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Flying High In, From, And Around Appalachia

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General Chuck Yeager stands beside the Bell X - 1 Glamorous Glennis he used to break the sound barrier for the first time.

Many of us are dreaming about the things we want to do when this pandemic is over — like traveling someplace far away. If you have wanderlust, or the itch to fly, these are not ideal circumstances. But being grounded does give us time to reflect and dream about flights in our future and those in our past. 

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we are looking at the history of flight in West Virginia and some of the unique stories that comprise the Mountain State’s history of aviation. 

In This Episode

Abandoned Airfields

Southern West Virginia used to be home to approximately 40 airfields and landing strips. Today there are 28, but some are dormant. Our southern coalfields reporter Caitlin Tan looked into what happened to all those runways.

WWI Flying Ace

Louis Bennett was a flying ace in World War I. He grew up and learned to fly, then built an airplane factory in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia before enlisting with Canada to fight in World War I. Bennett shot down 12 enemy aircraft but was then  shot down and died in France in August, 1918. His great nephew, U.S. Congressman David McKinley, says Bennett’s story continues to inspire him to grow the aviation industry here in the Mountain State. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s assistant news director Glynis Board brings us this story.

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Credit Courtesy Pratt and Whitney
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Courtesy Pratt and Whitney
Employees at Pratt and Whitney's Bridgeport, W.Va. facility examine a jet engine to make repairs.

Airplane Parts

West Virginia exports more than $150 million in airplane parts every year and it is the state’s fifth-largest export, according to the US Census

Even now, as the global pandemic means less travel, West Virginia’s role in the aviation economy may actually stand to be more resilient. Our associate producer Eric Douglas reports

Breaking Barriers — Chuck Yeager

Chuck Yeager is one of Appalachia’s, and the world’s, most famous aviators. A West Virginia native, in 1947 he was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager recently posted on twitter

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Back in 2007, Yeager agreed to fly with Washington Post Aviation reporter Del Wilber, in the Sierra Mountains of California. We’ll hear that story, which originally aired on NPR’s program “Day to Day.”

Chuck Yeager was flying the Bell X - 1 when he broke the sound barrier, but it’s worth noting that a less astute pilot might have died trying. Other iterations and subsequent X-planes have since taken to the skies, breaking barriers and pushing technological limits. Today NASA and other organizations are working on the X59, with the assistance of a West Virginia company — Touchstone Research Laboratories. The Wheeling-based lab creates the molds used to cast the carbon fiber parts for the airplane. And, fun fact: one of the key ingredients in the molds is Appalachian coal.

Pot Plane Crash

On June 6 1979, a Douglas DC 6 cargo plane asked for permission to land at the Kanawha Airport, now Yeager Airport, in Charleston, West Virginia. It crashed, in part because they were drug smugglers from South America who had never flown into the airport and they were carrying approximately 20,000 pounds of marijuana. 

For this story, we hear from West Virginia historian, and the editor of Goldenseal Magazine, Stan Bumgardner, who gives us the factual account

For a different perspective, storyteller Bil Lepp tells a tall tale about the plane crash, which he recorded in 2008 at the St. Albans Public Library. That recording is featured on his album “Fire Fire! Pants on Liar.” Bil Lepp is an award-winning storyteller, and five-time winner of the West Virginia Liars' Contest.

wvpublicnews · Flying High In, From And Around Appalachia

Your Stories

As we were working on this episode, we asked you to tell us your first memories of flying in a plane. In this episode we'll hear some of those stories, but we'd love to hear from more of you. What do you remember about the first time you were in a plane? If you’ve flown, tell us what it was like to fly in Appalachia for the very first time. Send us an email to insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Or send us a message on our Facebook page. Our Twitter handle is @InAppalachia.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Anna and Elizabeth, Josh Woodward, Luiz Bonfa and Marisa Anderson.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Glynis Board hosted this episode. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. And special thanks to Johannes Faust who also contributed to one of the stories in this episode. 

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Glynis Board hails from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and is based in Wheeling at the First State Capital Building. She’s been reporting full time for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2012. She covers a broad range of topics but focuses on producing and hosting the West Virginia Public Broadcasting's daily news show West Virginia Morning.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org