Up, Up, and Away: Sherm Lutz and the State College Air Depot

The Aviators

Men have conquered all fear
When like the birds they fly,
Upon their outspread wings
They rush across the sky.
Like tiny ships they rise
Into the sea of blue,
And soar above the clouds
Until they’re lost to view.
They cross the deserts wide,
The mountains cold and high,
Above the restless seas
They blaze new paths to fly.

From Poems by Susan L. Harlacher of Halfmoon Valley.

In the beginning of the 20th century, aviation was not a technology on the minds of most everyday folk.  A technology known for its dangerous crashes and malfunctions, aviation failed to resonate as a meaningful science.  Centre County’s own pilot pioneer, Sherman “Sherm Lutz” embraced the adventure, but also had a grander vision of bringing commercial airline flights to the region.

Born in Ferguson Township in 1903, Sherm was raised during a time when most families in Centre County made their living on the farm and it was customary to work the fields as generations did before.  Flying as a vocation could not have been further from anyone’s mind. Yet when Lutz was only 11 years old, he was intrigued with flying and in the 1920’s began to spend time with Pleasant Gap garage owner, automobile mechanic and pilot, Henry Noll. Lutz went to work for Noll in exchange for flying lessons that would have otherwise been out of reach. 

As a stunt pilot he brought home awards from air meets across the region. In 1933, Lutz received praise for retrieving an anti-paralysis serum from Philadelphia in a snowstorm, saving the life of a State College boy. He was the first to deliver mail by air to State College in 1938. Lutz also had the honor of flying several prominent individuals during his career including Penn State President Milton Eisenhower to Washington for a vacation with his brother, President Dwight Eisenhower.

Sherm Lutz opened an airfield in Boalsburg in 1929 before moving it to State College in 1947. At the time and for decades after, the closest major airport was in Black Moshannon, so Lutz’s airfields became a major port for travelers to and from the State College area. Sherm was also a flying instructor between 1933 and 1987who taught hundreds of students, many of whom joined the air force or became professional commercial pilots.

In 1939, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) began a pilot cadet training program that encouraged many young women to get their pilot’s license. Though women were dropped from the program in 1941, by June of that year more than 2,000 American women had already learned to fly from the CAA. 

Newspaper clippings in the Sherm Lutz collection tell us that at least 8 college-age women took flying courses using a plane supplied by Lutz around this time. Janet F. Twichell, Penn State class of 1942, was one flight student. She told the Collegian “It was a fascinating course, and provided information about engines and weather conditions which everyone should know but just never runs into anywhere else.” Twichell later served in the Women’s Army Corps.

The State College Air Depot also supplemented the education of Curtiss-Wright Cadettes. Between February 1943 and March 1945, 918 college-age women studied aeronautical engineering at campuses throughout the United States. Penn State had 100 cadettes, with at least 10 of them practicing at Lutz’s airfield. After an intense 10-month training program, cadettes worked for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a major aircraft manufacturer. 

Whether they were inspired by the prospect of military service, career opportunities, or just the thrill of taking flight, Sherm Lutz inspired almost as many women as men to take to the air. Even when most aeronautical fields were inaccessible to women, photographs from the Sherm Lutz collection show the proud, smiling faces of hundreds of women pilots after their first solo flight.

Up, Up and Away features images and artifacts from the Sherman Lutz Collection which was donated to the Centre County Historical Society by his niece, Phyllis Lutz Barr in 2001. Lutz left behind pilot records, documents, correspondence, thousands of images, 21 film reels, flight suits, and camera and videography equipment. With generous contributions and dedicated assistance from student interns, volunteers and contributions, we continue to research, organize and process the Collection to make it more accessible to the public.

No one did more than Sherm Lutz to promote aviation to Centre County. Hear the story of Centre County’s premiere aviator and his surprising legacy in episode 9 of our Dead Centre podcast, Remembering Sherm Lutz, produced by Kate O’Toole.

The Sherman Lutz Collection includes 21 film reels. To date, four have been digitized and placed on YouTube for viewing. These films are available below along with a three part compilation taken from VHS with commentary by Lutz.