1928 bi-plane returns to the skies above Belleville

News-DemocratNovember 9, 2013 

An 85-year-old airplane that long ago graced the skies over Belleville made a pass over the city, or at least near the city, in August but nobody knew about it until just last month.

The airplane, a beautifully restored 1928 Travel Air 4000 biplane, once belonged to Harnist Flying Service of Belleville. The service operated off Harnist Field, a grass airstrip that was located on Illinois 158 south of Belleville where Belle-Clair Soccer fields are now.

Joe Harnist II, owner of Harnist Insurance Agency in Belleville, said two of his uncles, Irvin Harnist and Jule Harnist, his dad, Joe Harnist Jr., and his grandfather, Joe Harnist Sr., all were part of the service which delivered mail and packages around the region from 1929 until 1937 when they sold the plane.

Harnist has a picture of the plane and the company delivery truck at the airfield on his insurance agency website, which is how the plane's new owner got in touch with him.

"Dad and Uncle Irvin never talked about it that much," Harnist said.

But they knew a little about the field because they often rented motel rooms from a man in Branson, Mo., who used to own an airstrip on land where the Chrysler plant later was built in Fenton, Mo.

His name was Roy Branson and he remembered flyers like Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes coming through his airport on cross- country jaunts. He said there was a lot of traffic between his old airport and Harnist Field.

Uncle Irvin was the original pilot and the purchaser of the plane. He got his pilot's license from Parks Air College and then got his commercial pilot's license.

Harnist was able to examine copies of documents and pictures that were in a package that came with the airplane. They included a title history of the plane.

It was sold brand new in 1928 to a man in Kentucky and then in 1929 to Irvin Harnist. In 1937 he sold it to a trio of men in East St. Louis, Earl English, Horace Hunt and Roy Crouse. It was transferred in 1938 to Charles Wagner and George Stultz, also of East St. Louis.

It was sold to an owner in Mississippi in 1941 and modified for crop dusting in 1943 by a man in Tennessee. After many years in Texas, in 1981 the plane was sold to someone in Montana and then Washington before going back to Texas.

But not before it was refurbished in New York. The plane was on its way to its new home in the Texas panhandle when it stopped over at the Creve Coeur Airport in Maryland Heights, Mo., and the aerial photos were taken by Don Parsons of St. Louis.

During its heyday, Harnist Field often hosted the famous flying Hunter brothers from Sparta.

The Hunter Flying Circus, a stunt flying show, appeared at the field in 1931. After the performance, pilot Alfred Dunlop was flying home to Sparta when he crashed into the top of a tree northwest of Freeburg and was killed.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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