OX5 Aviation Pioneers – Early History
A Newspaper Article Written By Dwayne Pickels
TRIBUNE-REVIEW Sunday, August 7, 2005
Includes Comments by Flora Balmer (Deceased) #L-19000 and Don Riggs #21259 (Deceased)
Back in the early 1900s, bold — and maybe a little crazy — pilots braved frontier skies with a scarf, a pair of goggles and the roar of a Curtiss OX5 engine.
In 1955, a couple of Westmoreland County pilots came up with the idea of forming a club to honor those early aviators. With help from a Pittsburgh businessman, that plan blossomed into a national organization, OX5 Aviation Pioneers.
The club got off the ground near Latrobe, where its first members assembled at the former Mission Inn in Unity Township — just across Route 30 from what was then the Latrobe Airport.
“It was just a fraternity of these old aviators,” recalls Flora Balmer, of Pittsburgh, who served as office manager for the club since its inception until her retirement. “There was the camaraderie, but its purpose was to recognize those who made a significant mark in aviation. Most of them never received recognized.”
Balmer said Charles B. Carroll, of Scottdale, approached the Aero Club of Pittsburgh in June 1955 and suggested arranging a rally for OX5 pilots. Carroll and fellow pilot Lloyd “the Saint” Santmyer, deceased 2010 at 100, a native of Mt. Pleasant who graduated from Greensburg High School in 1927, wanted to round up old-time fliers and honor them for their role in the foundation of the aviation industry. Balmer said Clifford Ball, a Pittsburgh native, was president of the Aero Club of Pittsburgh at the time. Though he wasn’t a pilot, Ball was enamored with aviation ever since he bought his first ride in an OX5-powered Curtiss “Jenny” — a well-known airplane model built by Glenn Curtiss.
A World War I veteran who had started a successful automobile business after his return from the war, Ball reportedly mortgaged everything he owned to raise $35,000 to buy 40 acres near Dravosburg, where he built the airport later named Bettis Field, after Cyrus Bettis, a WWI flying ace. He went on to establish Clifford Ball Airlines, Pennsylvania’s first airmail service, in 1927. Using four Waco 9 aircraft, the company carried mail from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Ohio. A year later, the airline started flying passengers on the same route, which came to be called “the path of the eagle,” and later expanded to include Washington, D.C.
Ball served as the first superintendent of the Greater Pittsburgh Airport in 1952 and as director of the Allegheny County Airport. He was president of the Aero Club for more than 30 years and also served as secretary of the OX5 Club from its founding until his death in 1972. With Ball on board, Carroll agreed to host the initial meeting at the Mission Inn, which included a luncheon, banquet and lodging.
“It was an outdoor affair, like a picnic,” Balmer said. “But word got around and about 110 people showed up for that meeting. They came from Washington, D.C., Ohio and West Virginia to Latrobe and they became the nucleus.”
Initially, there were 107 members who paid the $5 dues. By the end of the following year, membership had grown to 990. In 1957, some 3,259 new members enrolled, swelling the roster to 4,249 members from all over the country by the end of that year.