Recalling First Weather Satellite Hurricane Floyd Triggered The Memory Of Henry Liese Of The Role Bucks County Played As A Pioneer In Aviation History.

Posted: September 20, 1999

As television meteorologists tracked Hurricane Floyd with meticulous precision last week, Henry Liese grew just a bit nostalgic.

It reminded him of a strange project his company embarked on 40 years ago at a small factory in Newtown. It was only after the work was completed that they realized what they had built: the world's first weather satellite.

"Nobody knew what the hell it was," said Liese, 86. "All we heard was that it was going to fly. We said, 'How is this thing going to fly?' "

The RCA company had brought blueprints for its Tiros Observation project to LaVelle Aircraft Corp. in Newtown, which Liese ran with fellow aviation pioneer Thomas LaVelle. RCA would not tell the two what the mechanism would do; they just wanted it built.

That the satellite to take the first picture of Earth from space was built by a small Bucks County shop and not some giant factory out West was no fluke. Before the days of mega-technology corporations and massive mergers, a few small companies in Bucks made some monumental contributions to the fledgling air and space industry.

Henry Liese worked on many of them - from the first stainless steel wing on an airplane, to the first satellite, to the lithium oxygen filter that helped save the lives of astronauts on the Apollo 13 when they ran out of oxygen. He has been obsessed with aviation since his teenage days doing chores at Roosevelt Field airport in Long Island, where he washed the plane Charles Lindbergh would fly to Paris.

Liese, of Lower Makefield, and his son Arthur are now working to preserve the memory of aviation in Bucks by carefully documenting everything they can. Arthur Liese, an aviation historian, writes about and lectures on the grand factories in Bristol where a top line of private planes was conceived in the 1930s, and where thousands of people went to work building bombers a few years later to support the war effort.

His father has a prize collection of photographs documenting aviation history from the beginning of the century onward. But more than that, he has his memories. As history was being made, Henry Liese was there.

When he was a teenager hanging around Roosevelt Field, flying was reserved for the rich and for the military. But there the planes were, parked outside the hangars, allowing gawkers like Liese to walk right up and touch them.

He was around when a $25,000 award was offered to the first pilot who could fly across the Atlantic. Months before Lindbergh arrived at Roosevelt Field, four men made an attempt in a twin-engine plane that Liese had watched being built from scratch. The plane came crashing to the ground soon after take-off, and two of the crew members died.

Tragedy was routine at the time. Anxiety filled every take-off and landing. "The learning curve included people dying," Arthur Liese said. "Someone would go up and crash, and then someone else would go right up."

Henry Liese eventually started working for the Long Island airplane manufacturer Fleetwings. The company's ambition outgrew the site. It needed a factory on the water, where it could develop a line of amphibious planes. Few airstrips had been built by this time, and industry visionaries were predicting that the future of flight was in planes that could touch down on nature's runway: water.

Bristol was an ideal location to build such planes. A giant factory there used to make Liberty troop transport ships in World War I had been converted for airplane construction in 1925 by a company that would soon merge into Keystone Aircraft. Keystone was building early bombers and float planes there. They dropped the planes right into the river from a converted boat launch outside the factory.

Bristol quickly got caught up in the frenzy of upstart airlines promising that they would soon have daily flight service for civilians. Among the first planes that could accommodate that was Keystone's Patrician, suitable for 20 passengers. A 1929 advertisement that Liese owns boasts flights on the Patrician at a speed of 151 m.p.h.

The majority of Army Air Corps contracts also went to the Bristol plant until 1931. Keystone moved out a year later, and the plant was vacant until Fleetwings arrived in 1934.