By Brandon Ross Abel, EAA 700546
I have always had a passion for aviation. I am a military pilot who has flown primarily fighter aircraft and small transports in the Air Force. I own a 1946 Aeronca Champ and have a couple vintage airplane projects in various stages of restoration. I also have some flight time in warbirds, particularly DC-3s and T-6s. However, as I opened the January/February 2022 issue of Warbirds magazine, I was both excited and shocked to see an article about a British fighter pilot mentioning my great-uncle Orin Welch and his flivver aircraft. Talk about diverse! The article, “L.C. Wade and the Hurricane,” discussed the RAF pilot’s background and personal flying before the war. L.C. bought and logged time in a peculiar airplane, the Welch OW-6M, which the article highlighted in a concise origin story on the page inset. While I was delighted to see both my great-uncle and his aircraft mentioned in Warbirds magazine, I immediately wanted to expound on Orin’s contribution to the war effort and the thousands of others like him.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Orin immediately sprang into action and volunteered for service. However, although Orin had thousands of flight hours, he was, at 35, too old to serve in the military. Yet within a year’s time he found his way to the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and began flying supplies between India and China. Known as “The Hump,” thousands of military and civilian aircrews served along this unforgiving route supplying the military in China from 1941 to 1945. Unfortunately, this is one of the lesser-known theaters of operation during World War II, and the civilian aircrew of CNAC are all but forgotten remnants of an operation vital to the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater and Allied victory in the Pacific.
Orin Welch was born in 1906 as the oldest of four siblings in Washington, Ohio. His first glimpse of an airplane occurred when he was 11 years old along the banks of the Ohio River during the Great War. Like many of us, he immediately caught the bug. Orin finished eighth grade but never went back to school, instead working for ex-Army pilot L.H. “Scotty” Scott as an aircraft mechanic. He later began taking flying lessons from Scotty at the age of 17. As with so many other starving aviators in the 1920s, he made his living through flight instruction and barnstorming in his Standard J-1. However, after working for Scotty and learning what he thought was everything he needed to know about the aviation industry, Orin moved out on his own at the age of 18.
The Welch family initially moved to West Virginia and started their own flight school, eventually settling in Indiana at their own airfield. Beginning in 1926, Orin decided to manufacture his own line of aircraft. He initially used Swallow fuselages and modified them with different wings, tail surfaces, landing gear, and engine components. Only six Welch biplanes were produced as Orin continued to tinker with different designs, including a parasol and a cabin monoplane. In 1929, Orin began his first light airplane, or flivver design. This aircraft flew in 1931, resembled an Aeronca C-3, and was initially powered by a Continental A-40 engine. Over the next nine years Welch Aircraft Industries would produce approximately 50 light airplanes, designated the OW-5M through OW-8M models, with the major difference in designation differentiating the engine type.
The CNAC was founded in 1929 by the Nationalist government of China. Within weeks, a contract was established between CNAC and an American firm, Aviation Exploration Incorporated, to establish air routes between a few major ports within mainland China. Shares of the company exchanged hands numerous times, but by 1933 Pan American Airways held the 45 percent American share. Initially carrying airmail and passengers, CNAC attempted to stay out of military affairs in the region as best as possible. The fleet initially consisted of Loening Air Yachts and Douglas DC-2s, but eventually added Douglas Dolphins, Curtis Condors, and DC-3s to their main operation. However, CNAC would take any aircraft they could get their hands on, including some Stinson Detroiters, Consolidated Commodores, Vultee V-1As, and a Ford Tri-Motor, among others.
As the war in China continued from the 1930s into the 1940s, Japanese forces pushed CNAC operations further away. At times under combat conditions, daring escapes and evacuations were made transporting CNAC employees, their families, and important Chinese government officials to safety. Over time, the strictly civilian air carrier began to realize that without military contracts, there may be no civilian population or airmail to move around the country. In the end, CNAC became a civilian owned and operated contract cargo carrier used for military operations. In December 1941, CNAC had relocated its headquarters to India and began flights over what would become known as “The Hump.”
Once committed to the war effort, CNAC pilots had to learn how to safely operate in an environment rife with hazards. First, the Himalayan Mountain range is like no other in the world. From bases in India flying over Burma into China, mountain peaks reach more than 19,000 feet along the route. Not only were the aircraft not pressurized or climate-controlled, losing an engine in a C-47 or C-53 with a full load required either immediately dumping your cargo out of the door or flying into the side of a mountain. Unfortunately for the CNAC crews, “The Hump” is also known for its unforgiving and unpredictable weather conditions. Not only were storms prevalent, oftentimes they could not fly over, under, or through these squalls. While crews were attempting to stay alive flying over the most dangerous area in the world, Japanese fighter patrols were also not unheard of. Luckily, the weather was often so poor, fighter aircraft were reluctant to stick their noses too far westward and numerous crews found safety in the clouds or valleys between mountain ranges. Flying “The Hump” was dangerous business, so much so the nickname “Aluminum Trail” was coined to signify the ability to navigate the route by seeing the aircraft wreckage scattered across the mountain range.
My grandmother, Drina Welch Abel, remembered her older brother Orin on Pearl Harbor Day in her 1983 book The Welch Airplane Story. He was a single, 35-year-old with more than 7,200 flight hours in his logbook and wanted to serve his country in what he thought was the best use of his talents. He mailed resumes to various companies and organizations and received an opportunity to flight instruct for the United States Navy in Pensacola, Florida. Always the adventurer though, he chose Pan American Airways Ferry Command and began working in Miami, Florida. Dissolved in October 1942, he immediately became affiliated with the China National Aviation Corporation and left the United States for the last time in November.
Although there are no records of Orin’s arrival in China, I was lucky enough to interview one of his fellow pilots in the spring of 2017. Speaking to Peter Goutiere corroborated the same story I read in his autobiography Himalayan Rogue. On March 11, 1943, four C-53s were being refueled in Kunming, China, for the long return home.  While the crews were waiting, pilots did what pilots tend to do, tell flying stories. On this particular day, my great-uncle Orin mentioned to the other three crews that he knew a route through the Himalayas that would only require a climb to 11,000 feet. Although seemingly too good to be true, the crews wanted to give it a try — the lower the altitude, the more oxygen and heat there would be in the cockpit and less bad weather there would be outside of the cockpit. Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. With Orin in the lead, as the weather got worse the pilots flew tighter to each other and lower to the ground. Through one mountain pass the aircraft felt a heavy downdraft and one of the C-53’s left wings clipped a tree, cartwheeling into a cloud of snow. The C-53 could be seen scattered in “Foxy’s Pass” (named after the pilot, Jim Fox) for the rest of the war and was another example of how the “Aluminum Trail” got its name.
Disaster struck again 48 hours later. Just as before, four C-53s had safely made it to Kunming with precious 50-gallon drums of fuel. As was often the case, they were returning to their base in Dinjan, India, with 100-pound tin ingots tied down with the same rope used for the drums. One crew decided the thunderstorm looked too menacing and turned back before entering. Another decided to scud-run as they had done two days before, making it to safety under the weather. The final two C-53s entered the storm at 15,000 feet. The turbulence was incredible. One of the remaining crews didn’t like what they were seeing, executed a 180-degree turn, and attempted to exit from where they had come. Popping out of the storm in an updraft at 23,000 feet, the tin bars broke loose and sliced through the aluminum skin, leaving the Douglas cargo aircraft looking like a cheese grater. The aircraft landed safely, but without a single tin bar inside. Orin wasn’t so lucky, and the aircraft was never seen again. It was assumed that the same updrafts and downdrafts caused the ingots in his airplane to break loose and cut his control cables. After the crash, CNAC pilots complained about the poor tie-down ropes and petitioned for the same cargo netting used by the military.
Orin’s family was notified like countless others. One late evening, a man dressed in a Western Union suit knocked on the door. The telegram, written by H.M. Bixby, vice president of Pan American Airways, summed up the service and sacrifice of CNAC aircrew during the war. It stated, “The secret route over which Orin was flying for CNAC is the same route flown by the U.S. Army Air Transport Command in keeping at a constant pace the flow of strategic war materials to and from China. He flew the same type of planes and carried the same valuable cargo as did uniformed American Army transport pilots. He has truly been in the service of his country.” Orin’s death devastated the family and summarily ended the Welch Aircraft Company. Although the remaining assets were sold, my grandmother would never forget her big brother.
The passion I witnessed as a child by my grandmother Drina, largely stemming from her experiences with Orin and their family growing up, left a terrific impression. Not to be outdone, my maternal grandparents were lovers of aviation and ensured that Oshkosh was our annual family vacation each July. All told, these three grandparents produced six pilots between the two families. My own military flying service was set in motion by Drina’s fascinating stories of her older brother. This passion, injected into me at such a young age, has led to a blessed 22-year flying career that is still going strong.
In addition to the U.S. Air Force, I have also attempted to honor my great-uncle’s memory by volunteering for the Commemorative Air Force. Part of my duties include second-in-command in the Inland Empire Wing’s C-53 D-Day Doll. I was lucky enough to participate in the 75th anniversary of D-Day with the D-Day Squadron’s trip to Europe. Sitting right-seat in the C-53 at the Paris Air Show and flying the bird from France to New York, along the old Bluie West 1 (BW-1) route, provided memories that will last a lifetime. Looking back at that trip and comparing our amenities to what the crews had in 1943, it amazes me that more young men weren’t lost in the war. Our weather forecasting and reporting, combined with navigation in the palm of our hand, were unimaginable at the time.
That small Welch monoplane my grandmother talked about those many years ago never ventured too far from my thoughts. Although only 50 or so aircraft were made, a few basket-cases still exist today. No examples are currently airworthy and if my research is correct, none have flown in more than 30 years. My goal is to change that in 2023. Thanks to an understanding wife and supportive family, Welch OW-5M (NC 33500) is being restored by my uncle, John Ross, at the Sky King Airport (3I3) in Terre Haute, Indiana. As of this writing, the fuselage and wings are covered and painted. Work still needs to be completed in the cockpit, the instrument panel (if you can call it that), and the firewall forward. Like many of the flivver aircraft of its day, these aircraft helped train and provide invaluable experience to those pilots that would go on to fight for the Allies and win the war.
My brother, Elliot Abel, is another of those six family pilots and flies for a major airline. Interestingly, he also flew cargo into Eastern Asia, close to where our great-uncle had flown nearly 80 years before. Albeit there were likely some differences between his flights in the Boeing 747 and Orin’s in the C-53. Nevertheless, there are countless “freight dogs” out there today wearing civilian clothes, moving goods under military contracts into areas most passenger carriers would rather not overfly. Those contracts can trace their lineage back to the aircrew in the CBI theater and pilots like Orin Welch.
My goal is to educate and provide a tribute to the thousands of men and women associated with the China National Aviation Corporation and the hundreds of aircrews who paid the ultimate sacrifice supporting the war effort in the worst environment imaginable. Although CNAC aircrew were the first group to “Fly the Hump,” military operations later provided the bulk of the airlift. In the end, the India-China ferrying operation was the largest and most extended strategic air bridge in aviation history until surpassed in 1949 by the Berlin Airlift. In total, pilots logged 1.5 million flight hours over the Himalayas, delivering every drop of fuel, every weapon, and every piece of ammunition used by American forces in China. This came at a cost of nearly 600 aircraft and more than 1,700 aircrew killed or missing in action, including my great-uncle Orin Welch.
“Flying the ‘Hump’ was the foremost and by far the most dangerous, difficult and historic achievement of the entire war.” – Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, Commander, U.S. Forces – China.
At an Oshkosh in the not-to-distant future, I hope and would love to walk down warbird alley, look at the row of DC-3s, C-47s and C-53s, and see an olive-drab Douglas with the CNAC roundel proudly displayed on the side of the fuselage.
 The Welch Airplane Story, Drina Welch Abel, The Sunshine House, 1983.
 Peter Goutiere, Interview, May 2017.
 Himalayan Rogue: A Pilot’s Odyssey, Peter Goutiere, Turner Publishing Company, 1994.
 The Aluminum Trail, Chick Marrs Quinn, 1989.