Remembering A Man Who Broke Boundaries Of Earth, Sky (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Why We Love Music: A Harmonica-Playing Elephant Explains

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
The man we'll hear about next also made a major contribution to society in this case to the realm of aviation. Now, most of us know that Orville and Wilbur Wright built the world's first successful airplane. But what many of us may not know is there's a lot more to the story. Emily Berman 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 BERMAN

00:00:26
Yep, Al Welsh.

SHEIR

00:00:28
Hi, Emily.

BERMAN

00:00:28
Hi.

SHEIR

00:00:29
So, All Welsh, tell us more about Al Welsh.

BERMAN

00:00:32
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.

SHEIR

00:00:43
So how did a Russian immigrant living in D.C. get hooked up with the Wright brothers?

BERMAN

00:00:47
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

00:01:02
It was right adjacent to Arlington Cemetery.

BERMAN

00:01:05
This is Paul Glenshaw. He is an airplane history fanatic.

GLENSHAW

00:01:09
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.

BERMAN

00:01:21
Al Welsh was one of the faces in the crowd. And like everyone else watching, he found these Wright airplane flights amazing.

GLENSHAW

00:01:29
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.

SHEIR

00:01:38
Wait, but it isn't like Al Welsh had a background in mechanics, right? You said he was a gym teacher?

BERMAN

00:01:44
Right. But the way Paul Glenshaw sees it...

GLENSHAW

00:01:47
There was something about the airplane that compelled him to change everything.

SHEIR

00:01:52
Change everything, that sounds dramatic.

BERMAN

00:01:54
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.

GLENSHAW

00:02:04
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.

BERMAN

00:02:13
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.

GLENSHAW

00:02:23
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.

BERMAN

00:02:32
But Welsh stayed in Dayton and kept knocking on their door.

GLENSHAW

00:02:36
What we know is that he persisted and whatever it is that he said to the Wright brothers worked.

MS. LAURA APELBAUM

00:02:44
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.

BERMAN

00:02:52
Laura Apelbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

APELBAUM

00:02:57
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.

BERMAN

00:03:10
So Welsh and the other birdmen, as they were known, learned to fly.

GLENSHAW

00:03:15
There's no proper fuselage or a cockpit. It's just a little bench on the wing.

SHEIR

00:03:21
Oh, that's crazy. That's really different from today's airplanes. I'm assuming then no seatbelts or...

BERMAN

00:03:25
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.

GLENSHAW

00:03:33
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.

BERMAN

00:03:45
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.

GLENSHAW

00:03:53
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.

BERMAN

00:04:03
Two years passed and it was time to upgrade the planes used by the U.S. government. The Wrights trained Welsh on the new plane and then sent 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.

GLENSHAW

00:04:17
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.

BERMAN

00:04:35
The plane fell straight down to the ground.

GLENSHAW

00:04:38
And in those days, they didn't wear helmets, they didn't wear parachutes. The airplane was completely demolished.

SHEIR

00:04:43
Oh, wow. So that's how he died?

BERMAN

00:04:45
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.

SHEIR

00:05:05
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.

BERMAN

00:05:17
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.

SHEIR

00:05:27
So when it all comes down to it, Al Welsh really was a daredevil after all.

BERMAN

00:05:32
Yeah. And the world's first Jewish aviator.

SHEIR

00:05:35
Well, thank you so much for coming in and sharing his tale, Emily.

BERMAN

00:05:38
You're welcome.

SHEIR

00:05:45
Time for a quick break, but when we get back, rock it out with a rather memorable music maker.

MS. DEBBIE FLINKMAN

00:05:51
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I figure, you know, a song is in the ear of the listener. So I think it's music.

SHEIR

00:05:57
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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