|By Robert W. Conry|
January 16, 2003
The Harvard H. Ellis Technical School located in Danielson, CT is home to a historic aviation maintenance technician school. The AMT program began in Putam, CT in September of 1930 has been in continuous operation since. For over seventy years thousands of graduates have worked for major and regional airlines, corporate aviation, and manufactures such as Sikorsky, Pratt and Whitney, and Kaman Aerospace. Robert W. Conry was an instructor in the AMT program at Ellis Tech. This is the story of this historic program.
The Putnam (CT) Trade School was established in 1915 to provide free trade education for boys. Trade school curriculum was designed to meet the needs of local industry. Northeastern Connecticut’s main industry at the turn of the century was textiles. Putnam’s textile mills had a dependable source of waterpower in the Quinebaug and French Rivers to run the looms. The region saw an increasing labor pool as many immigrated for local jobs. The new Putnam Trade School provided skilled tradesmen for the local mills.
Mr. Harvard H. Ellis became the Putnam Trade School’s director in 1920. Ellis was by training a tool and dye maker. He apprenticed and worked as a tool and dye maker for a typewriter company. The late 1920’s saw the decline of the textiles in Connecticut. The textile industry moved south where cotton was grown saving transportation costs. A new trade was needed as the mills closed. Harvard Ellis was a visionary who saw the future in the fledgling aviation industry. Ellis began an aggressive campaign to expand the school’s trade programs with an aviation mechanic school. Ellis supervised and recommended the first aircraft mechanic curriculum. He persuaded the State Board of Education to approve such a program Ellis went to Washington, D.C. to procure federal assistance for the mechanic program. The Vocational Training Division of the State Board of Education approved the Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) School on September 17, 1930. The State of Connecticut’s approval makes the Ellis Tech the oldest public aviation mechanic school in continuous operation in the United States.
Classes were held on the second floor of the Putnam Trade School. The school building was a former textile mill, typical of those found in Eastern Connecticut. Original power for the mill was provided by water from the river next to the building. Overhead shafts ran belts which powered the weaving machinery. Waterpower was converted to electricity but the overhead shaft and belt system was kept to run lathes, drill presses, and milling machines in the aircraft shop. There was no airport at the school. The Civil Aeronautics Authority had an emergency landing strip located nearby in Pomfret, CT, which the school used. The Pomfret airport had a hangar available for the school’s use. Airplanes were flown into Pomfret’s field, disassembled, and trucked to Putnam. The first instructor hired by Ellis was Mr. Frank C. Hannam of Woodstock, CT. Hannam had served as a flight mechanic with the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
Training was free to Connecticut boys. A student was required to have a minimum two years of satisfactory high school. Today all students are required to be high school graduates or equivalent. Students began the program with a probation lasting 500 hours. They began their academic and shop training with courses in machine shop and electrical shop. Successful completion of these shops and probation allowed students to continue on to airframe and engine classes. Over the next ten years the school would graduate thirty-four students; all but one would find employment as aviation mechanics.
Ellis was able to procure surplus military engines from the federal government. Some of these engines were taken from the first American military planes built for service in France. The Liberty engine was among the first received. To obtain additional operating funds the school decided to buy old airplanes to overhaul, restore, and sell. The first was purchased on April 25, 1931. It was a Curtis Fledgling powered by a Challenger engine. The Fledgling was flown from Hartford to the Pomfret airport, dismantled and taken to the school. The airframe and engine were completely overhauled. In July of 1932 the Civil Aeronautics Administration relicensed the craft. Captain Harry Generous and Captain George Kane, National Guard aviators, took the ship aloft on its first flight. They proclaimed her “airworthy” after the first test flight, to the delight of the students and instructor.
View of the hangar at the back of the Putnam Trade School. Students are seen working on a Stearman biplane.
The school received repair station license No. 113 from the Civil Aeronautics Administration on March 17, 1932. The certificate was the first of its kind issued to a vocational school. “So far as we know, yours is the only strictly mechanics training school which has been issued a repair station certificate,” wrote Mr. George M. Gardner, acting Chief of the U.S. Department of Commerce Inspection Service, in a letter to Director Ellis.
With repair station approval the school could now perform maintenance on privately owned airplanes. The first work performed on a privately owned airplane was the complete overhaul of a DeHavilland Gypsy Moth owned by Charles Maynard of Putnam. The work was completed on May 23, 1932. Other airplanes restored by the shop were: Curtis Robin, Eaglerock, Buhl Pup, Gypsy Moth, Spartan Warrior, Fleet Biplane, Stinson Reliant Monoplane, Curtis Junior, Stinson Lycoming Monoplane, pusher-type Curtis Wright, Monocoupe with a Lambert Engine, Fairchild Warner 22C7E, Stearman with a Wright J-67, Travelair, and J-2 Cub. The school obtained a D-17 Staggerwing Beech. The D-17 was purchased for around seven thousand dollars. Jigs and fixtures had to be made to replace spars and ribs. The Jacobs engine was completely overhauled. An unusual feature of the Jacobs was both battery and magneto ignition. After a completion the D-17 was sold for over twice the purchase price.
The use of outside production with a repair station was and still is a unique feature of the school. Hands on training is obtained in both airframe and engine repair. Airframe skills were taught including fabric, wirework, wood working, metal working, welding, and rigging. Engine skills included complete inspection, overhaul including machine tools in fitting of new parts, and wood and metal propellers. These skills were learned first in theory class then applied as aircraft were overhauled and repaired in the shop. By 1939 the program required 4800 hours of theory and shop instruction. Approximately 60% of the hours required were operative experience, the rest in related technical instruction. The school day ran from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM with one hour for lunch. Instructors worked an additional half day on Saturday to plan lessons and grade work. The students kept time cards. When a student attained his 4800 hours the School’s Director was called to the shop and the student graduated on the spot. He received his diploma and a handshake. Students did practical testing for the A&E license with a C.A.A. inspector.
In July of 1936 Wendell L. Russell succeeded Frank Hannam as instructor in the aircraft shop. Over the next two years the program filled to the limit of twenty students as set by the terms of the repair station license. In January of 1937 the C.A.A. granted the school approval for mechanics school license No. 91. An additional instructor, Mr. John Rogers, was hired the same year and the enrollment was raised to forty students.
In March of 1937 a grant for $3,100 was sought from the state to build a hangar, dope shed, and engine test cell. Construction was begun in June of 1937 with the trade school students performing the work. The structures were located at the rear of the school. The hangar was large enough to house three thirty-foot planes at any one time. It was completed in June of 1938.
Two views of the engine shop. Overhead shafts and drive belts which ran the machines can be seen, as well as the original Magniflux test machine.
In May of 1939 Louis deFlorez of Pomfret and New York, a pilot, engineer, and aviation enthusiast gave the aircraft school its first scholarship endowment of $200. Kostak Koleda was the first recipient of the deFlorez award and used his grant to complete flight training.
Mr. William B. Simmons was hired as an instructor in 1939 replacing John Rogers. Simmons graduated as an A&E mechanic in 1932 from the Curtis-Wright School at Hadley Airport, in Brunswick, NJ. Simmons was the first graduate of the Curtis-Wright School and the first person in the state of New Jersey to receive an aviation mechanic’s license. After graduating Simmons went to work for Curtis-Wright as an instructor. Simmons was also a Private Pilot. He learned to fly in a Curtis Fledgling in the early 1930’s. While working at Hadley, Simmons met Ellis who recruited him to teach in Putnam. Three months after Simmons started working for Ellis, Russell left to work for the National Guard making Simmons department head. A second instructor, Mr. Huss, was hired.
The outbreak of World War II brought change to the school. The two instructors were issued deferments. Only four maintenance students were issued deferments. The aircraft shop contributed to the war effort by training students from Pratt and Whitney at night. P&W students commuted from East Hartford to Putnam to receive their engine training. These students received engine theory, applied engine shop, and welding. The instructors were given one month off during the summer for the duration of the war. As soon as a class completed the engine school a new one would begin immediately.
Security was tight at the school. Simmons recalls he had bought a Lugar pistol. Ironically he carried it to defend the school and airplanes against German espionage. For additional security the rudders were always removed from the airplanes. They were kept under lock and key separate from the planes. Fortunately no incidents occurred, but all were vigilant for the duration of the war.
Post-war prosperity brought a need for trained mechanics as the aviation industry returned. The return of GI’s and the GI bill brought many new students to the school. Major airlines, Pratt and Whitney, Kaman, and Sikorsky hired most of the graduates. Virtually all found work in the aviation industry. As class sizes increased an addition was needed. The rapidly advancing aviation technology required more lab space and shop floor space.
The original building was built in 1915 and expanded in the 1920’s. By 1941 an expansion of the shop and the construction of an airport proposed. The cost would be $180,000. There were plans for the addition of a dormitory at the school. The Pomfret airport was to be paved and a crosswind runway added. This was never accomplished, as it was defeated in a referendum by the voters of Putnam. The need for a new building and hangar was crucial as the aviation program grew. Sparked by the defeat by the voters of Putnam it was decided to move the entire trade school including the aircraft shop into a new building. Enough land would be obtained in nearby Danielson to build the new school building and construct a new airport.
Four aircraft students and Mr. William Simmons, Sr. (far right). The second student from the left is Mr. Delton Briggs from Lebanon, CT. Briggs was able to identify the biplane as a 1928 Kitty Hawk Viking built in New Haven, CT. The Viking was repaired at the school after a landing accident damaged the landing gear and lower wing. The students were from high school and attended the aircraft shop during the War. The photo was taken in the spring of 1944.
The 1950’s saw the school, including the aircraft shop, move into the new building in Danielson. The airport design was begun. In 1950 the aircraft program was showcased in the Connecticut exhibit of the Eastern States Expo in Springfield, MA. The shop received praise in 1952 by aeronautics inspector Mr. P.S. Lovering, a supervising agent for the C.A.A. The school narrowly escaped disaster in 1955 with flooding from two hurricanes. Over one third of the Putnam Trade School was damaged by floodwaters from the swollen Quinebaug and French Rivers. Damage to the school was estimated at $150,000. The aircraft shop escaped major damage from the storm. The test cell was washed away into the river, but the hangar and dope shed were saved. This disaster proved a benefit to the school as it prompted the decision to build a new centrally located school.
Harvard H. Ellis died on July 17, 1956. He never saw his dreams of expansion fulfilled. His successor, Alton Aldrich, was an enthusiastic supporter of aviation. With Aldrich’s support the state built an airport and new school building that included the aviation maintenance school. The new technical school building was built first. Construction of the $2.5 million dollar school began in Danielson in late winter of 1958. The building opened officially on July 1, 1959 with a dedication on Sunday, November 8, 1959. The school was renamed Harvard H. Ellis Technical School to honor the work and dedication of Mr. Ellis.
Although the Danielson Airport was to be built solely for the school, Aldrich pushed for a municipal airport to be shared between the school and the Danielson region. In January of 1961 John Dempsey, the former mayor of Putnam, was inaugurated governor. Dempsey supported the building of the Danielson Airport. Governor Dempsey signed for the airport construction on March 24, 1961. Ground breaking was held on Monday, July 10, 1961. The $500,000 airport was completed and dedicated on July 4, 1962. Over 10,000 people attended the dedication ceremony with Charles Kaman of Kaman Aircraft the principal speaker.
Until the 1970’s the aircraft program had only two instructors and averaged thirty students. Many applicants to the program were not accepted due to the lack of space and instructors. Thomas Meskill succeeded Governor Dempsey. Governor Meskill was a pilot and aviation enthusiast. He often would fly the state airplane to the school to visit. The new governor supported additional hangar, classroom, and lab space for the maintenance school. In 1974 an addition was completed bringing the shop to its present size. With the addition, two additional instructors were hired. Class sizes ranged from 65 to 75 students with several years having as many as 80.
In June of 1976 William Simmons, Sr. retired as department head. William (Bill) Jr. replaced his father. The program continued to prosper and received many accolades for the work and restorations performed. Bill Simmons Jr. retired in 1994. On June 9, 1995 Mr. William Simmons, Sr. was awarded the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the F.A.A. for a lifetime of achievement in aviation maintenance.
At the end of the Connecticut Legislative Session in 2001 the State Legislature approved $10 Million Dollars to construct a new facility to house the Ellis AMT School. Plans include a new hangar and classrooms to be located at the Brainard Airport in Hartford. One of the difficulties attracting AMT students to Ellis Tech has been its location. Access from the Hartford area is difficult due to the lack of interstate highways connecting east to west. Most of Connecticut’s major aerospace employers and its main airport (Bradley Field) are located in the central part of the state. Most graduates are employed here. Many students intern or work part-time in this region. By relocating the AMT program closer to employers and a more central location enrollment will increase. Tuition for the program remains very affordable for Connecticut residents. College credit is awarded at several Community Colleges for completion of the program.
Over 1,000 Airframe and Powerplant mechanics have graduated from the program since its inception in 1930. This makes the aircraft shop one of the most successful trade programs in the state’s vocational-technical system. As the shop enters its seventh decade it continues as the nation’s oldest public Aviation Maintenance Technician School. Unlike the textile industry of the 1920’s aerospace continues at the cutting edge of technology. The Aviation Maintenance Technician School at Ellis Tech has made a lasting mark on this industry in the United States.
Robert W. Conry
Robert Conry was an instructor in the AMT School at Ellis Tech from 1991 to 1995 teaching in the areas of math, physics, theory of flight, and blueprint reading/technical drawing. From 1995 to 2001 he served as admissions coordinator for the program and also updated the FAA approved curriculum. He has flown for two regional airlines (Pan Am Express and Business Express) and holds ATP and Certificated Flight Instructor ratings. He has a Masters Degree in Vocational-Technical Education from Central Connecticut State University (1989), and is currently a full time faculty member in the Department of Engineering and Aviation Science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, MD.