Monday, November 23, 2009

The Short Flight of Air Squadron One

The Boy Scouts of America Air Scout program was begun to capitalize on older boys' WWII-heightened interest in aviation. "Tomorrow all the world will fly," promised the 1942 Handbook for Boys, "airplanes will become as common as automobiles are now, and the boys of today will be their pilots." The new branch of Senior Scouting for boys fifteen or older taught navigation, aerodynamics and aircraft engine repairs. Although well grounded in the fundamentals of aviation, the program at first had a serious glitch--Air Scouts were not supposed to fly, even as passengers, and many soon baled out to join the Civil Air Patrol where they could actually train for a pilot's license.

Air Scouts wore sky blue uniforms and worked on a series of four advancements: Apprentice, Observer, Craftsman, Ace. The unit was called a squadron, and the Scouts were referred to as "cadets".

Despite the "no-fly" rule, Air Scouting grew rapidly during WWII until it ran into turbulence in 1945. Charges of increasing militarism were leveled at BSA's National Office for developing an agreement with the Army Air Force to supply liaison officers to the Air Scout program, and for allowing Air Scouts to camp at West Point where Army enlisted personnel taught boys marching drills, Army songs and how to get ready for inspection like "regular" soldiers.

Members of Unadilla's Air Squadron One probably weren't aware of the turbulence that clouded the branch's early years when they became a specialized Explorer Post in 1951. Squadron cadets might not be able to actually fly a plane (in 1946, flying, but not pilot training was approved for Air Scouts) but on the ground at least they could get up close to real aircraft, get a rare chance to sit in the cockpit of a juggernaut and "fly" on adolescent dreams. If they were ever, say, called upon to go exploring with Byrd in the Antarctic or ocean hopping with Lindbergh, at least they would "Be Prepared!"

She'll Be In The Air Soon---This is one bird (translated, plane) that won't be grounded long if 23 members of Unadilla Air Squadron One have anything to say about it. Working busily at assembling the craft are, above, Richard Knowlton, Bradford Gay, Frank Pazel, Emmett Kilmeir, David Sommers, William Bauer, Roger Bard and John Baker. Standing in foreground is Stanley Campbell, chairman of the sponsoring committee. (Oneonta Star Staff Photo, 3/13/52)

'Listen Carefully Fellows'-- Attentive scouts of the Air Squadron listen as George Humphrey, instructor [fifth from left] explains plane instruments. [from left] John Baker, Richard Knowlton, Frank Pazel, William Bauer, Emmet Kilmeir, Stanley Campbell, chairman of the sponsoring committee, David Sommers, Bradford Gay and Roger Bard. (Photo by Ludwig of Unadilla, 3/13/52)

"I was the adviser for an Explorer Post specializing in emergency preparedness," says John Compton, "when George Humpfrey approached us with the idea of developing the post into an air squadron. Being a pilot myself, I thought this was a good idea. We formed a committee of like-minded adults, signed a note at the Unadilla Bank for $1,000 to purchase the first two planes and supplies, and set up shop in the back of the Unadilla School Bus Garage."

The boys that joined Unadilla's Air Squadron One may have had visions of adventure flying high on silvered wings, but the squadron's organizers were a little more grounded in the rewards of aircraft repair. They planned to teach the boys basic airplane mechanics, renovate old planes that were a little beat up and sell them for a profit, meanwhile keeping a couple for their own use. Walter Brooks, a charter member of the squadron, remembers "We had a couple Piper J3 Cubs and an old Stinson Voyager. Mr. Humphrey and some of us boys got the plane out of a barn up near Herkimer somewhere, all covered in hay and chicken manure; I remember we spent hours and hours sanding down the frame, recovering the wings with new fabric and paint."Early Aircraft Designs from a two-page spread in the 1942 Airplane Design Merit Badge pamphlet. The sketches were drawn by Remington Schuyler, a popular Boy Scout illustrator in the 1920s-1940s

Intentions were that the boys would also receive flight instruction, and when they were 17, would be given tests for private pilot licenses. But none of the boys ever reached the pilot's seat while they were Scouts in the squadron. "I probably came the closest, says Walter Brooks, "when I took pilot's training in Indiana in 1958 but I never flew solo on my own.

By March of 1952 the squad had expanded to twenty-three Unadilla youth, signed up the enthusiastic George Humphrey as a licensed pilot flight instructor, acquired Morris Taylor of the Oneonta Airport and Civil Aeronautic Administration as adviser, and seven [or parts of] planes to repair--the two Piper Cubs, one of which reached completion stage, one Taylor Craft, two Stinsons, one Aeronea Champion and one Tensco Globe Swift. By April 1, two more joined the flight line. There was talk about town of building a hanger and a grass strip runway for all the airplanes.

Air Squadron One had an ambitious but short-lived existence in Unadilla. From the start, it had set out to teach boys the basics of aircraft mechanics, aerodynamics, and aircraft business acumen, but the project crash-landed a year and a half later when their star pilot-adviser George Humphrey suddenly left town under a dark cloud of suspicion, presumably to fly over green-backed pastures of opportunity elsewhere. A couple years later, the flying yearbook and class ring salesman, spark plug of the squadron, turned up in Worthington, Massachusetts [pop. 515] in a 1957 Time Magazine article, charged by the FBI with embezzlement of company funds and counterfeiting.

When George bought a 15-room colonial house in Worthington and moved his family in, he claimed he was a publisher, running a little printing firm that turned out yearbooks and similar publications. He liked to drive around in a $10,000 Continental Mark II, and was known to be a mite expansive about his moneymaking prowess; ironically, he also gave the impression that he was related to the former U.S. Treasury Secretary George M. [Magoffin] Humphrey. His wife, Jean, once a Radio City Music Hall Rockette, opened up dancing classes at Worthington's Town Hall.

When U.S. Treasury agents arrested George and two other men in Boston, they found in George's cellar a complete counterfeiting setup, a small printing press, and $5,500 in inexpertly printed $10 and $20 bills, as well as negatives and plates for making Canadian currency and American Telephone and Telegraph Co. stock certificates.

Left holding an empty wind sock, so-to-speak, the Unadilla committee sold the remaining planes, paid off the $1,000 loan, and disbanded the squadron. All the talk of Unadilla aerodromes and boys' broken dreams of flights among the clouds soon faded away. "We made a couple attempts to track George down," said fellow-pilot and committee member George James, "but we didn't know where he had gone to until the article appeared in Time magazine. It was obvious that even if we had found him, he would never make good on his debts here."

With George in jail, the Humphreys lost their mortgaged house and most of their belongings. The townsfolk, though they did not make friends easily, rallied to the friends they had made. Neighbors called on Jean, offered shelter for her and her four children, furniture, food. In gratitude for their charity, the ex-Broadway hoofer offered free dance classes in Worthington's Town Hall.

--D. Tuttle

Charter Members of Air Squadron One--Unadilla, 1951.
Back Row [l to r]--Paul Knowlton, Silvester Lord,Elliot DuBoise, Bill Bauer, Jerry Kniffen.
Front Row [l to r]--Robert O'Connor, Dick Knowlton, Squad Leader John R. Compton,
Walter Brooks, Roger Bard.
(Photo courtesy of Walter Brooks)

Air Squadron One Members, March 1952
Paul Knowlton
John Baker
Roger Bard
William Bauer
Walter Brooks
Elliot DuBoise
Bradford Gay
Emmett Kilmeir

Jerry Kniffen
Richard Knowlton
Silvester Lord
Howard Paris
Robert O'Connor
Frank Pazel
David Sommers

Air Squadron One Committee:
Stanley Campbell, committee chairman
John Compton, pilot
George James, pilot
Herman Bard
Donald Baldwin
George Humphrey, pilot (and later, a very poor counterfeiter)
Morris Taylor, Oneonta Airport and CAA liaison

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