World War I plane latest addition to Latrobe aviation museum

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In 1985, four local aviation enthusiasts traveled to Bozeman, Mont., to get a rebuilt 1942 aircraft that was once used as a mail carrier.

The plane, a Stinson V-77 Reliant, was given a new home at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, where it performed mail pickup demonstrations and was flown during annual air shows.

About seven years ago, pilot Sam Schrecengost was looking for a permanent home for one of his planes.

He persuaded Don Rossi, a pilot and Westmoreland County Airport Authority board member who had made the trip to Montana, to donate a hangar he owns at the airport — and the KLBE Aviation Museum was born.

In flight-tracking, ''K'' signifies U.S. airports and ''LBE'' is the designator for Latrobe Airport.

In addition to the Stinson, the nonprofit museum displays a 1954 Soviet-made MiG 15-UTI, with machine gun and single pylon for dropping bombs; a 1931 Great Lakes bi-wing aircraft; and a replica of a Curtiss JN-4 ''Jenny'' World War I biplane. All the planes are capable of flying.

The museum is open, with free admission,  from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays year-round, including during the Westmoreland County Air Show, which will be held June 7-8 this year at the airport and include a performance by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron.

The WWI biplane at the museum was built from scratch by commercial pilot Robert Lombardo of Rostraver. Two months ago, Mr. Schrecengost and commercial pilot Nick Zello went to Rostraver, disassembled the plane, brought it to the airport, and reassembled it again.

The Jenny replica is two-thirds the size of the original, and likely America's most famous World War I aircraft, with over 6,800 built in the years 1917-20. Machine guns were mounted on top, but it was used primarily for pilot training in World War I.

Children may sit in the three-passenger Stinson, which has its original instrument panel.

The museum also contains exhibits on local aviation pioneers Charlie Carroll and Lloyd Santmyer; an OX-5 airplane engine for an authentic Jenny; a 25-seat theater for short films of previous airport air shows; and a motion flight simulator for pilot training.

The museum is operated by a volunteer group of flight aficionados, including Mr. Schrecengost, Mr. Zello and Dave Austin, who share their aviation experience and knowledge with visitors.

Mr. Schrecengost said the museum is significant because of the role the region has played in aviation history, such as US Airways getting its start here in 1939 as All-American Airways, delivering mail throughout Western Pennsylvania, and the key role that Mr. Santmyer, of Westmoreland County, played in the development of the instrument landing system for aviation.

''It is important to have a place to recognize these contributions,'' said Mr. Schrecengost, 74, a retired sheet metal worker, who recently sold his two planes. His foray into the skies began in 1980 when his wife gave him $100 for a flight lesson.

''I came home and told her I bought a plane,'' the Delmont man said of his two-seater, 1966 Cessna 150.

Mr. Austin, 72, an electronic technician at Westmoreland Mechanical Testing and Research from Rector, has been interested in planes since he was 12. A pilot, he owns the museum's Great Lakes aircraft, which he took apart and restored and hopes to fly after retirement.

Museum expenses are paid by Mr. Rossi and by the Westmoreland County Airport Authority.

Admission to the June 7-8 air show will be $16 at the gate for adults; free for ages 10 and younger and for military personnel. Discount tickets are available at Shop'n Save. Gates will open at 8 a.m.; the show will start at 11 a.m.

Margaret Smykla, freelance writer:

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