Issue 12.5: October/November 2009

Return Flight

story by Ken Scott

photos courtesy Hawaiian Airlines archives

 
There’s a small airport on Puget Sound, just south of the waterfront town of Port Townsend, Washington. Except for the planes lined up in front of the restaurant, you’d think it was a park. Flags fly, the grass is neatly mowed and tidy hangars stand in rows. In one of the larger hangars, a group of teens listens intently to a stocky man lecturing in front of the graceful, curving wing of a very old airplane. As he speaks, three young men painstakingly stitch fabric onto the wooden skeleton with a foot-long needle. There are thousands of these stitches, each one tied with a special knot.

 

“Now look,” Jerry Thoutte says. “A brilliant man named Giuseppe Bellanca designed this airplane, and his employees—people like you—built it eighty years ago, in 1929. When you work on it, you need to remember and respect these things.” When this airplane was built, Thoutte tells the kids, powered flight was only a little older than they are now. The Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and only twenty-six years later, airplanes had gone from fairground novelties to realistic means of transportation. In fact, the Bellanca that Thoutte and his crew of young apprentices are restoring has been flying for three-quarters of the time there have been airplanes. 

 

A number of airplanes this old are preserved in museums, but very few still actually fly. When the young people at the Port Townsend Aero Museum finish their work, not only will the plane fly again, it will fly from the same airport—for the same company—as when it was new. The Bellanca is the first airplane Hawaiian Airlines ever flew, and to celebrate the airline’s 80th anniversary, it’s coming home.

 


 

 

The Bellanca’s story begins in 1918, eleven years before it was built. A pilot named Stanley C. Kennedy had returned home to Hawaii after a tour of duty in the Navy during World War I. He’d spent the war in an open-cockpit flying boat searching for U-boats over the freezing North Sea. He joined his father’s company, Inter-Island Steam Navigation, whose ships carried freight and passengers throughout the Hawaiian chain. His flying experience filled him with a different vision—one of moving among the Islands quickly and easily by air. In 1929 he received the go-ahead from the Steam Navigation board to form Inter-Island Airways, the company that twelve years later would become Hawaiian Airlines. Within a few months he had the project well in hand, having built a hangar at John Rodgers field (now Honolulu International Airport). But he still needed a plane to put in it.

 

Kennedy was an astute businessman, and he realized that if he were to sell air travel to a public entirely used to travel by sea, it made sense to introduce them to flying in a comfortable environment. An enclosed-cabin airplane, flying sightseeing rides over familiar surroundings—not over open water—seemed a good investment. In 1929 Kennedy traveled to the Mainland to buy planes for his new airline. He selected a pair of twin-engine Sikorsky “amphibions” (Sikorsky’s preferred spelling) for the heavy lifting of interisland work. After testing several planes, he selected a single-engine Bellanca CH-300 “Pacemaker,” registration NC251M, to be the plane that would introduce wary passengers to the new world of aviation.

 

He chose well. During the 1920s, Giuseppe Bellanca’s airplanes set many records. In 1927 a Bellanca WB-2 remained airborne for an astounding fifty-one hours. Charles Lindbergh tried to buy the plane for his flight across the Atlantic, but the owner wouldn’t sell. Frustrated, Lindbergh turned to Ryan Aircraft for the Spirit of St. Louis. The tremendous acclaim that followed Lindbergh’s successful flight from New York to Paris almost completely eclipsed what happened just three weeks later: The Bellanca WB-2, renamed Columbia, flew nonstop from New York to Germany—300 miles farther than Lindbergh.

 

The six-seat Pacemaker model was a close cousin of the WB-2. Its fuselage was a frame of steel tubing, and the structure of the high wing was wood; both were covered with fabric. The struts bracing the wings functioned like small wings themselves—a uniquely Bellanca innovation. The nine-cylinder Wright J-6 “Whirlwind” engine pumped 300 horsepower reliably enough that the Pacemaker could fly across oceans. Such long distances required patience, though, because cruising speed barely broke 100 mph.

 

NC251M rolled out of the Bellanca workshops in Newcastle, Delaware in September 1929. It was never officially named; it was called then, as now, simply “the Bellanca.” But rather than ship it to Honolulu, the daring Kennedy climbed aboard with his even more daring sister and his brother-in-law and flew to San Francisco. Transcontinental flights were rare in 1929, but the Bellanca handled it easily … in a mere twenty-eight hours. “The Bellanca … performed 100 percent on this flight,” Kennedy told the Honolulu Advertiser. “Not a wrench was used or an adjustment required on the engine or ship. Gasoline and oil was all we required.”

 

Following Kennedy’s show of faith, the Bellanca was loaded onto a steamer bound for the Islands. On Oct. 6, 1929, Inter-Island Airways took to the skies above Hawai‘i for the first time, flying up to five passengers on ten-minute scenic flights. For many of the sixty-six passengers who flew that day, it was their first flight ever. Three days later, territorial Gov. Lawrence M. Judd brought his son to the airport; they made their first flight (despite Mrs. Judd’s reservations) and returned enthusiastic about the experience.

 

For the next two years, the Bellanca was constantly in the skies over Honolulu, promoting Inter-Island Airways and aviation in general. Ads in the local newspapers invited the public to “See Honolulu From the Air.” Price: $3. The public was glad to pay it. In 1930-31 the Bellanca flew 1,300 hours and carried an estimated 12,000 people. Its high-water mark was December 1930, when the airplane averaged more than five hours a day in the air and carried about 1,300 people on fifteen- to twenty-minute flights over the city, east toward Koko Head and back.

 

For many, flying was a revelation. “Stepping into the Bellanca is like stepping into an overland train,” gushed a Star-Bulletin reporter, using an analogy that was probably meaningless to many Island residents. “Clothes worn … are no different than those worn on the street and passengers are so well protected from the wind that even hats stay in place. Conversation may be carried on just as in an automobile. The scenic beauty of the Islands is just as visible … as it is from an open-cockpit airplane.”

 

But the Bellanca’s tour of duty would come to an early end. Just a month after the plane arrived, the two Sikorskys were christened by Gov. Judd’s daughter, and on Nov. 11, 1929, one of them departed Honolulu for Hilo on Inter-Island Airways’ first interisland flight. Eventually, Inter-Island bought four Sikorskys, and the Bellanca faded into the background. In 1932 it flew only a few hours. In 1933 it was sold. The public, it seems, had grown accustomed to flight.

 


 

 

The Bellanca found its way to Alaska, where rugged, simple airplanes that hauled large loads could earn their way. On wheels it landed on beaches and tiny airstrips carved out of dirt, ice and snow. On floats it landed on lakes and rivers to deliver supplies to hunters and remote villages. Cargo included 55-gallon drums of fuel, injured miners and Kodiak bear cubs destined for a European zoo.

 

Thirty years after its last flight in Hawaii, time caught up with the Bellanca. Taking off from a lake in British Columbia in 1963, a wingtip caught the water; the ensuing cartwheel tore the airplane apart. All seven people aboard survived, but the airplane was a total loss. A year later, a relative of the pilot trucked the mangled wreckage to his home in Oregon and stored it in his backyard.

 

It would have rotted into oblivion there had it not been chanced upon by a young pilot. John Pike, age 22 in 1967, was tooling around Oregon’s Willamette Valley in a Piper Cub when he spotted a derelict airplane on a crop-duster’s grass landing strip.

 

“I was just as crazy about airplanes then as I am now,” Pike remembers. “So I landed and walked up to the house. The lady there showed me another airplane I hadn’t even seen, hidden in a thicket of blackberry bushes. I flew home and told my father all about it.” Shortly thereafter, John and his father plunked down $150 and became owners of one very wrecked Bellanca Pacemaker. Pike is a pilot, a mechanic and a lay minister, but more than anything else, he is a craftsman. He slowly unraveled the mess, saving what he could and using ruined parts as patterns for new ones. In one case he traveled 300 miles to tape panels of butcher’s paper to the fuselage of another Bellanca and trace out the position of the various tubes and joints.

 

It took thirteen years, but in April 1980 the Bellanca flew again. After warming up the old engine, Pike advanced the throttle, and the big orange airplane rolled across the grass behind his shop and lifted into the sky. Friends and guests—including one pilot who had flown NC251M for several years in Alaska—waved, yelled and wiped their eyes.

 

For the next twenty years, the Bellanca was the Pikes’ family airplane. John’s children grew up piling their camping gear into the Bellanca and flying out to lakes and bays around the Pacific Northwest. It flew many more kids by serving Pike’s family ministry and youth camps. By 2000 John realized that the seventy-year-old fuselage and wood wings had carried the airplane as far as they safely could. Restoring it again would require a major sponsor … and once again NC251M proved itself a survivor. Hawaiian Airlines was looking forward to its 80th anniversary, and what could be better than celebrating it with the very airplane that started the company? With a tinge of sadness, John sold the airplane that had been so much part of his life.

 


 

 

Hawaiian had the airplane dismantled and sent to various shops in the Pacific Northwest for a complete airworthy restoration. No single mechanic possessed the expertise needed to restore an airplane of this vintage, so several applied their specific skills—woodworking, welding, upholstery—to the job.

 

The large components were trucked to Port Townsend, where young people participating in the Aero Museum’s apprenticeship program study antique airplane restoration and maintenance with Thoutte, an ex-drill instructor, retired airline pilot and, at least at first glance, harsh taskmaster. But his hard edge softens when he describes the Bellanca project.

 

“I love old airplanes—to me, they have souls,” says Thoutte. “Working on them is a pleasure and a privilege. This airplane was built about the time the grandparents of these kids were born; I love seeing this generation connect with that history and take the time to learn the old skills. When that wing flies again, they can be damn proud. I will be.”

 

So, sometime in late 2009, the Bellanca will roll by the modern jets with the Hawaiian wahine (woman) on the tail. It will taxi across Honolulu International Airport, past the original location of John Rodgers field. It will turn onto the runway, point its nose into the wind and, after a very short takeoff run, lift into the sky and turn toward Diamond Head.