Sunday, May 8, 2016

Pioneering flight in Anderson, Indiana: Orin Welch and his short-lived airport provided thrills

ANDERSON — Local pilot and inventor Orin Welch disappeared while flying the China to India "hump route" on March 13, 1943.

"The Hump" was used by Allied pilots in World War II in flying military supplies to resupply the Chinese war effort.

But what hasn't been lost is the history of the Anderson-based pilot.

Much of this is due to the extensive research by his sister, Drina Welch Abel, who in 1983 wrote the biographical, "The Welch Airplane Story: A Story About Orin Welch Airplanes."

Other important documentation has come from Madison County Historian Stephen T. Jackson.

Welch, born in Ohio in 1906, moved to Anderson with his family in 1927. He was born three years after the Wright Brothers' initial flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The fascination with flight was taking over the country.

Welch became a barnstormer, engine designer, pilot instructor and he also invented a make of a tubeless tires. By 1928, he owned an Anderson field and opened an airplane manufacturing company. In 1929, he opened Welch Air Field with hangar space and a grass landing strip. The site was large enough that the Welch family could live there, too.

Two airfields were in Madison County by the time Welch opened his on the southwest side of Anderson.

Perhaps the greatest day in the life of the airfield came on Memorial Day weekend, 1929.

At sunrise, airplanes began arriving, greeted by nearly 5,000 spectators.

Anthony Fokker came in his Fokker trimotor. Capt. Weir Cook, a hometown native and a World War I ace, landed in a yellow Curtiss Robin.

And then came the star of the day: Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, landed in an Avro Avian biplane. She was accompanied by war hero Maj. Reed Landis.

Earhart told the gathering, "I would have every woman here to regard flying not as a mere pastime or a single trip filled with hazards but simply as a means of transportation. I prefer to fly rather than travel in the more ordinary manner."

The hangar was destroyed shortly before 6 p.m. on Sunday evening Nov. 9, 1930, when a flame from a blowtorch being used to repair a rudder on a training plane caught the building on fire. Welch moved his facilities to Portland, Ind., although the field was used for a few years following the blaze.

Current owner

Today, there is no section of the former airport to be seen by passers-by on the curved section of Ind. 67 and Ind. 9 near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The former Linder’s on the Point restaurant overlooked the valley to the east.

In fact, if anything remains of the site, "I imagine it would be dirt," said current owner James Townsend, of Indianapolis.

Townsend, who is the father of four grown children, is a 1952 Anderson High School graduate and a 1956 Indiana University graduate. He worked most of his career in the life insurance business. He also develops real estate.

In 1988, he purchased 50 acres that had been Nick's Apple Orchard. As a young boy, he often went there to ride his bike and bring home a bushel of apples.

The land was developed as Townsend Industrial Park and was home to a pair of Delco Remy America buildings, American Playground, Highway 67 Antique Mall and an office building.

Moving slightly east of that location, he bought the 30 acres, once housing the Welch field, about 18 years ago. Zoned for business, the site has been divided into 16 lots with one of the lots now owned by Dr. Jerry Warthman.

Townsend didn't know of the land's place in history until a high school friend, Don Hunt of the Madison County Historical Society, showed him newspaper clippings about Welch Air Field.

Now, Townsend acknowledged, "There is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of building or airstrip."

Townsend is selling the remaining 15 lots.

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