Aviation History In Pennsylvania Exhibit-The State Museum of Pennsylvania


Story and photos by Corey Beitler

Located within the State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, The State Museum of Pennsylvania contains a collection of over five million artifacts that preserve and interpret Pennsylvania and the surrounding region’s history and culture. The circular museum contains four floors of exhibit displays and a multi-media planetarium. Popular with school field trips, the museum averages over 300,000 visitors annually.

Visitors to the museum can see many unique artifacts that chronicle Pennsylvania’s history. A large skeleton of a prehistoric Mastodon, one of the most complete skeletons of the creature ever found in North America, is on display. The original Penn Charter, created by William Penn for residents of the Colony of Pennsylvania, is on display near a large statue of Penn. A recent addition to the museum is a large exhibit of artifacts that tell the story of Pennsylvania in the Civil War. Many of the artifacts on display belonged to soldiers and officers from Pennsylvania that served in the Union Army. Also on display is a scale model of the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania, which saw service during World War II. The museum’s most popular exhibit, the Mammal Hall, shows examples of common and rare Pennsylvania mammals in realistic wildlife dioramas. A brand new exhibit shows examples of the many consumer products produced in Pennsylvania that are enjoyed by people throughout the world, such as Hershey’s chocolates and Utz pretzels.

On the second floor of the museum is the gallery dedicated to Transportation and Industry’s history in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some artifacts on display in this gallery include an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a horse-drawn Steam Fire Engine that belonged to the town of Sunbury. A large part of this display is dedicated to the history and building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway when it opened just prior to the start of World War II. Artifacts on display in the Turnpike exhibit include an old toll collection booth, a retired emergency call box, and a large electronic map once used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike operations center to monitor road conditions on the toll road throughout the state.

A small section of the Industry and Transportation gallery is dedicated to an exhibit focusing on aviation. Although the display of artifacts is small, the collection tells a small part of the story of the history of aviation in Pennsylvania. The small collection of artifacts includes two airplanes, four aero engines, photographs, and some smaller artifacts. All the artifacts on display have a unique connection to aviation history in the state. In the case of two of the artifacts on display, the rarity of both of them makes their inclusion in this small collection intriguing to anyone interested in aviation history.

Hanging above the exhibit is a restored Piper J-3 Cub. Built by Piper Aircraft first in Bradford, then in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, the J-3 Cub is one of the most iconic light aircraft in aviation history. The Cub had a simple, but sturdy, lightweight design that gave it good short-field performance and low-speed flying qualities. Initially designed as a training aircraft, the Cub found use in a variety of military roles during World War II such as artillery spotting and ground control. Over 20,000 Cubs were built in the United States and many are still flying today. The iconic J-3 Cub is also the official state airplane of Pennsylvania. The restored Cub on display is painted in the classic bright yellow color known as “Cub Yellow” or “Lock Haven Yellow”. Including the Cub in the exhibit honors the important impact the aircraft had not only on the aviation history of Pennsylvania but also the United States and the world.

The other aircraft on display in the exhibit has a much more interesting story, as it was the only one of its type ever built and is a relatively unknown aircraft in the history of aviation. In 1939, Paul H. Knepper of Tamaqua decided to build his own airplane. At that time, it was much easier for a person to design, build, and fly their own airplane than it is today. Knepper began building the fuselage of his new airplane in his garage. Later, the construction of the aircraft moved to the East Penn Airport in Carbon County. Once the aircraft was assembled, Knepper began flight testing his new aircraft, called the KA-1 Crusader, in 1941.

Knepper designed the KA-1 Crusader with some innovative features. Some of the innovative features on the KA-1 Crusader included shock absorbers on the landing gear, a tricycle landing gear configuration for easier ground handling, and a skylight above the pilot for improved visibility. After test flights were completed in 1941, Knepper planned to produce the aircraft at a factory in Lehighton, but the start of World War II interfered with his production plans. With the war going on, no one was interested in buying the aircraft and the U.S. military was not interested in purchasing the small two-place aircraft for their flight training programs.

After the war ended, Knepper never pursued mass-producing and marketing of the KA-1 Crusader. For many years, the prototype was stored in a barn at Knepper’s farm. After Knepper died in 1989, his wife Ruth donated the aircraft to the State Museum of Pennsylvania. Friends of Knepper, some who worked with him on building the plane originally, fully restored the aircraft for Mrs. Knepper before she donated it to the museum as a tribute to their friend and his efforts to design his own airplane. The State Museum of Pennsylvania took possession of the restored KA-1 Crusader for its collection in 1991. On display with the KA-1 are two photographs of the hangar where the airplane was assembled and Knepper’s coveralls, still stained with work grease and oil, from when he was working on perfecting his airplane.

Aero engines are also on display in the aviation exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. There are four aero engines on display on the exhibit. There is a Curtiss OX-5 engine on display that was used in the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. The “Jenny” was one of the first aircraft used to fly early airmail routes over Pennsylvania during the 1920s. Also on display is a modern Lycoming O-540 six-cylinder engine. The Lycoming engine is an important part of the exhibit as Lycoming manufactures aero engines at a production facility in Williamsport. The six-cylinder engine on display has been used in several types of light aircraft.

Another engine on display is a Jacobs seven-cylinder radial engine. Unlike inline engines, radial engines rely on air to keep them running at operating temperature rather than water. The Jacobs Aircraft Engine Company became famous for producing excellent radial engines in the 200-400 horsepower range that were reliable and affordable to operate. The engine on display was manufactured in Pottstown during World War II and rated at 225-horsepower. This engine, designated the R-755 by the military and the L-4 by the company, was first run in 1933 and was still in production in the 1970s. The R-755 was used in a variety of aircraft during the 1930s and 1940s including the Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, Cessna AT-17 Bobcat, the Boeing-Stearman PT-18 Kaydet, and the postwar Cessna 195 civil aircraft.

The final engine on display is by far the rarest of the group. It represents a blind alley in engine design advanced in the years prior to World War II to produce more power and performance in an engine in a compact form. At the time the project was envisioned, the thought was that aero engines would be needed that could be “buried” deep within an aircraft’s airframe to streamline the overall design of a large aircraft. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Corps was looking to build aero engines that developed large amounts of horsepower and performance but were also smaller than the engines currently in production.

The Continental XI-1430 was a liquid-cooled aircraft engine developed in a partnership between Continental Motors and the U.S. Army Air Corps. In the unusual partnership, Continental did all the production work, but the U.S. Army Air Corps did all the engineering and testing of the engines at their testing facility at Wright Field. The goal of the project was to develop a “hyper engine”, an aircraft powerplant that could produce 1 hp/in³ of engine displacement for a weight of 1 lb/hp delivered. The ultimate goal of the project, which began in 1932, was an increased power-to-weight ratio in aero engines suitable for long-range bombers and commercial airliners.

The project lasted ten years and 26 companies submitted proposed designs for the project. Only three designs made it past the proposal stage, two engines from Pratt & Whitney and the Continental XI-1430. The Continental XI-1430 used an inverted V-12 configuration and produced up to 1,600 horsepower at 3,200 rpm. In 1939, the engine was selected to power the Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, a radical pusher fighter aircraft design expected to go into production. The engine was also selected to power the Lockheed XP-49, a pressurized and improved version of the twin-engine P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. Unfortunately, the XP-55 Ascender never went into production after severe problems were discovered with the aircraft’s handling characteristics during flight testing. The XP-49, not having much better performance than the P-38 Lightning, was abandoned by Lockheed, who chose instead to improve the existing P-38.

Advancements in regular aero engines also doomed the development of the Continental XI-1430. Aero engines had matured with advancements in technology and standard designs were developing nearly the same power-to-weight ratios as desired by the “hyper engines”. Manufacturers of large bombers chose to use radial, air-cooled engines in most of their designs, which were cheaper to build and less susceptible to overheating and combat damage than high-performance, water-cooled, inline engines. Improvements in conventional streamlining also lessened the need for compact, high-performance aero engines. The XI-1430 was also heavier than comparable models. As a result, interest in the XI-1430 diminished. Continental Motors only built 23 examples of the XI-1430. The museum’s example of this incredibly rare aero engine is displayed in an unrestored state. The engine was donated to the museum by the Swathmore School District. Although how Swathmore School District acquired the engine is unknown, it’s most likely the engine was sold as surplus or donated to the school district to be used for instructional purposes.

Another interesting artifact that is part of the exhibit is a large beacon light. The beacon light on display was installed in 1925 on Penn’s Hill near Sunbury. In 1926, the light was moved to Mile High. Rated at 2,000,000 candle-power, this beacon light was one of a series installed throughout the United States during the 1920s. The purpose of these beacons was to guide pilots flying the night airmail routes. Concrete arrows were also installed on the ground throughout the country to help guide pilots visually during the day. As technology such as radio communication and radar modernized the aviation industry, these beacon lights slowly disappeared, and today, very few survive. In some remote areas of the Western United States, some of the concrete arrows that guided airmail pilots across the empty landscape many years ago still exist, though many have been lost to development or the elements.

Finally, a series of old aviation photographs are displayed on the wall behind the exhibit. The photographs showcase some of the historic aviation moments in Pennsylvania. Most of the photographs date from the 1920s and early 1930s, and were taken in the Central Pennsylvania area. One of the notable photographs in the collection showcases the opening of a new terminal at the Harrisburg Airport in 1935. Another photograph depicts a very early Goodyear Blimp visiting the town of Camp Hill in 1929. Finally, a photograph shows the first Los Angeles to New York airmail flight in a Ford Trimotor aircraft stopping for fuel and to unload mail at the Harrisburg State Airport in October 1930.

The final piece of the aviation exhibit is a small plaque on the wall honoring William McDonald Felton. Felton was an African American entrepreneur and inventor who in 1916, opened an aviation and automobile mechanics school, and later, a practical aviation school. He purchased land in Harrisburg at 14th and Sycamore Streets, turning it into Aviation Field to train pilots. The plaque honors Felton’s contributions and shows a photograph of pilots completing their flight training at Aviation Field in 1920.

The collection of aviation artifacts within the Industry and Transportation gallery in The State Museum of Pennsylvania is small. It is not a complete collection of Pennsylvania’s aviation history nor a collection of artifacts and aircraft as you would find in an aviation museum. It is important to remember that aviation is not the focus of the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, but just a part of the museum’s story to tell its visitors. The museum is also a small building, and could never dedicate the floor space to displaying large aircraft or artifacts when that space is needed for other artifacts and galleries in the museum.

Another important aspect to note is all the aviation artifacts that are on display in the museum were donated. These artifacts were donated by generous organizations and individuals within the Commonwealth. The State Museum of Pennsylvania does not have the operating budget of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum must spend its funds carefully and has focused those funds on some new exhibits, needed building updates and renovations, and new educational programs for younger visitors. These visitors, mostly from school field trips, are what keeps the museum operating.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania provides an interesting look into the history and culture of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The exhibits and galleries do a wonderful job of telling visitors the story of the state, its people, its wildlife, its culture, and its history. That history began with William Penn settling the Pennsylvania Colony in 1680 and continues to be written today. Pennsylvania’s rich history includes mastodons that roamed the prehistoric land, Native Americans who farmed and hunted the land, Union soldiers who heroically fought at Gettysburg, a battleship that was present at Pearl Harbor, and a superhighway that millions of people continue to travel on every year. Aviation is also part of that history, and one small exhibit, with two airplanes, four aero engines, a set of historic photographs, and an old beacon light, helps shed some light on Pennsylvania’s historic aviation past.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania is located within the State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg. The museum is a short walk from the State Capitol Building and there is plenty of metered and garage parking nearby. The museum is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and all state and federal holidays in Pennsylvania. If you are interested in visiting the museum, you can visit the museum’s website at http://statemuseumpa.org/ for more information about hours, directions, admission, and its exhibits. I want to thank the wonderful staff at The State Museum of Pennsylvania for their time and assistance with photographing the exhibit and answering some questions about the museum and items in the exhibit display.

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