“It was a mess inside, and insulation was hanging out of it, but he liked it.”
My uncle, Paul Dougherty Jr., chuckled as he recalled first laying eyes on the damaged 1949 Cessna 195 airplane with my granddad.
“This airplane didn’t have any paint on it. It was ugly! It didn’t do a whole lot for me as a kid, but Dad loved it. I remember walking up to it, and he looked inside. I wasn’t even tall enough—he had to lift me up!”
This story is a cornerstone to our family identity and the origin story of the Golden Age Air Museum in Bethel, Pennsylvania. By establishing the museum in 1997, my grandfather and uncle turned a lifelong passion for aviation into a shared experience for my family, the Bethel community, and aviation enthusiasts.
Housing an impressive collection of restored and replica airplanes, the museum quickly proved a gathering place for pilots, airplane builders, and aficionados from far and wide to experience the brightest days of aviation brought back to life.
In the early 1970s, my uncle lived with his parents and three older sisters, including my mom, in Warrington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. When my granddad, Paul Dougherty Sr., took time away from his camera shop, he would accompany my uncle to the Warrington Airport, next to their house.
My granddad, a retired businessman, loved planes. Born in 1930, he grew up during World War II with a father in the Navy and two brothers serving in the Army Air Corps. By the time I was born, he was running the museum, always welcoming our visits with open arms and caramel creams at the ready.
In 1971, the Cessna 195 landed at the airport for the first time, and he took right to it.
Nine years later, the owner of the plane suffered a ground loop on take-off, an accident where one of the wings hits the ground and digs in, causing the plane to spin out. The airplane sustained major damage and was abandoned at the airport.
My uncle, the youngest of four siblings, took after my granddad in his love of planes. In 1981, when he was fifteen, he had his first plane ride with my mom, and by the next year he had gotten a job pumping gas for the planes landing in Warrington. Inspired by his time at the airport, he obtained his pilot’s license and decided to buy a plane of his own, an endeavor in which Paul Sr. was happy to be involved. Around the same time, the damaged Cessna 195 went up for auction. The owner had stopped paying taxes on it. $3,600 later, the plane was theirs.
“That’s where it all started, my seeing that airplane back when I was a little kid, and now we owned it.”
One plane led to several, and, soon, there were too many to store at such a small airport. In the early 1990s, they realized a way to showcase the planes.
“We were standing in my sister’s kitchen, and she asked, ‘What are you going to do with all those airplanes?’ Dad and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to start a museum.’ ”
After considering airports and farm fields in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, they settled on Grimes Airport, east of Bethel, which had fallen into disrepair since its founding fifty years earlier. In 1996, they purchased the property with the help of Jim McCord, one of the museum’s original directors.
My granddad and uncle restored the airfield, and over the years grew it into a facility housing more than thirty planes. The airport now consists of a large field with four hangars and a small gift shop and museum sitting adjacent to an east-west grass runway. During events, the field is filled with planes and milling guests who drive or fly in to visit the rural area.
Paul Jr. moved into the second floor of the gift shop, where he started his family while working as a commercial pilot and at the museum in his spare time. Eventually, he built a new house on the property, where they still live. The oldest of his two daughters even followed in his footsteps, attaining her pilot’s license when she was seventeen. My granddad moved into a house on the opposite end of the runway, where he could watch the planes land from his kitchen window.
The museum was never intended to be a career for my uncle or granddad. In fact, they make no money from it. Instead, it runs on donations, membership dues, and airshow entrance fees. The museum was born purely from their love of flight and their desire to share that with the community. They were particularly fond of the “golden age of aviation; the museum’s name references the era between WWI and WWII, when the world transitioned from wooden biplanes to metal monoplanes. The golden age was a time when flight wasn’t about bombs and bullets, but a thrill to enjoy. It was a time that celebrated humanity’s enthusiasm for the air, the American quest for flight.
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Paul Jr. recalled that when he started thinking about the museum, there was a surplus of museums that honored WWII planes.
“It seemed like that era between the wars, the golden age of aviation, was forgotten. At that time, there were not many, if any, museums dedicated to the era. We loved that era and already had a few airplanes from then, so we thought, ‘let’s run with this.’ That’s why there’s no WWII in our museum.”
Later, when they were creating the museum’s bylaws, they decided that anything that honored “man’s desire to fly” could be included, not only machines from the golden age. This desire ranges from the “Flying Man” Otto Lilienthal, who was the world’s first success with gliders, to the balloon-flying Montgolfier brothers, and beyond. Walking through the hangars, often open to the public, you can see anything from a “flying” bicycle to an airplane built using a Ford Model A engine.
The true magic of the Golden Age Air Museum lies in a mission to preserve the lost art of building airplanes by hand. Volunteers reconstruct and restore airplanes using traditional methods to preserve the original construction of the plane. They research the history of an aircraft—how it was built, what it was built for. If they are restoring a vintage airplane, they take care to preserve the original framing, while their replica planes use original construction methods and authentic materials.
Building a plane is a complicated process—one that is usually accompanied by precise schematics and plans. This isn’t always the case at the Golden Age Air Museum, because sometimes there aren’t any!
Visitors to the hangars observe the process and pose questions about the plane’s history. The volunteers who build have a specialized knowledge uncommon to the modern world of aviation. Using hand tools, some of them made to purpose, they restore or create all parts of a plane, from its bracing and pulley systems to the ribs of its wings and body. They repair or install period engines and design and hand-paint the plane’s exterior.
My uncle and granddad, along with these many volunteers over the years, learned restoration methods through reverse engineering: taking apart and rebuilding machines to discover how they worked in previous decades. If they can locate plans, they will use them, but often they are forced to rely on their own ingenuity. They study old photographs to see how parts were made and seek out anyone with knowledge of traditional hand-building techniques. Their only concessions are modern finishes instead of lead-based paint and modern safety equipment.
“We want to preserve how and why they were built and to preserve the technology of the time. We try to tell the story of the people who originally turned the screws in and sprayed the paint on—to preserve a technology, people, and the era. And to let visitors come out and hear what a 1930s-era engine sounds like and see that airplane do what it was built to do.”
My own fondest memories of the museum come from long days spent running around the fields playing hide-and-seek during air shows, and dancing to swing music with my younger cousins in the hangars. The most popular shows at the Golden Age are the flying circuses, air shows made up of barnstorming aerobatics and other acts. These shows imitate touring flying circuses popularized in the 1920s. My uncle described how the Golden Age Flying Circus was born of the desire to showcase the airplanes as they were meant to be seen: flying.
“There’s a lot of museums, Smithsonian alike, who have amazing collections of airplanes. The guys who work on them, the research that goes into it, the hard work, and the detail—they don’t even get to start the engine when it’s done. To me, that would be a heartache, to never see it come back to life. That is why we started the museum. We wanted the airplanes to come back to life.”
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The flying circus includes a women’s air race, a “stolen airplane” act in which performers dressed as criminals “steal” an airplane, and a pants (or more accurately, no-pants) race, in which the pilots strip to their underwear to humorously recall airshow performances of the 1920s. The most impressive feats performed are the barnstorming aerobatics, a form of stunt flying in which pilots perform death-defying stunts such as wing-walking, barrel rolls, and flying upside down.
My siblings and I would never miss the flying circus. Some of our time was spent in the gift shop, selling biplane rides and souvenirs with our granddad, and, if we were lucky, we would get to go for a biplane ride with our uncle. My brother loved learning about the mechanics of flight, while I spent my time perusing the museums exhibits to learn more about the history and folklore surrounding the planes and the pilots who flew them.
These events were also a time when the “extended” museum family gathered to socialize. These were people who were just as involved in the museum as my uncle and granddad, volunteers who helped restore the planes, locals who came every summer without fail, family friends who ran the ticket booth and cooked food for the shows.
The museum became a gathering place for anyone who knew or wanted to know more about aviation—all were welcomed by my granddad and uncle. The museum was a family endeavor, one that brought us closer together. No one knew this better than my uncle.
“It was a privilege to spend most of my life working with my best friend on projects that we felt so passionate about. It was an honor that he was my father.”
My granddad, Paul Sr., passed away last November, and it was not only my family who mourned. The museum held a large gathering, and all eyes were on the sky as my uncle and several other pilots performed a missing man formation, an aerial salute in honor of a fallen or missing pilot. As Paul Jr. peeled away from the three other planes in the V-shaped formation, representing the missing man, it seemed to me that the gathered crowd of friends and family knew exactly why he was flying the Cessna 195. It symbolized the birth of the museum, but, more importantly, the Cessna was the plane my granddad loved most.
Sarah Seaberg is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she studied anthropology and sustainability.