Bettis Airfield

Decades before Pittsburgh International Airport began serving commercial air traffic, the first major airstrip in Pittsburgh was conceived of and built in West Mifflin. Clifford Ball, D. Barr Peat, and Harry Neel began developing Neel’s farm property into an airport in 1924. The Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport officially opened to the public on June 19, 1925.

 

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Program from airport dedication, 1926

The airport was formally dedicated to 1st Lt. Cyrus K. Bettis on November 14, 1926.  Bettis was a decorated Army pilot who was leading a formation of three planes from Philadelphia to Selfridge Field when he encountered fog and crashed into a mountain near Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He was taken by air to Walter Reed Hospital, where he died on September 1, 1926.

Bettis Field, as it was thereafter called, was the site of the first U.S. air mail route to Pittsburgh. The route was established and contracted by Clifford Ball and D. Barr Peat in 1927, and it connected Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  In describing the efficiency of the new system for the city of Pittsburgh, one reporter stated, “The time already gained is so astounding that one may dream of a 24-hour service across the country. Why not?”

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Postcard illustrating the first air mail flight between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Ohio

Image

Charles Lindbergh at Bettis Field (Kenny Scholter of the Pittsburgh Butler Airport is at his right), 1928

Notably, Charles Lindbergh landed The Spirit of St. Louis at Bettis Field on August 3, 1927.  Lindbergh’s visit to Pittsburgh was marked by a dinner hosted by the Mayor and City Council at the William Penn Hotel.  The Sun-Telegraph estimated that around 100,000 people awaited Lindbergh’s arrival at the airport, while another large crowd gathered at Pitt Stadium to hear him speak on “the country’s air needs.”

The Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport also played host to the National Elimination Balloon Races. Held on May 31, 1928, the races drew enormous crowds—approximately 175,000 people—despite the storm that made the contest “one of the most hazardous in the history of free ballooning.” Numerous newspaper accounts describe the aftermath of the race, in which two individuals died and many others were injured.

Spectators gather to witness the beginning of the National Elimination Balloon Race, 1928

Spectators gather to witness the beginning of the National Elimination Balloon Race, 1928

By 1929, Harry Neel and the other investors sold their interests in the airport.  Bettis Field continued to accommodate private air traffic in the 1930s after the Allegheny County Airport opened in 1932.  After World War II, the field was sold to Westinghouse and became home to Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.

For more images and information on the history and development of the Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport, consult the personal and administrative records that comprise the Harry Neel Papers at the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives.

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