Pittsburgh didn’t need an international airport to have ideas on conquering the skies or entertain sky-high ambitions.
The Steel City dwellers loved to fly and it showed. In March of 1929, ex-navy pilot James G. Condon and Theodore Taney with financial backing from department store owner Oliver M. Kaufmann organized Pittsburgh Airways Inc.
Perceived as a wild ambition at the time, the new company started a passenger service on November 1, 1929 between Pittsburgh’s Bettis Field and New York, with a stop in Philadelphia. It was the first passenger line spanning the Alleghenies.
By today’s standards there was nothing impressive about it: The airline’s two six-seat monoplanes carried only 30 passengers in the first two months of operation and flew only 3,500 miles. In 1930, by popular demand, the company started daily service to New York.
Even Pittsburgh women were into planes and skies and aviation. Imagine that. How could anyone imagine them having such non-ladylike proclivities?
“Every day sees the women more air-minded,” a reporter for the Post-Gazette wrote in 1929. “Not only do they flock to the fields when flying weather is good but they attend aviation exhibits and listen with interest to pilots’ talk of aviation.” That Amelia Earhart… What was she thinking?
Social commentary aside, these were exciting times for aviation in Pittsburgh but Pittsburgh Airways was doomed. The company tried to obtain a contract on the mid-continent line, tried to win an airmail contract and failed. After a year of operation the company dissolved.
Thirty-two years later, a company with the same name made the news in Pittsburgh — it was a different company, with an equally novel concept. Pittsburgh Airways proposed a heliport on the Monongahela River.
Why? Because Pittsburgh Airways believed that there was demand for quick commute from Downtown Pittsburgh to Greater Pittsburgh Airport and County Airport and that “the helicopter fares would be competitive with taxi fare.” Back then taxi fare ran from $3.50 to 4.
To make regular helicopter service from the Golden Triangle to major airports possible, Pittsburgh Airways asked City Council to approve the leasing of some 160 feet of the Monongahela Wharf.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the plans thusly: “Some 40 flights are planned for each week day, with flights running every 20 minutes during peak periods. Flying time from the Downtown heliport to Greater Pittsburgh Airport would be eight minutes. It would be five minutes to County Airport.”
Pittsburgh City Council gave its blessing for a new heliport on the river, which was installed on a floating structure (as pictured above) on the north bank of the Mon at the foot of Wood Street. The structure had a built-in snow-melting service. It even had a professional gardener named Mrs. Ann Vough landscaping the heliport.
Pittsburgh’s heliport, the first in the country, started its regular service on July 30, 1962. But the project was not meant to live. A launch party with fanfare and ads at the Post-Gazette didn’t help the heliport. Very few customers. High operating cost. The inability of Pittsburgh Airways Inc. to attract additional investments to promote the heliport resulted in shareholders’ vote in November of 1963 to merge, liquidate or sell the corporation. “We have no money to continue our operation” was the verdict.
“We tried hard to bring a new form of transportation here, but there was no acceptance,” president of the board of directors David E. Mackey said at the time.
So much for shooting for the stars.
A take-away lesson: If you are thinking of starting a Pittsburgh company with sky-related ideas, do not name it “Pittsburgh Airways.”