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Flying School

Ernie opened his flying school in 1927. Years later, he advertised that his was “Philadelphia’s oldest flying school.”

This is not to say that Ernie claimed to have opened Philadelphia first flying school. That particular honor appears to go to Frank Mills and other members of the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, who established the Philadelphia School of Aviation at Essington, south of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, on the banks of the Delaware River, in 1916.

It appears, though, that the Mills facility was taken over by the Army in 1917 and renamed Chandler Field. There were never any runways there, as the facility specialized in the operation of “flying boats.” The aircraft would simply land in the river. The Army moved the whole operation to Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1917 because that winter the river froze and planes could not land. At the end of World War I, Frank Mills leased the Essington facility and again started a flying school. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor Attack, the Seaplane Base was closed again, as was every other private air facility in the region. This interruption in service at the Mills facility seems to have given Ernie the opening to make his later claim for being the “oldest” flying school in Philadelphia.

Ernie actually attended Frank Mills’ school and it was there that he was recommended for his first official pilot’s license. Ernie’s first license was actually a “hydroplane” certificate, and this is because Frank Mills operated a seaplane base.

In a situation that is somewhat parallel to that of Ernie’s when he came to Frank Mills for help getting his license, Ernie helped to train Frank Mills’ son, C. Robert Mills. Just as Ernie had been flying for years before he came to Frank’s school, Bob Mills was already a very competent pilot before he came to Ernie’s school. Bob had flown in World War II, and in 1944 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Bob merely lacked the license he needed to pursue a civilian career in aviation. A 2008 website discussing Bob Mills’ career states:

“Bob remembers getting his recommendation ride for his commercial license from Ernie Buehl, who Bob had watched solo one of his father's airplanes many years before.”

A book, published in 2006, includes a photo of Ernie waving from the driver’s seat of an open-air automobile. The photo caption states “The Flying Dutchman, a flying school operated by the Flying Dutchman Air Service, began in 1927, the same year the world celebrated the first solo transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh. The airport was located at the southeast corner of Street Road and Hulmeville Road in Bensalem Township. (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Bensalem.)”

It appears that Ernie was in business with a partner at this time, in 1927. He spoke of going into business with a man who had purchased a KR-31 Challenger and who offered Ernie a deal: he would provide the airplane if Ernie would provide the flying. It was this partner who promoted Ernie as the "German ace." He started piloting passengers at the old William Penn Airport (Boulevard Airport). Ernie left the partnership in 1928, purchased his own Challenger, and started his airport at Somerton.

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There is a curious story that appears briefly in a book called Aviation and Pennsylvania (Smith, F.K. and Harrington, J.P. 1981. Franklin Institute Press), in which it is stated that in 1926 Ernie was tapped by André Priester to maintain the engines in the aircraft to be used by the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT) air service. The PRT air service was established in 1926, when the United States was celebrating its Sesqui-Centennial, by Philadelphia businessman Thomas Mitten to fly a route between Philadelphia, the first capital, and Washington, D.C., the present capital. When Mitten set up this service he decided to use Fokker tri-planes. He discussed it with Anthony Fokker, who recommended fellow Dutchman, André Priester, to be general manager. According to the story, Priester then selected Ernie to maintain the aircraft, which, according to Smith and Harrington, were equipped with BMW engines.

The short-lived PRT air service operated only until late fall in 1926. When it shut down, Smith & Harrington say that both Ernie and Priester were "adrift." They say that Ernie "barnstormed" for a little while, billing himself as "The Flying Dutchman," before establishing his Flying Dutchman Air Service in northeast Philadelphia a mile north of Bustleton Air Mail Field. He started with a "passenger-hopping" and "sight-seeing business". Priester went on to become the chief engineer for Pan American Airlines, which was just getting started then. 

Although our timelines do not rule out the idea that Ernie might have worked for the PRT, there are some problems with this account. Most of the problems are circumstantial. We know that Ernie was working for Brock & Weymouth between the time he left Larsen and the time he set up Flying Dutchman. It is possible that Ernie left Brock & Weymouth earlier than we thought, or that he was working two jobs. More significantly, usually Ernie would not mind talking about someone he knew who was famous, but Ernie never mentions working with Priester and we have no documentation that allows us to make this connection. We can point out, though, that Ernie would only have talked about him if there was an amusing story associated with their contact. Priester was a notoriously difficult, miserable person to work for, so Ernie may not have had any funny little anecdotes to tell about him. The biggest problem with the story, though, is that the Fokker tri-motors were equipped with Wright Whirlwind engines, not BMW. The rationale given in the book for selecting Ernie was that Ernie was an expert on the BMW engine. Since BMW engines were not used, the story becomes much more unlikely.

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