On June 11, 1912, a Wright Model C airplane flown by test pilot Arthur L. Welsh crashed at the U.S. Army airfield, in College Park, Maryland, killing Welsh and a passenger. Welsh, who was described by The New York Times after his death as “one of the most daring professional aviators in America,” is believed to have been America’s first Jewish airplane pilot.
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Laibel Wellcher was born on August 14, 1881, in Kiev, in the Russian Empire. He was one of six children born to Abraham and Dvora Wellcher. The family emigrated to the United States in 1890 and settled in Philadelphia. When Abraham Wellcher died and Dvora married Frank Silverman, the family relocated to the southwest section of Washington, D.C., where Frank worked in a tailor shop and Dvora ran a grocery in the basement of their home.
In 1901, Laibel, who had been a good student and a champion swimmer in high school, joined the U.S. Navy, changing his first name to Arthur – Al for short -- and anglifying his family name to Welsh. He served for four years on both the U.S.S. Hancock and the U.S.S. Monongohela and received an honorable discharge as a seaman in 1905.
Following his discharge, Welsh worked as a bookkeeper for a Washington gas company. At a meeting of a local Zionist organization, he met Anna Harmel, from a prominent Jewish family in the District. The two were married in 1907, the first couple to wed at the new home of Adas Israel synagogue, at 6th and I streets.
In 1909, after witnessing a flight demonstration put on by the aviation company owned by Orville and Wilbur Wright, Welsh wrote the brothers asking for a job. When they didn’t respond, he decided to travel to Dayton, Ohio, where they were based, to make his case. Despite Welsh’s lack of flying experience, the Wrights hired him and, in 1910, sent him to join the first class of the flight school they were operating in Montgomery, Alabama.
By the summer of 1910, Welsh was running the new Wright flight school, back in Dayton, and also serving as a test pilot. (His students included Henry “Hap” Arnold, who eventually became a five-star general and the commander of the Army Air Corps during World War II.) He set numerous records for flight altitude and time, and won a $3,000 prize in a 1911 competition for staying in the air for two hours with a passenger.
In May 1912, Welsh was dispatched to the army aviation school in Maryland to serve as a civilian test pilot for a new aircraft, the Wright Model C, being vetted by the army’s Signal Corps. He stayed at his in-laws’ home, on H Street SW, and took the streetcar to College Park, where he undertook the regimen of tests mandated by the War Department.
It was on June 11, during the ninth and penultimate test, that the accident occurred. Al Welsh was piloting the plane, accompanied by and he was joined by Leighton Wilson Hazelhurst, Jr., an army aviator. Shortly after they took off and elevated to a height of 200 feet, the plane pitched over and, despite Welsh’s efforts to right it, crashed to the earth, killing both men instantly.
An investigation by the secretary of war concluded that pilot error was responsible for the crash, but Welsh’s family believed that the aircraft was carrying too much weight, including that of the passenger.
Arthur Welsh’s funeral took place on June 13, at Adas Israel. In attendance was Orville Wright, who traveled from Dayton, although he was still in mourning for his brother Wilbur, who had died two weeks earlier of typhoid fever.