came back down river, Peanuts told the story that had made him a local legend. And here it is, as best as I can remember.
“I was stationed in Kansas and on weekends I could take a plane to fly home,” he began. “I fueled up and flew to Columbus where I refueled. It was less than an hour to Kittanning and I came up the river from Ford City and buzzed the town a couple of times and dipped my wings. I was about 200 feet above the courthouse. Then I flew up river to Templeton and turned south skimming the river. I leveled out about 20 feet above the river and followed the contours of the river to Lock and Dam No. 7. As I crossed the dam (which is about 1,000 yards from the bridge) I got lower to the water and aimed under the bridge. I had throtteled back to about 200 knots and went under the bridge, and then pulled up and did a chondel out of the valley. It sure was fun. My girlfriend Colleen came down to Pittsburgh to pick me up at the airfield later that evening. She had heard what I had done.”
Colleen would become his wife later that year.
Peanuts died that next spring at the age of 86. At his funeral I told the two stories of Peanuts. One of his lively spirit and one of his love of children. It was my honor.
An aside. From the bottom of the Kittanning Bridge to the river surface, it is usually 26 feet, as I wrote earlier. A P-51 with gear retracted is about 7 feet tall. So the margin for error? Pretty small. Especially at 200 knots!
The author Art Seaman, a friend of the Offenburgers for decades, is a retired Presbyterian preacher who served congregations in Iowa, Michigan, California and Pennylvania. You can write him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this column by using the handy form below.