October 6, 2008

City Native Bergdahl Captured Moment

By Sandy Wells

In 1948, standing on the playground at St. Anthony's School, 12- year-old Hal Bergdahl watched an F-80 jet descend from the west and dip below the skyline.

"The plane popped up and rolled out of sight, reappeared, rolling straight down vertically, then went out of sight."

He never forgot it. "We weren't used to seeing jets," he said. "The airport had just opened the year before."

The plane probably belonged to Capt. Chuck Yeager. The famous aviator was well known for buzzing the city when he flew into Kanawha Airport to visit his parents in Hamlin.

A lifelong aviation enthusiast, Bergdahl remained fascinated with Yeager's exploits, especially tales about his flight under the South Side Bridge.

He heard the rumors about the Air Force squashing the story. "The Air Force became an independent force in 1947, the same year Yeager broke the sound barrier," he said over the phone from his home in Denver. "He was like their poster boy. If it came out in the paper that he flew under the bridge, he would have been demoted."

Eight years ago, working in Minneapolis with an airline training program, Bergdahl attended the opening of a sports equipment center. "I looked over and thought, 'Oh, my goodness. I think I recognize this guy.'"

He introduced himself as a fellow West Virginian. He and Yeager chatted about flying. Afterward, he started thinking again about Yeager's trip under the bridge. "I didn't think there could be a photograph of it, so I decided to do a drawing."

As a boy, Bergdahl spent hours sketching the planes he saw on trips with his dad to the airport. "My mother would say I was 'plane crazy' because I was always drawing airplanes."

His rendering of Yeager's bridge fly-under evolved into a 24- inch-by-36-inch painting.

In 2003, the Gazette published a picture of the painting and a brief story about it, including a couple of quotes from Yeager. Bergdahl convinced the reporter to give him Yeager's phone number in California.

Yeager knew about the painting. "He said I had his plane going the wrong way. He said he flew by the bridge, circled the Capitol, came back and flew under the bridge. I said, 'Well, I guess I'd better fix it.'"

He sent a corrected copy. Now the only thing missing is the people. Bergdahl didn't paint the throng lining the river for the boat races. "I didn't have any pictures to go by," he said.

Still, the painting depicts a famous event that isn't preserved on film, he said, and he wants to hang a print prominently somewhere in Charleston. He checked with the Cultural Center museum and the airport but didn't get any feedback. "Maybe the new library would be a good place. I'm going to work on it."

A 1955 graduate of Charleston Catholic High School, Bergdahl used his artistic talent often during a multifaceted career. He received a fine arts degree at the University of Dayton, flew an Army helicopter in Vietnam, worked in the graphics department for Boeing, qualified weather observers and radio operators for Alaska Airlines, piloted for regional air taxi companies, taught flying in New Mexico and finally landed in Denver where he developed power point slides for airline training and worked as a flight engineer on a Boeing 727.

Now basically retired, he spends much of his newly free time doing aviation paintings and portraits. One of his favorites, "Mustangs Over Charleston," shows the P-51 Mustangs housed at the airport by the West Virginia Air National Guard from 1948 to 1955.

Piloting the plane in the foreground is the squadron commander, Lt. Col. J. Kemp McLaughlin, Charleston's celebrated World War II bomber ace and a retired brigadier general. A departing Capitol Airlines DC-4 climbs to the east. In the distance, the South Side Bridge stretches across the Kanawha River.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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