MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The boundary we'll talk about next takes us up, up and away. It's the boundary between earth and sky. And a couple hundred years ago, that boundary was pretty straightforward, right? Birds flew, humans did not. Then all that changed when Orville and Wilbur Wright built the world's first successful airplane. But there's a lot more to this story than most of us have heard actually. Emily Friedman sorted through 100 years of D.C. history to bring us the tale of a local man who was one of the unsung heroes of early aviation.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
Yep, Al Welsh.
So, All Welsh, tell us more about Al Welsh.
Al Welsh was an immigrant from Russia. He was Jewish and his name originally was Laibel Welcher. He lived in southwest D.C. and worked as a bookkeeper and a part-time gym teacher.
So how did a Russian immigrant living in D.C. get hooked up with the Wright brothers?
It all began when Orville Wright came to D.C. to show off their plane. They were looking for customers. And who better to sell to than the U.S. government? There were no airports at the time, because this was the first plane. So the testing ground was a big grassy knoll at Fort Meyer.
MR. PAUL GLENSHAW
It was right adjacent to Arlington Cemetery.
This is Paul Glenshaw. He is an airplane history fanatic.
So you would have heard the noise of the engine quite far away. And they actually handed out tickets and thousands of people would come. In fact, one day, Congress shut down and all tromped across the Potomac to come see him fly.
Al Welsh was one of the faces in the crowd. And like everyone else watching, he found these Wright airplane flights amazing.
They are these magnificent creatures when they actually leave the ground. They're very big and the wings are bright white. And they move very slowly.
Wait, but it isn't like Al Welsh had a background in mechanics, right? You said he was a gym teacher?
Right. But the way Paul Glenshaw sees it...
There was something about the airplane that compelled him to change everything.
Change everything, that sounds dramatic.
It was actually. When the Wright plane was sold to the U.S. government and Orville headed back to the Midwest to kickstart production, Al Welsh was right behind him.
He chased them all the way to Dayton, Ohio, where they lived and approached them about becoming a pilot or joining them, just being part of what they were doing.
Part of the Wright brothers' business was a school and they needed flight instructors. But Welsh was turned away. They were looking for a certain type of guy -- elegant, daring.
A lot of them had a background in automobile racing or they were, you know, wealthy, sportsman types. Al Welsh was none of those things.
But Welsh stayed in Dayton and kept knocking on their door.
What we know is that he persisted and whatever it is that he said to the Wright brothers worked.
MS. LAURA APELBAUM
I think it was a totally huge tale that as a Jew he was admitted to the Wright brothers training school and became a pilot.
Laura Apelbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
It's kind of unbelievable. You're living shtetl in Russia and then you're flying a plane with Wright brothers. You know, it's amazing.
So Welsh and the other birdmen, as they were known, learned to fly.
There's no proper fuselage or a cockpit. It's just a little bench on the wing.
Oh, that's crazy. That's really different from today's airplanes. I'm assuming then no seatbelts or...
No. No seatbelts. And when you see these planes now, it is so hard to believe that anyone would have ever gotten on one of them.
And Welsh just -- he delivered. He was reliable. He was safe. You see a mastery of the airplane. And no need at all to hotdog, to put on a show.
Because they trusted him, the Wrights had Welsh train their most important students, especially those first few army officers to come through their flight school.
A young lieutenant named Henry Arnold who later became more famously known by his nickname Hap Arnold, who became the five star general who led the Air Force during World War II.
Two years past and it was time to upgrade the planes used by the U.S. government. The Wrights trained Welsh on the new plane and then send him over to College Park Airfield to demonstrate it for the military. He didn't know it then, but he'd soon be taking his last flight.
Welsh left the ground and circled out away from the field for about a half mile. And then turned and came back towards the field. And as he did, he dove. Apparently, at a pretty steep angle to gain speed so that as he made this climb, he had the speed that he needed. And as he pulled out of the dive, the wing tips came up and almost touched.
The plane fell straight down to the ground.
And in those days, they didn't wear helmets, they didn't wear parachutes. The airplane was completely demolished.
Oh, wow. So that's how he died?
That's how he died. His body was taken from College Park to his parents' home in southwest. And the family actually delayed the funeral so Orville Wright and his sister Katherine could come in from Ohio. And this is pretty remarkable since the Wrights, by most accounts, really didn't have friends. But they loved Welsh and actually Orville was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.
Nowadays, you know, we travel so much that flying can really seem, like, tedious. But when you think about the people who took those first steps toward figuring out what flight is and how to do it, it's amazing.
I know. There were no pilots before the Wright Brothers. It just didn't exist. You have to have a lot of guts to get on one of these planes. And I guess you had to be willing to sacrifice everything.
So when it all comes down to it, Al Welsh really was a daredevil after all.
Yeah. And the world's first Jewish aviator.
Well, thank you so much for coming in and sharing his tale, Emily.
Our thanks to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington for clueing us in to the story of Al Welsh. The College Park Aviation Museum has an upcoming exhibit about Welsh. You can find more details on our website, metroconnection.org.
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