Anthology expands on life and death of first known American Jewish airplane pilot

Orville’s Aviators


Special Collections & Archives, Wright State University
Arthur L. Welsh on a Wright Model B, 1911

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer, June 2010

Through sheer persistence, Arthur L. Welsh persuaded the Wright brothers to give him a job with the exhibition division of the Wright Company in 1910. Born in Kiev in 1881 and raised in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Welsh came to Dayton, mastered flying from Orville Wright, and earned a reputation as one of the great flyers and flight instructors of that nascent era.

John Carver Edwards, archivist at the University of Georgia for 32 years, chronicles Welsh’s flying career — and the circumstances surrounding his fatal 1912 plane crash — in his 2009 book, Orville’s Aviators: Outstanding Alumni of the Wright Flying School, 1910-1916 (McFarland & Co., 200 pages). Welsh’s story leads off the six biographies in this anthology, which also includes profiles of Howard Gill, Arch Freeman, Grover Bergdoll, George Gray, and Howard Rinehart. Welsh features prominently in the other profiles.

“Their lives were just so intertwined,” Edwards says. “Welsh appeared in the other profiles as well because he was connected with all. He either taught these men or he taught the men who taught these men.”

Edwards’ primary resource for Orville’s Aviators was the Wright Collection of the Library of Congress.

Welsh successfully sold Wright airplanes and provided instruction to a number of wealthy clients, particularly in New England. This gave him the opportunity to hob nob with high society, all the while navigating his standards of kashrut.

After only two years of working with the Wright Company, Welsh and a passenger were killed in a crash on June 11, 1912 at College Park, Md. during a test flight for the U.S. Army. Welsh left behind his wife, Anna — whom he had met in 1907 at a Zionist Union meeting in Washington, D.C. — and their 2-year-old daughter, Aline.

Although this was only two weeks after the death of Wilbur Wright of typhoid fever, Orville Wright and sister Katharine Wright attended Welsh’s funeral at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Welsh’s death marked the beginning of the end for the Wright Company. The College Park crash brought to a public head questions about the safety and stability of the Wright airplanes.

“His company was in real trouble then,” Edwards says of Orville Wright. “He was involved in all these patent litigations that went on and on. They wasted their time in the patent fights instead of advancing their technology. Curtiss overtook them, the French overtook them.”

Special Collections & Archives, Wright State University
Wreckage from Welsh’s fatal crash, June 11, 1912

Welsh had come to College Park for the aerial trials to sell the Wright Model C Plane to the U.S. Army. “The Wright Company fortunes really depended on it,” Edwards says.

“Al had a tendency to dive to gain speed and then shoot upwards as he was trying to meet certain Army specifications — the climbing capacity of the plane,” Edwards says, referring to Welsh by his nickname. “If the plane didn’t pull out, it went right into the ground. It was later shown by Grover Loening, who was more or less an inspector general for aircraft for the Army at that time, that the plane was unstable. And that’s when the Army no longer purchased pusher type aircraft.”

Welsh’s family believed the War Department pushed him too far to complete the College Park trials.

Edwards says that Orville Wright, who was prominent in the lives of his flyers and would always come to their rescue, may have felt somewhat betrayed by Welsh’s death.

“You’re going to see some things in the Welsh story, it’s kind of disappointing in terms of Orville,” Edwards says. “The way his widow was treated and his child. Al’s half sister tried to have a memorial service for Al because of his contributions to aviation. And she wrote Orville, and Orville never responded to her. It was a messy ending to what was otherwise a very close relationship.”

Orville sold the Wright Company in 1915; it was merged with the Glenn Martin Company in 1916 and with Curtiss in 1929.

Though Welsh was an exhibition flyer, he was known for his caution. The Wrights, Edwards says, considered his routines too timid at times. “He would not do all those antics that Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone would do. They were into all kinds of death-defying aerial feats. Al just looked down on that completely. As far as I’m concerned, Al was the premier flyer.”

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