That ‘70s Airshow

Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.

Robert Harding Breithaupt—“Breity” to everyone who was anyone in the aviation business in the 1960s and ’70s—holds court at table number 6 in the Antique Airplane Restaurant, which his family has owned since 1964. From his corner perch by the door, he greets each diner, usually a member of Reading’s graying community and almost always someone he knows. He pushes back his chair and cranes toward the belly of the gloss-black 1927 Monocoupe, N6731, that hangs from the beams. It’s the airplane in which he learned to fly. He had it trucked 15 miles across town from the airport via the West Shore Bypass and installed in the restaurant in 1967.

“It’s still licensed. Gas it up and fly it right out,” he winks to the ladies at the next table. Breithaupt, 84, reaches up to rock the airplane. The lunchtime patrons lower their forks, and John Cianci, a retired controller from the Reading Airport tower, reassures the ladies of the Monocoupe’s solid anchor. Breithaupt retakes his seat and resumes the conversation about the National Maintenance & Operations Meeting, or, as it was known for decades, the Reading Air Show.  

“Reading was considered the best show in the world in the ’50s to the early ’70s,” says Breithaupt. “We came before the Oshkosh thing got big, and we ran the show out of our own pocketbook.

“This was a trade show,” he says. “It wasn’t selling balloons to the kids.”

At its peak, Reading boasted a daily professional registration of 12,000. Its roster of exhibitors was a roll call of the big guns of aviation: Rockwell International, Grumman American Aviation, Boeing Vertol, AVCO Lycoming, Bell Helicopter Textron, Aerospatiale Helicopter, Pratt & Whitney, and Beechcraft, Piper, and Cessna. It was also a favorite venue for suppliers to the industry: AC Spark Plug, Teledyne Battery, Marathon Battery, Alcor, AVEMCO, Collins Avionics, BFGoodrich, Texaco, Mobil, Esso (later Exxon), and Shell. From humble beginnings in the 1940s, the show grew until in the late 1960s and ’70s, it rivaled the biannual Paris show in attendance, if not in prestige. In 1980, it ended. Maybe it got too big for its britches.

Breithaupt and Alfred M. “Sime” Bertolet bought Reading Aviation Service in 1941, when it was a sales and maintenance operation for light aircraft, dealing in little Ercoupes and Luscombes. They taught civilian pilots to fly and later got a U.S. Army contract for military pilot training. After World War II, during which Breithaupt flew B-24 Liberators in the China-Burma-India theater (he’s never without his CBI belt buckle), RAS founder Brooks McElroy, also a military pilot, rejoined the company. In 1949 the trio launched the National Maintenance & Operations Meeting.

“The initial shows were a thank-you party for our best RAS customers,” says Breithaupt. “We invited them for the Pennsylvania Dutch food. We had no airshow. We had FAA dignitaries to speak, and seminars.” The first performances, he says, were simply ad hoc presentations by some of the pilot-customers who happened to have flown their airplanes to the site. They had no schedule of acts.

“It was largely military surplus,” says Cianci. “Everyone who had an airplane after the war suddenly became a barnstormer.

“An event like ours was a family reunion,” he says. “Initially the show was free, then within five years we charged for exhibitors to set up. Then we expanded to two days.” Eventually it became a week-long event, and by the mid-1960s, commercial registration was $5 a day or $10 for the week.  

RAS also expanded into a leading modification center with government contracts for converting, overhauling, and painting C-47s and other military aircraft. It continued flight training and started a charter airline business, which led to the establishment of scheduled Reading Airlines, renamed Suburban Airlines in 1969. RAS sold Navions (Breithaupt sold 173 himself) and added Pipers and the popular twin-engine Aero Commander.

By 1970, more than 200 companies were returning every year in the first week of June to wedge their exhibits into eight- to 16-foot-wide booths set up in surplus Army barracks. Up to 650 airplanes parked on the ramp. Exhibitors would plop down $3,500 for a hospitality chalet for the week—mobile homes with porches and canopies—“basically one big room with a bartender,” says Cianci.

“All the major manufacturers served free beer and noshes, all hours,” remembers Sheldon “Torch” Lewis, a columnist with Business and Commercial Aviation, who flew to Reading in the early ’50s as chief pilot for Thatcher Glass and later as a sales rep for Gates Learjet. “There were open houses at the motels too.” Dick Aarons, former editor and now editor at large of Business and Commercial Aviation, adds, “In those days, aviation was a hard drinking crowd. Chalets were more an excuse for a bar.”   

Reading had taken on a life of its own. It was a “transistorized Paris,” according to Lewis, attracting the same big deal makers but cramming them into a small, come-as-you-are city, where the specialties were Macadamia nut pancakes, not coq au vin. The show is remembered today more for its social atmosphere and the aura of deal making than for the deals themselves. People who attended tell stories of cocktail parties, lawn parties, motel hospitality room parties, and chalet bars. With each memory, you get the equivalent of a roguish wink that tells you this was aviation’s good time for its mostly male sales force, behaving in this central Pennsylvania town the way they’d never behave at home.

Take, for example, the celebrated annual appearance of the Marathon Battery Girls, sporting Marathon Battery’s slogan, “The Pilot’s Bosom Buddy.” They dressed in satin hotpants with matching jackets, the backs of which were embroidered respectively with “Faster,” “Cooler,” and “More Often.” “Some of those girls were ahead of their time,” observes Breithaupt. “They would roam the ramps in twos or threes and later in the afternoon, it would seem the T-shirts got wet. Accidentally. Though it happened every year.”

The trade press loved Reading. Air Progress magazine lent its name to one of the most popular affairs: a cocktail party on the Tuesday night of show week at posh Stokesay Castle. On Wednesday nights, everybody went to a bash at Reading Motor Inn, hosted by Ziff-Davis, then publisher of Flying and Business and Commercial Aviation magazines. “We would have 2,000 people at a Reading cocktail party,” says Dick Aarons.

Jack Czarnecki remembers what the influx of partiers meant to the town of Reading. In 1916, his grandfather, Joe Czarnecki, had opened a bar in the town, later selling it to Jack’s dad. “Joe’s Restaurant” became one of the more upscale establishments in Reading, famous for dishes featuring locally grown mushrooms. According to Jack Czarnecki, his father transformed the business into a fine restaurant “when the Reading show started building” and later sold it to him. Czarnecki cherishes a letter he got one year from Moya Lear, wife of the energetic businessman who gave the world the Learjet, raving about the food and hospitality.

(Dick Aarons remembers Joe’s: “A mushroom restaurant on the first floor of a Victorian house. Every dish had some component of mushroom and the walls were hung with mushroom portraits. Joe’s martinis were served with a mushroom garnish. It was hard to find a mushroom tough enough to stand up to a martini.”)  

“I think exhibitors would return every year for the food and parties, not the airshow,” says Czarnecki. “During show week it was like every night was Saturday, a party. You would have large aviation fuel companies like Texaco and Mobil, airplane design companies. This was the day of the three-martini lunch and no end in budget,” he says.

Cessna’s representative at the 1978 airshow defended such expense to the Reading Air Show Daily News, saying, “There’s talk about the high costs of attending shows like Reading, but our dealers invite prospects here as their guests and show them some of the models that they might not have in stock. We are convinced that the resulting sales more than offset the cost of the [hospitality] program.”   

“I don’t remember that we sold anything at Reading,” admits Torch Lewis. “We developed good pros-pects, especially if Bill Lear came. He was a great attraction.”

Former air controller John Cianci speaks in a confident voice known to tens of thousands of pilots as Reading Three. (Those who don’t recognize the voice would be tipped off by his license plates: “RDG-3.”) An area supervisor when he retired from the FAA in 1990, Cianci has amassed a collection of 4,500 photographs taken at Reading shows between 1946 and 1980, news clippings and memorabilia from those years, and a few unusual artifacts. The lights in his basement rec room are controlled by levers on a panel that looks like part of a sound system but is in fact the airfield lighting control panel from the old Reading tower. Switch on Runway 18/36, and runway end indicator lights over the bar come on. What were once  runway threshold lights illuminate his front walk.

Cianci was one of 12 full-time controllers at the Reading Airport; during the shows, 20 or more crowded the tower cab. “We would have holding patterns in three locations around Reading,” he explains. “In 1966 there were 118 waiting. [The FAA] had regulations that the whole runway was yours once you got clearance for landing or takeoff and that really backed them up. One pilot finally had to return to Wilmington, Delaware, to refuel.”

That year FAA officials sat in on cab operations and, based on Reading patterns, amended air traffic procedures (ATP) 7110 to apply not just to airshows but to all commercial operations. The procedures thereafter eliminated the need to reserve the entire runway for a single arriving or departing aircraft. For the first time, single-engine Cessnas could arrive in trail at 3,000-foot intervals, or depart when the aircraft ahead was 2,500 feet down the runway.

The tower was the best seat in the house for flight demonstrations, which filled the afternoons and were interrupted only long enough to allow Allegheny Airlines to fly its scheduled runs to the airport. Each commercial product was alotted a six-minute slot for display, though exhibitors could buy two slots and fly for 12 minutes. Airshow star Bob Hoover demonstrated Rockwell’s Aero Commander. “Reading was Hoover’s first civilian airshow,” says Breithaupt. “He was young and we took a chance, and paid him cash on top of Rockwell’s fee. As a Commander dealer, we always had a plane on the rack for him.”

On the weekend, Hoover also flew his P-51 Mustang in a routine that took full advantage of Reading’s topography. The banks of the nearby Schuylkill River are precipitously steep. Hoover would depart from Runway 13, then sink and streak along the river 70 feet below eye level, leading the crowd to believe he had crashed. He would then fly north and pop up to surprise the crowd at the airport’s other end.

In 1970, Cianci recalls, Hoover’s feigned crash almost came true. He had practiced his routine on Friday afternoon without incident, but on Friday evening the local utility had strung a cable across the Schuylkill, preparing to feed power to a new housing development. During Saturday’s airshow, Hoover clipped the new wire with his left wing and it ripped away almost 10 inches from the wingtip. “Three inches lower and it would have sliced off the wing,” says Cianci. Hoover kept going, the crowd unaware that he had run into real trouble.

Bill Lear chose Reading as the occasion to introduce the prototype Learjet 23, 801LJ, in June 1964. “We took off in Wichita with an FAA inspector on board for final certification, even on the way to its introduction at Reading,” recalls Gates Learjet pilot Torch Lewis. “The inspector was ‘assisting’ in the controls and inadvertently deployed the spoilers. The Learjet crashed [at the] end of the field, but the pilot and inspector both jumped out and there were no injuries.” Except, potentially, to the 23’s reputation, so Lear took action. “Bill ordered number 802LJ to a rush finish that day and installed seats,” says Lewis. “On the way to Reading he flew to Washington to pick up FAA officials, then on to the Reading show. He stepped off the airplane to a press conference for a huge crowd.”

Each year Reading Aviation Service sponsored an awards competition to promote good maintenance and, indirectly, itself. Initially, the downtown Reading Crystal Restaurant hosted the gala banquet, but it later moved onto the field, along with white-glove catering for 300 and big bands. Cab Calloway was one of the entertainers. Arthur Godfrey came one year at Breithaupt’s invitation and later became an honorary show chairman. The chairmanship evolved into a way to pay tribute to aviation heroes: Neil Armstrong flew in his Learjet to chair in 1974. In 1978, T. Claude Ryan of Ryan Aeronautical, builder of the Spirit of St. Louis, presided.

In the 1960s, Breithaupt began booking aerobatic performers to fly at the end of the day, after the product introductions had ended. Air show legends Daniel Heligoin and Montaine Mallet appeared at Reading, flying Cap-10s as the French Connection. “That’s the first time an airshow had ever seen a horizontal outside loop,” says Cianci. Reading was a favorite show of Art Scholl and his Pennzoil Super Chipmunk. Breithaupt also booked Mary Gaffaney, whom he called “the best female aerobatic performer, ever.”

Because Breithaupt catered to commercial exhibitors, the performers didn’t start flying until around 5 p.m. “My customers were the fly-ins and the exhibitors, not the drive-ins,” Breithaupt says, referring to the thousands of residents of Reading and Birch County, Pennsylvania, who were beginning to compete with aerospace executives for parking and city services.

In 1966 Reading hosted its first military aerobatics team: the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, flying Grumman F11F-1 Tigers. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds came to town in F-100D Super Sabres. Then in June 1972, the British Royal Air Force Red Arrows invaded Reading as part of their North American debut, flying Hawker Siddeley Gnats in a formation of nine. And the norms of airshow performance changed forever.

At the time, the term “energy toward the crowd” hadn’t been coined, but Cianci intuitively knew the dangerous physics. Modern airshows set a safety buffer called scatter distance: the product of the airspeed and the altitude the aircraft achieves at the most critical point of a maneuver. It is intended to provide breathing room if plans go astray (as they did in 1988, when Italian air force jets collided as one headed toward the crowd during a perfomance in Ramstein, Germany, killing 70 spectators and injuring hundreds). Today, flights over a primary spectator area must be straight and level or climbing, and in a direction perpendicular to the forward edge or “showline” of the cluster of fans, never during or while exiting an aerobatic maneuver.

“The Red Arrows didn’t care,” recalls Cianci, who says that the team flew “their most dangerous maneuvers directly towards the thickest part of the crowd. After performing, they did a flyby within 100 feet of the tower, below our eye level—we were 65 feet in the tower cab—right over the chalets and VIP crowd.”

Airshow performer Bobby Bishop, pilot of the world’s smallest jet, the Bede BD-5J, remembers that 1972 appearance. “The Red Arrows were told by the FAA inspector, John Doster, to fly the routine the way they normally flew it,” he says. “I was by my plane watching the airshow, and I didn’t know which way to run. Bomb bursts right at the crowd, multiple solution crosses, and recovering 100 feet over the crowd’s heads.”

Cianci adds that even the Red Arrows’ C-130 transport buzzed 150 feet over a line of 7,000 people. “ ‘You stupid Limey son-of-a-bitch!’ I screamed at the C-130 pilot on my radio. Suddenly I see one of the show managers waving at me frantically from the ground and I realize that [the mike] was hot— live on the public address system to the entire airport. The Red Arrows pilot just came back with that casual tone: ‘Not to worry, Yank.’ They did whatever they wanted. I had to send letters of apology to everyone, from the Mayor to the County commissioners.”

When the military teams started flying, Reading management initiated a number of procedures that became routine at all air shows. Snow fences were added along show center to prevent jet wash from blowing over the light aircraft parked on the grass. Still, there were mishaps. In 1971 a hovering Harrier pilot burned a hole in the tarmac of Runway 13/31 that persisted through years of patches.   

 “We also had to lay down 30 to 40 white plastic strips for a total 4,000 feet for the military teams,” notes Cianci, in one of the earliest experimental applications of the method used to mark the show centerline for pilots’ visual orientation. “In the old days, they would just tell you to park a school bus or two as markers,” Cianci says.

The military demonstrations brought bigger crowds. Greater Reading has a population of 120,000 and is surrounded by farmland. Show management snagged farm fields each year as temporary lots but provided no paved parking. Local farmers learned to price for what the market would bear.

 “Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the show’s success,” Cianci laments. “A 15-cent cup of coffee suddenly went for 50 cents. The airport authority parked cars and collected trash, so they also wanted a piece of the action. All the restaurants in town escalated their prices during show week and rooms were twice or more the usual.”

Still, he says, “Every motel room was filled, all the way to Pottstown, even at artificial prices.”

Arrangements were made for overflow guests to stay in the dormitories of Albright College. Local roads were overwhelmed with traffic, especially at the end of a day, when product demonstrations ended and aerobatic performers took over. Businessmen, leaving the airport after a day of drumming up sales, clashed with incoming public show audiences on narrow two-lane roads.

“The infrastructure of Reading, Pennsylvania, was never really ready for this kind of show,” says Czarnecki. “What happened is our restaurant would have reservations for 60 to 70 people but only have 30 come, because the local transportation system would break down. That continually worsened and no one in the city took action. When you’ve got an executive with a credit card waiting to take out VIP guests and he can’t get a cab, he remembers and vows not to return.”  

Gradually, the exhibitors began to withdraw. Bendix passed on booth space in 1978 because like thousands, its representatives couldn’t find a motel. Canadair showed up but decided that 1978 would be the last year. “It’s the horde of non-aviation types and their kids, many of whom climb on airplanes and damage them, added to the fear that someone might injure himself poking around aircraft without knowledge,” the Canadair spokesperson told a reporter at the company’s last show.

In 1976, public attendance had mushroomed past 100,000 while paid, professional registration topped 12,800 each weekday. Only one year later, paid entry to exhibits had fallen to 10,108 and the number of exhibits to 163; nearly 100 less than a couple of years earlier. Nonetheless, the show remained a media favorite. Nearly 1,600 journalists turned up—one for every six registrants. Though the decrease in numbers that year was largely due to poor weather, the tumble was assured. Breithaupt and partners started discussing plans to hold “Paris on the Schuylkill,” as some patrons called it, every other year, to alternate with the Paris Air Show. But in 1980, RAS ran its last show.

“If you end up in the wrong part of the airshow business, it’s like selling ski rides with no snow that winter,” says Breithaupt. What happened at Reading was textbook trade-show herd mentality. Potential show exhibitors watch the big companies—Boeing, Grumman—to see if they will attend and therefore stamp the show as serious. Some show organizers give quiet incentives to these big companies, knowing that once they sign up, many others will rush in. Without heavyweight exhibitors, customers don’t think the show serious either, and with fewer customers…you get the idea.

After five fallow years, Reading got a brand-new show—the 1985 Reading Aerofest, staged by the Reading Airport Authority. It continued for several years as a single weekend event, Friday evening through Sunday. The show sponsored its own banquet without the involvement of commercial aviation vendors. Show coordinator Louise Grim added a merry-go-round, simulators, a space jump, and balloons and ice cream. Within two years the event had enticed the Thunderbirds to return, but the team had to stage from Harrisburg International Airport, which was 60 miles away but, unlike Reading, had a runway long enough to meet the Air Force’s new minimum of 7,000 feet.

Aerofest’s last show, in 1998, booked the Blue Angels, Ken High and his Super Shockwave jet truck, Robosaurus (which scoops up and crushes cars in his claw), U.S. national aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 300S, Bobby Younkin in his Beech 18, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team. Grim notes, “Hotel space and parking is still a problem here, due to airport development, along with new FAA requirements for sterile areas during the performance of military teams.”

Reading Aerofest directed auto traffic to county property beyond the airport boundary and bused in attendees. “It’s very costly but it seems to help,” says Grim. There were signs of the former profiteering that helped drive commercial patrons away in the past. “Some of the areas near the county property we do need to—quote—rent for the weekend from farmers,” says Grim.

Although Breithaupt still lives in Reading, he has not been to the local airshow since it changed formulas.

Joe’s Restaurant closed its doors in 1996 after 80 years in business, partly from the waning fortunes of the Reading show. Czarnecki moved to the Oregon coast, where he bought the small-town, Joel Palmer House restaurant. The house specialty: mushrooms.

John Cianci is at work on a book about the history of aviation in Reading. He says that for RAS, the show was really a 12-month undertaking, employing two people full-time with work on the next show beginning the Monday after a show closed. According to Cianci, RAS involvement grew more costly and time consuming each cycle. “They lost their maintenance people beginning months before, putting up fences and stages, and it took longer each year to pack away,” he says.

Two years after the original show closed, Reading Aviation Service changed its name to that of its subsidiary Suburban Airlines. Maintenance operations had been winding down, but the airline continued its routes. In 1988, Suburban liquidated the last of the maintenance operation and sold its aircraft and routes to US Airways.

Although Reading Aerofest was intended to be an annual event, just as the Reading Air Show was for 31 years, the last three Aerofests had to be canceled when the organizers failed to recapture a jet team.

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