Girard L. Calehuff's Story
Aircraft Mechanics, '43

Images gathered from Access Pennsylvania Digital Repository.

Aviation students with biplane, circa 1940.During my Teen Years I was completely enamored by planes and flight. At the time I lived in Williamsport, PA, the home town of engine builder, Lycoming Motors, who played a part in early aviation development. Williamsport was also a few miles from Lock Haven, PA, the home of Piper Aircraft. One of my relatives was Col. Howard McCoy, who was in charge of engine development for the US Army, and visits to Lycoming Motors were recurring events. He usually combined these with a visit to his Williamsport relatives [our family]. On these pre-WWII visits he usually flew in using one of the latest fighter aircraft and we were at the Williamsport Airport to receive him and later to wave good-by. A high speed pass over the field on arrival and departure was common.

"Given this background, it was obvious that I was destined for a career in the aeronautical field. Not so fast."

When I reached High School in the early 1940s, I entered the program at Williamsport Technical Institute and majored in Aircraft Mechanics. I graduated in June, 1943, with my Aircraft Mechanics License along with my High School Diploma. World War II had broken out and for our special contributions to the war effort, members of the class embarked on a program to revive and restore older, in-storage airplanes for the various pilot training programs that were a feature of the period. The owners of these antique aircraft often gave us time at the controls for our work in restoration which helped cement our interest in things associated with aviation. One of the aircraft that we restored was a Pilgrim Cargo Aircraft. The Pilgrim was about the size of a Ford Trimotor except that it was a single engine aircraft. At the time it was the largest single engine aircraft in the United States and only a few were made and put into service. Following restoration, this Pilgrim was sent to Alaska as a bush plane, flown by one of the rising breed of Bush Pilots that were moving into Alaska.

Our senior class project for the Aircraft Mechanics group was the construction of an all-wood-framed glider, which was very near completion when graduation became a reality.

Now move to year 1998-2000. I had retired and moved to Rochester, MN. On one of our visits to see the area, we went to the Heritage Hall Transportation Museum near Owatonna, MN. After touring the extensive displays I was talking to one of the docents about bush pilots as I had seen among the exhibits that the owner of Heritage Halls was Buzz Kaplan, a former bush pilot in Alaska. I took the opportunity to mention that I had participated in the restoration of a Pilgrim Aircraft that went on to bush service in Alaska. The docent immediately took me to one of the exhibits that I had passed by rather quickly, and there was a photo of Buzz Kaplan posed in front of a Pilgrim Aircraft with the notation that this was one of the aircraft that he had used during his period in Alaska. There is a good possibility that the Pilgrim in the photo was the same one that we had restored, as the trim and other items were as I remembered from the earlier exposure to the Pilgrim line of aircraft. What a thrill to me to have seen this! I had hoped to talk to Mr. Kaplan regarding this coincidence; however, he was killed in the crash of a home-built aircraft shortly later, and I never got to talk to him.

Come back to me for a minute. Following graduation in 1943 with my Aircraft Mechanics license, the US Army, with its vast intelligence, decided that young men like me were needed in the Infantry, where I stayed until discharge in 1945. During this period, I participated in the Battle of the Bulge, earning a Purple Heart in the process and then, following a short term as part of the Occupation Force in Germany, was on my way to the Pacific to participate in the invasion of Japan. The war ended and, on discharge, I enrolled at Penn State University in Aeronautical Engineering, getting my B.S. in that field and then going on to a Master's Degree with a specialty in fluid mechanics.

"How many others can boast that they have flown powered aircraft, gliders, and blimps in their lifetime?"

My Master's thesis was the design and construction of a wind tunnel with a working section four feet in diameter and twenty feet long, to be used in the study of torpedo aerodynamics for the Navy. At this time, when I was pursuing my Master's degree, I was working at the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, a facility funded by the US Navy and operated by Penn State University for the development of underwater devices. It was during this period that I got some time at the controls of some US Navy blimps at a time when we were working with the Lakehurst Naval Air Station on various research projects.

Given this background, it was obvious that I was destined for a career in the aeronautical field. Not so fast. Just about this time the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company [Westvaco] decided to open a Papermaking Research Lab in Covington, VA. Papermaking involves many processes where the fibers involved are in a fluid state and fluid mechanics research was a necessity at the new laboratory. I was asked to help in the creation of this new facility and I did, starting a career in the pulp & paper industry that lasted some forty years. I retired as Director of New Facilities Planning at the company's main office, located in New York City.

I never lost my interest in things aeronautical. I was able to qualify & be licensed in Sailplanes at our local Cumberland Soaring Group when I was living in Cumberland, MD, while working at a nearby Westvaco Paper mill in Western Maryland. Two of my daughters also learned to fly in this club. I've been so fortunate in life! In addition to a wonderful loving wife and five skilled and loving daughters, I've been able to indulge my interest in things aeronautical. How many others can boast that they have flown powered aircraft, gliders, and blimps in their lifetime?


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