Recollections of AO


My memories of the American Optical flight process was from 1972 to 1975.  As I understand it, American Optical was the major developer of the Southbridge airport and maintained the beacon and grounds, including plowing the runway in the winter.  The airport was owned by the town and the Fixed Base Operator was Stan Krupinski who was an independent operator, reporting to the Southbridge Town Council.  Since there was no control tower or full time operator, flight operations were uncontrolled except when Stan was there.  Therefore, it was classified as an ‘uncontrolled’, general aviation airport.

The company also built a large hanger to house its main airplane, a North American Rockwell, twin-engine, propeller driven ‘tail dragger’.  It could carry six passengers in a cramped compartment just behind the cockpit.  The engines were mounted on the wings, on either side of the passenger compartment.  There were two pilots on the company payroll who operated out of an office in the main plant.  The plane was used to fly executives and/or employees on company business.

My experience with AO Air was on trips to Frederick, Maryland to visit AO’s Zyl frame plant.  Scheduled departure time was 6:30 AM and all of us had to be aboard.  The plane moved to the North end of the runway and immediately began its takeoff roll.  The roar of those two engines during takeoff was ear shattering!  An additional distraction was that the whirring propellers seemed to be ready to slice right through the passengers. Even after liftoff and while cruising, the loudness of the engines inhibited conversation.  As a result, the flight time during most trips was spent reading or doing paperwork.

Since my position was Safety Engineer for the Optical Products division, I would spend a day each month at the Frederick plant.  After the first couple of trips, I was so disturbed by the noise that I initiated the wearing of earplugs by myself and other passengers. On one trip I brought a sound level meter.  I found that levels rose to 102 decibels (dBa) during takeoff and was at 94 dBa throughout the two hour flying time.  This was the maximum exposure allowed under OSHA regulations for a two hour period.  I dread to think of what other passengers must have suffered on longer flights.

The Frederick plant was right across the street from the airport.  I was told that George Wells enjoyed flying and intentionally selected sites adjacent to airfields for new manufacturing plants.  After spending the day in the plant, we would leave sometime between 5:30 to 6:00 for the return flight.  We were all pretty tired by then and the trip home was usually quiet (except for the roar of the engines).  We would arrive at Southbridge after Stan had left for the night and therefore the field was uncontrolled.  The AO pilots believed that they had the right of way to land any way they came in, usually from the South and went directly onto final approach.  On one trip, a smaller plane was landing headed South (the correct approach in view of the wind direction) and we almost had a head-on catastrophe.  Fortunately, the other pilot realized that wisdom is the better part of valor and pulled up in time to avoid a collision.   We all said a prayer of thanks for his wisdom.  It reminded me of the WWII song: "I’M COMING HOME ON A WING AND A PRAYER".

AO Parking lot (behind Main Plaint) ~1938;  John Wells had the marking for latitude and longitude put on the roof of the car shed, 
to use in his approach to the Southbridge Airport

August 1965 AO News

Response to Dave Butlers recollections:

Dear Dick,

 I remember well Dave's visits to Frederick. I always enjoyed those visits, but, of course, I didn't have to fly home! Dave was a lot of help to us in meeting safety requirements.

I think at the time of the decision to build the plant in Frederick the two "fly boys" were Weldon Schumaker and Byron Ziegler. As I recall, Lennie Malser got Byron interested in flying, and Weldon caught the flying bug from Byron. Rumor had it that Weldon wasn't a very good pilot, and after a few close calls, gave it up. Byron, of course, continued flying the rest of his life, which ended tragically when his plane crashed as he was making a landing at the Southbridge Airport in a sleet storm at Christmas time, His daughter, who was also a pilot and  pregnant at the time, was in the plane. They were all killed. By that time Byron had left AO and operated his own business, OmniTec, in Dudley.

I took that Frederick flight many times, and when the plant was being built I even flew to Frederick with Byron in his plane on several occasions. Byron was an excellent pilot, but was not averse to taking chances. He once had to land on the Jersey Turnpike when his engine konked out! He fixed the problem, and was extremely annoyed when the Turnpike police told him he could not take off from the turnpike, but would have to have the plane trucked to an airport.

If you see or talk with Dave, give him my best. Those were interesting times. His story brought back a lot of memories.

Regards to all,
Bob Haynes

Southbridge Airport - Image from Windows Live Local Birds Eye view

Dick Whitney and Mom (Jan) at the Southbridge Airport - 1954

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