Friday, September 3, 2010

Lehigh Valley International Airport began as airmail stop.

ABE Airport, 1950s.
     In October of 1975, local newspapers announced plans for five days of dedication ceremonies to celebrate the opening of the new terminal at A-B-E-Airport. Over a thousand people attended the largest dinner dance held in the Lehigh Valley. Some 13,000 people previewed the multi-million dollar terminal complex that would begin operations on December 14th. The main terminal was encased in eleven steel frames, each 172 feet long and spaced 30 feet apart. The frames allowed for a large open space where ticketing agents would process seat assignments and check luggage. The main terminal was built into the terrain to give it a lower profile. In addition, the new departure lounge, food service wing and 1000 car parking lot made flying much easier for travelers.
     The airport began in 1927 when the U.S. Department of Commerce rented 50 acres of farmland as an emergency landing air strip for airmail pilots. This 1,500-foot grass landing strip was the first airstrip in the Lehigh Valley. A steel tower topped by a rotating beacon was erected and a small frame building constructed for an attendant.  This wooden structure eventually became the first terminal for the Allentown Airport Corporation. The original 50 acres form the northwest portion of the Allentown Bethlehem Easton Airport, known today as Lehigh Valley International Airport. It is one of the oldest airports in the country that still operates from its original location. The property was perfectly located, in Hanover Township, between Lehigh and Northampton counties.
     The Allentown Airport Corp., formed in 1929 by local businessmen, recognized the need for a local airport. The group purchased 317.5 acres, including the 50 acres rented by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, with the goal of creating an airport. They built a 120-foot by 80-foot hangar and moved the beacon tower and former attendant’s quarters, next to the hangar.
     The first company to rent the airport was the Allentown Aviation Corporation, headed by John H. and Dorothy B. Leh. John was a partner in H. Leh’s Department Store. John and Dorothy were only the second couple in America to both earn flying licenses.
     The Allentown Airport Corp. ran into financial problems during the Great Depression. To stay afloat they sold 27 acres of land to farmer Frank Dlugus in 1933. Several years later, Mr. Dlugus obtained a court injunction on April 1, 1944 to halt flights at the airport. He complained that the low flying planes were disturbing his farm animals. The injunction was lifted May 27th allowing flights to return to the airport.
     On September 14, 1935, the Allentown Airport officially began accepting air mail service. Thousands of residents crowded the runway to observe mail bags containing nearly 10,000 pieces of mail depart on east and westbound planes. They witnessed the first United Air Way passenger planes (Boeing 247) arrive to begin service to Newark and Cleveland. That day the crowd also watched Laura Ingalls, a pioneer woman pilot, land her plane at the airport. Earlier that year Ingalls had accomplished the feat of being the first woman pilot to fly across America, from coast to coast. Ingalls was revered by the public for her accomplishments in aviation; however her politics irritated the F.B.I. In 1942, a jury found Ingalls guilty of being a spy for the Germans. She was a known peace advocate. She violated the law in 1939 by flying over the White House and dropping pamphlets that advocated U.S. isolationist policies. She served over 18 months in prison.                 
    In order to receive public funds through the WPA, the city of Allentown took over the title to the airport. Through the assistance, again, of John H. Leh and local businesses, three new runways and a new terminal building were constructed. During World War II, the Navy set up a flight training school at the airport and trained over 1,500 enlisted men.
     In 1948, the Allentown Airport Corporation was reorganized as the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, to become eligible for federal funds.  At the same time, the name of the airport was changed to Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport. In the same year, TWA began providing flights from A-B-E to Newark and Pittsburgh.
     Passenger terminal #3 was completed in 1950 for one million dollars. Colonial Airlines (soon to be acquired by Eastern Airlines) provided Lehigh Valley travelers flights to Washington D.C. and Montreal. In 1967, United Airlines introduced the first jet service. In 1969, Lehigh and Northampton counties assumed the financial burden of the airport from the cities Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Passenger terminal #4 was completed in 1972 at a cost of one million dollars.
     There was a rash of airplane hijackings occurring around the world, between 1967 and 1972. On May 5, 1972, an Eastern Airlines 727 jet was hijacked at A-B-E Airport. This, the airport’s only hijacking in its history, occurred when Frederick W. Hahneman, boarded the jet and threatened the crew with a gun. The jet was scheduled to fly to Washington D.C. then on to Miami, Florida.  Hahneman, a 49-year-old engineer from Easton, demanded $303,000 in large bills and six parachutes. He ordered the plane to land at Dulles International Airport where he received the ransom on board. He then released everyone except the crew. The plane made a stop in New Orleans for repairs then flew over Honduras where Hahneman jumped from the plane with the briefcase full of cash. On June 2nd Hahneman turned himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Honduras. He pled guilty to the charges of air piracy and served 12 years in prison. The F.B.I. found all of the $303,000 but would not give any details about their investigation.
     In 1994, the name of the airport was changed to the Lehigh Valley International Airport. The council governments of Bethlehem and Easton were not happy about the name change. Bethlehem City Council passed a resolution asking the Airport Authority to change it back to A-B-E. The Airport Authority declined their request as they believed the name Lehigh Valley International Airport represented a more regional image. The National Weather Service closed its LVIP station in 1996, citing budget constraints and leaving the airport to depend on automated systems.  In 1997, a new $13.5 million addition to the terminal was completed offering magnificent views of the surrounding area. The 33,000 square-foot addition with eight gates was named for Wilfred M. "Wiley" Post Jr., manager of the airport from 1937 to 1983. Post had a front row seat to the history of passenger air service. He was there to see the ten-seat Boeing 247 in operation, during the 1930s. By the time he retired in 1983, the Boeing 757 was in service, carrying 180 passengers.


  1. It is worth noting that the Allentown Airport Corp. was founded, and funded, primarily by the city of Allentown. The city approached Bethlehem to explore the possibility of a joint operation but the Steel company, and thus the city, wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, Bethlehem chose to invest in the small airfield located roughly where I-78 crosses 412. LVIA turned out to be the successful venture.

  2. My brother and I were on the plane that was hijacked in 1972. We were the only children on board.