PIONEER AIR TRANSPORT PILOT
Kelsey was born in Winfred, SD on April 29, 1891. He was educated through high
school in South Dakota and Michigan. Based on the following
it is difficult to believe he had the time or opportunity
to finish high school.
At age 13 he was a railroad telegraph operator. At 14 he
was a brakeman and, later, fireman and engineer on the Chicago,
Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad. At age 17 he became a conductor
on the C., M. and St. Paul working out of Aberdeen, ND.
In 1915 he enlisted with the Canadian military, took flight
training and soloed, but later returned to the United States
and took up railroading again. He flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In 1920 he went to California
and again took up aviation, barnstorming with a fleet of
three airplanes until 1928 when he took the job that brought
him to Tucson.
H.J. Kelsey, Ca. Late 1920s
(Source: Jackson County Historical Society)
Kelsey is a phenomenon among the pilots of the Register. He is one of the most prolific visitors to the Airfield. He landed and signed the Register 53 times between October 15, 1928 and August 6, 1929.
The reason for his high number of landings is that Kelsey,
after his barnstorming experiences, became a pilot for Standard
Air Lines (670KB PDF download) owned by Jack
Frye and Paul Richter,
which operated between Los
Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson,
Douglas and El Paso (brochure, left). He was the second-most frequent visitor, just behind his Standard Air Lines (SAL) colleague Hap Russell, and just ahead of another SAL colleague Lee Willey.
Standard Air Lines (SAL) was in business for about 30 months. Kelsey
left SAL when it was purchased by Western Air Express.
He then became one of the original four pilots on the Western Division
of American Airways in October 1930 (see below). He had over 4,500 flight
hours at that time. At the time he signed the Register, he had two daughters
aged 16 and 18.
All but one of Kelsey's landings, as far as I can tell, were during transport duties. He flew the workhorses of Standard Airlines: NC580K, NC8011 and NC9724. After Standard merged into WAE, the TWA parent, in late 1929, Kelsey, as well as his friend Hap Russell, went to work for American Airways.
The photo above from the El Paso, TX Herald-Post of February 4, 1929,
chronicles the establishment of a rail link between El Paso,
TX and points east or west for Standard Air Lines passengers.
Pilot Kelsey (the reporter got his initials wrong) is farthest
on the left. Interestingly, one of the people in the photo,
J.T. Whitlaw (initials also wrong), was also a passenger
Stearman NC6439 on January 22, 1929.
The excellent photograph below from 1929 shows most of the
key players of the short-lived Standard
Air Lines, including our pilot Harold Kelsey (second from
Popular Aviation, October, 1931 (Source: PA)
Photo, above, shared with us by Ruth Richter
Holden, daughter of Paul. See her web site about her father here. Left to right, President of Standard Air Lines Jack
Frye, Pilot William Kingsley, Chief Pilot Hap
Russell, Vice President Operations Walter Hamilton (signed
the Register twice as a passenger), Pilot Johnnie Martin,
Pilot Donald Cornell (did not sign the Register), Pilot Harold
Kelsey and Vice President & General Manager Paul
Richter, Jr. Officers Frye and Richter were also pilots
of the line. The airplane is a Fokker trimotor, probably the
one the company called "The Arizonan". Note the
automobile at rear (anybody know the make/model?) with fire
extinguisher and observer.
At some point in time, left, Kelsey carried an important piece of freight in South America. The article, from Popular Aviation (PA) magazine, October, 1931, cites Kelsey carrying by air an oil casing plug. It is not clear with which airline he was working.
The Information and image below are courtesy of John Paul Jones (credit right sidebar). In the image, we see Kelsey kneeling at left. The other two pilots in uniform are unidentified, but the one on the right is the same one as here, standing to the left of Hap Russell.
Mr. Jones says about this image, " Postmaster H.C. Kramp is standing against the fuselage with the flying helmet and goggles next to the woman also with helmet and goggles. It could possibly be his wife who donated the photograph to the library."
Harold Kelsey, American Airways Pilot, Kneeling at Left
(Source: J.P. Jones)
Pilot Kelsey met a heroic, yet grim end in a 1932 crash. Mr. Jones says of the information below, "Incidentally, today, March 19, 2008 is the 76th anniversary of his death and I think it fitting you have posted the account of his accident to the web page." Forthwith, according to Rust (citation in left sidebar):
“Meanwhile, winter weather had still not run its course. At 7:30 P.M. on the 19th of March , an American Airlines [it should be American Airways] Fokker trimotor [not sure of the registration number], flying from Phoenix to Burbank with five passengers, was headed down San Gorgonio Pass when it was trapped by clouds blowing in from the west and was forced so close to the ground trying to stay under them that it struck a high tension power line near Calimesa. Pilot Harold J. Kelsey, 41, an RCAF veteran and pioneer commercial flier with 6,000 hours, and copilot Hollis H. Campbell kept the plane in the air after hitting the power line and made a two-mile circle. Then, within half a mile of where the power line had been hit, the engines were throttled back and the plane descended toward a field for a landing but hit a tree and crashed into an apple orchard, plowing through it for 75 yards and ripping down 15 trees before it stopped on its nose, right side up and caught fire. All seven aboard lost their lives.”
Further, the following information comes to us from site visitor Michael Kirchmeier, Director, Jackson County Historical Society, Lakefield, MN (cited, right sidebar). The article is from the Jackson (MN) Republic, March 25, 1932.
Jackson (MN) Republic, March 25, 1932 (Source: Jackson County Historical Society)
He says about this information, "I ran across the obituary and became curious, because I am always looking for individuals who once lived in Jackson County who went on to some level of notoriety. I then went to the internet and a search brought me to your posting...."
As happens many times, if you read this article closely you'll pick up on a few errors. For example, the discrepancy in his birth date in the article (April 25, 1889) with that at the top of the page derived from his biographical file at the Smithsonian (April 29, 1891). That date also appeared in Aero Digest, October, 1931, Vol. 19 no. 4, page 52.
A second error is the statement about his employment with American Airways in 1924. AA was not in existence at that time. He worked for Standard Air Lines (SAL) roughly 1927-1929, and it was the SAL route from "Los Angeles to Texas" that is referred to in the article.
The photograph, below, is from the Jackson County (MN) Pilot of Thursday, March 25, 1932. It shows the extent of the damage done by the crash and the ensuing fire. There is really nothing left of the soft parts of the airplane. Cylinders from one of the radial engines can be seen in the foreground, and the forward section of the steel tube structure of the fuselage is visible in the background.
Jackson County (MN) Pilot of Thursday, March 25, 1932
(Source: Jackson County Historical Society)
Author Ernest K. Gann, in his Fate is the Hunter, lists several hundred names of deceased pilots in his dedication: “To these old comrades with wings... forever folded”. On page viii of my copy, 1st printing, hard- cover edition, first column, 19th name down, he lists: " Kelsey, H.J. AA". Indeed, says Gann, "Their fortune was not so good as mine."
UPLOADED: 12/30/05 REVISED: 01/03/06, 09/04/06, 03/18/08, 03/19/08, 06/12/09, 06/24/14