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When Al Welsh was born in Russia in 1881, no one had yet figured out how to fly an airplane. Welsh couldn't have known it then, but after moving to Washington, D.C., he would go on to be a protégée of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and one of the world’s first pilots.
Laura Apelbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. She has a framed painting of Welsh in her downtown office. She marvels at how a young immigrant with a thick accent climbed the ranks of American society.
“One minute you’re living in a shtetl in Russia, and then you're flying a plane with the Wright Brothers,” she says.
Welsh worked as a bookkeeper and a part-time physical education teacher. From his home on 4½ Street Southwest, he was within earshot of the Wright Brothers’ first public flight demonstration in America.
Orville Wright had come to Washington to show off their plane—and hopefully, sell it, to the U.S. government. The testing ground was a big grassy knoll at Fort Meyer, adjacent to Arlington Cemetery.
Paul Glenshaw, an airplane history fanatic and executive director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, says the demonstration was a major draw.
“They handed out tickets, and thousands of people would come,” says Glenshaw. “One day Congress shut down, and all tromped across the Potomac to see him fly.”
Al Welsh was one of the faces in the crowd, but that day changed his life.
Welsh chased the Wright Brothers all the way to Dayton, Ohio, where they lived. He approached them about being a pilot, but offered to do anything they needed.
The Wrights were unimpressed. For their first fleet of pilots, they were looking for a certain type of elegant, daring man. Most of the other men they had interviewed had a background in automobile racing, or were wealthy sportsmen. Glenshaw points out, “Al Welsh was none of those things.”
However, Welsh stayed in Dayton, and kept knocking on their door. Until, at last, he was hired as a pilot-in-training.
The planes were not particularly safe, by modern standards. There is no proper cockpit. It's just a little bench on the wing—with no seatbelt. Eventually Welsh became the Wrights’ most trusted flight instructor. He trained the company’s most important students, including Hap Arnold, who became the five star general who led the Air Force during World War II.
By 1912, the Wright Company was working with the U.S. government to upgrade their planes. Welsh was sent to College Park Airfield to demonstrate the new equipment for the military, taking what would be his final flight.
Welsh dove at a steep angle, and as he pulled out of the dive, the wing tips came up, and almost touched. The plane fell, straight down to the ground, killing Welsh and his passenger.
Welsh’s family delayed the funeral so Orville Wright could serve as a pallbearer at the funeral. He died June 11, 1912 as the world’s first Jewish aviator.
[Music: "Fly Me to the Moon" by The Shadows from Shadow Music]
Photos: Al Welsh