Bensalem pilot Ernie Buehl and his extraordinary aviation history

To say that the “Quiet Birdman” never made a sound is a mistake. He was quite the opposite. Strong! You would stop in your tracks like I did at Yardley in the 1970s and yell, “Look! High in the sky! It’s the ‘Quiet Birdman!’ The roar emanating from the bright red fuselage of his “Flying Dutchman” biplane betrayed him. It was louder than a flock of crows landing on a cornfield.

Ernie Buehl is arguably the most famous aviator to call the Bucks home.

Born in 1897, he grew up in Germany during the First World War. With the encouragement of his older brothers, he became a top mechanic for BMW’s aero division. He was rewarded by preparing German pilot Feranz Diemer’s plane for his world-record flight into the stratosphere in 1919. The following year Buehl immigrated to the United States where he helped market BMW planes and performed aerial survey work. That same year, he co-piloted the first transcontinental mail flight from New York to California. In addition, he prepared Roald Amundsen’s plane for the first Norwegian attempt to fly over the North Pole in 1922.

Carl LaVO's granddaughter Margot poses next to a biplane based at VanSant Airport in Tinicum Township similar to the one Ernie Buehl flew

In 1926, with seven years of flying experience behind him, Buehl earned his pilot’s license signed by pioneer Orville Wright. That year, he moved to Philadelphia and married Anna Manso, a Portuguese citizen who bore him a son.

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Ernie commanded the skies above Bucks in 1928 after establishing Flying Dutchman Air Service at Somerton near Feasterville. Commercial flights, sky walks and flying lessons have generated profits. A partner promoted Buehl as a German World War I flying ace. It was a huge lie but helped popularize the service.

Unidentified motorist in his Hupp motor car next to Ernie Buehl's 1927 OX5 biplane at Buehl Airport in Bensalem.

Buehl, a US citizen since 1929, ran Somerton Airport for 24 years. Earl Bach, one of his students, could not afford flying lessons. So Ernie came up with a plan. “I was hanging from a rope ladder hanging from Ernie’s biplane,” Bach recalls. “The idea was to attract crowds to sell rides for $5 a crack.”

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As an instructor, Ernie was a perfectionist. One student said, “When you did something he thought was wrong, he would fly you over a graveyard and point at the ground. He said, ‘See, if you don’t do what I tell you, that’s where you’ll end up.’ ”

Buehl Airfield in Bensalem, as seen here in the 1950s, was sold for use as a shopping center in 1960.

In 1932, he trained C. Alfred Anderson, the first African American to receive a federal pilot’s license. Anderson would later found the Tuskegee Airmen, black fighter pilots who served with distinction in World War II. In a tribute to Buehl before the United States House of Representatives in 2014, Representative Anna Eshoo of California noted how federal regulators refused to recognize Anderson as a qualified pilot because he was black. Said Eshoo, “Historians of the Tuskegee Airmen and members of the Anderson family say that without Buehl’s willingness to work with Anderson and defend him, there would have been no Tuskegee Airmen.”

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Buehl helped win the war by leading a team of 23 instructors training 1,400 sea cadets to fly at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

In 1948 Ernie purchased 136 acres of open space in the Eddington section of Bensalem for a new airport. He sold it 18 years later for development and moved to Middletown to build and operate Buehl Field off Woodbourne Road. Whenever newspaper photographers needed aerial photos, Ernie was there to help. His audacity could disconcert passengers. “It was scary to fly with it,” recalled Warminster resident James Pitrone, a retired Bucks County Courier Times photographer. “I just remember being happy to land.”

Ernie Buehl's budding airport in the Eddington section of Bensalem seen from the air after it was built in 1948.

In 1957, the OX5 Club of America honored Ernie in Hagerstown, Maryland. He and a passenger traveled to the meeting in Buehl’s 1927 OX5 biplane. According to a first-hand account, “He ignited the old crate and took off with a heavy power thud, but damaged the wing on a fence on landing. Ernie sputtered out, saying someone had moved the fence.

After repairs, the aircraft returned to Bucks.

Ernie belonged to a closed club of famous airmen including Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker and Jimmy Doolittle. Membership was by invitation only. The founding members of the self-styled “birdmen” met at a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1921. The gathering was so loud that management pushed them out. Thus was born the “Ancient and Sacred Order of the Quiet Birdmen”. The organization still exists.

Ernie died in 1990. His family operated the Buehl Field until 1999 when it became the Villages of Flowers Mill community.

Ernest

Although I’ve never met Ernie, I’ll be thinking of him the next time I visit VanSant Airport in Tinicum Township. There, my hope is to take a ride in one of the airfield’s vintage biplanes. As I fly over the forest landscape of Upper Bucks, I’ll reflect on what it was like when our Quiet Birdman ruled the skies.

Sources include “Ernest H. Buehl, 93: He was a pioneer in cross-country flying” published in The Inquirer newspaper on May 25, 1990; “A Tribute to the Honor of Ernest H. Buehl, Sr.” by U.S. Representative Anna G. Eshoo on June 19, 2014; “Ernie Buehl Collection – The Flying Dutchman” on the web at www.buehlfield.info/ernie-buehl-collection and information and photographs on file at the Bensalem Historical Society. Thanks to Society archivists Sally Sondesky and Vicki MacDougall for their help, and to Larry Langhans of the Historic Langhorne Association.

Carl LaVO can be contacted at [email protected]

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