Cumberland Times-News

James Rada - Looking Back

March 4, 2012

Looking Back 1920: Plane makes emergency landing in Elk Garden

Nowadays, the sight of a plane flying overhead is no big deal, but it wasn’t always that way. The Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, and Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. In between, planes and their pilots were a rarity.

Coal miner Kenny Bray wrote in his unpublished memoirs that whenever a plane did fly overhead, “it was a big attraction. Very few people had ever seen a plane up close.”

One day, in September 1920, that changed for the people of Elk Garden, W.Va., and many of the surrounding coal towns. On Sept. 14, a crowd had gathered in Elk Garden to watch a baseball game between two coal town teams when a plane flew in from the northeast.

“It was flying low, apparently in trouble,” Bray wrote. “It tried to land on the ball field, but the crowd scattered out all over the field and it could not land.”

It stayed in the air and continued flying until it landed in a field owned by Saul Stullenberger in Elk Garden. “In landing, the plane turned over but neither occupant was injured. The machine was much damaged,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The crowd from the ball field followed the plane’s flight and surrounded it when it crash-landed.

Two men, whose last names were Burdo and Seagraves, had been flying from Mineola, N.Y., to Pittsburgh. They had landed in Cumberland to refuel. However, after they left, they lost their way in a dense fog and developed engine trouble. Their predicament in Elk Garden was the result.

The men made repairs to the plane and tried to get it started again. Bray said that the plane had “what appeared to be a radiator on the front with the propeller on a shaft that came through below or near the bottom of the radiator.” To start the engine, one of the men turned the propeller by hand. The newspaper identified the plane as an Italian S.V.A.

“Then the two men stood in front of and to one side of the plane,” Bray wrote. “The man nearest the plane grasped the right hand of the man with his left hand. They then ran by the plane and (the) man nearest the plane gave the propeller a twist as they ran by. They did this a few times until the engine started.”

The men climbed back into the plane and took off. The plane got off the ground, but it still wouldn’t fly properly. The plane landed a second time, though this time it was done right side up.

The plane was dismantled and Howell Keplinger used his team of horses to carry the parts into town. From there, the plane parts were packed up and shipped away on the Western Maryland Railroad for replacement or repair. Burdo accompanied the shipment to New York to get replacement parts.

When he returned after a few days, he and Seagraves made repairs to the plane, which took another day or two. Once done, the men started the engine, got in and flew off into the sunset.

Contact James Rada at or 410-698-3571.

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James Rada - Looking Back
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