Alberta Aviation Museum seeking new volunteers to restore rare WWII fighter plane

Volunteers at the Alberta Aviation Museum are working to restore the Second World War Bell P-39 Airacobra, a rare fighter plane with a unique connection to Edmonton.

'It's kind of an oddball-out-of-World War II aircraft, but it's kind of iconic'

The P-39 restoration project lost about half its work crew during COVID-19, now down to a half-dozen dedicated volunteers. (Peter Evans/CBC)

It was an American-made plane that flew through Edmonton to be used by the Soviet Union.

That's the flight path of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, a Second World War fighter tied to the history of Blatchford Field.

The planes would come through Edmonton on their way to Alaska before eventually making it to the Eastern Front as part of the lend-lease program.

A cadre of volunteers at the Alberta Aviation Museum is now working to restore one of the uniquely storied planes.

Lech Lebiedowski, the project's coordinator and a history lecturer at the University of Alberta, says the collection has its fair share of bombers from the era but doesn't have a fighter. 

He says the P-39 is a missing link in the story the museum is trying to tell.

"It's important because it fills a gap in historical interpretation of local history," Lebiedowski said. "It connects us to the bigger picture."

The Bell P-39 Airacobra would pass through Edmonton on its way to the Soviet Union, a major stopping point on the Northwest Staging Route. (Submitted by Alberta Aviation Museum)

Thousands of planes passed through Blatchford Field as part of the Northwest Staging Route to the Soviet Union.

Many Commonwealth aircrews were also trained at the airfield, which would later become Edmonton's City Centre Airport, which closed in 2013.

Planes could also go to be repaired or modified by North West Industries to the north.

Fighter restoration brings back history of Blatchford Field’s ties to WWII

1 year ago
Duration 1:36
Volunteers at the Alberta Aviation Museum are restoring an American-made P-39 Airacobra, the first of its kind in their collection and a chance to tell the story of Blatchford’s important role in WWII as a maintenance station during the planes’ journey to Europe.

The restoration is being done in partnership with the Reynolds Heritage Preservation Foundation. 

Besides funding, the foundation is also providing parts from the wreckage of a P-39 that crashed outside of Wetaskiwin, Alta., in the 1940s. The wreckage was recovered by Stan Reynolds, founder of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum.

Volunteers needed

The labour, however, is done entirely by museum volunteers. The project was started in 2018 but stalled during the pandemic as the aviation museum closed its doors.

About half of its volunteers have not returned, presenting a challenge to getting the restoration work started again.

"Our typical volunteers are retired aircraft enthusiasts, with extensive knowledge of both the planes and working on them," volunteer coordinator Erica d'Haene said.

A core of volunteers is crucial to operating the museum and working on restorations, she said.

"I would say they're the lifeblood of keeping this organization running."

Gene Boettcher has been volunteering with the restoration project for more than a year. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The museum is now recruiting for multiple positions, including restoration technicians and assistants. 

Gene Boettcher signed onto the project after visiting the museum with his wife. He's using his trades background to do sheet-metal structural work on the P-39.

"Getting the chance to work on it here after I'm retired, on some of these aircraft I always enjoyed, I find that I think I'm very honoured," he said.

Boettcher said he's always been intrigued by Second World War aircraft. One of his friends flew a Spitfire during the war, the P-39 itself having largely not been used by the western Allies.

"It's kind of an oddball-out-of-World War II aircraft, but it's kind of iconic," he said.

The project has a 2026 deadline and Lebiedowski expects it will still be about five years before the restoration is complete. 

"It's a very difficult aircraft to work on because it's all pretty much compound curving and aluminum, so it's extremely labour-intensive," he said.

Major components like transmission, engine and armament are installed but manufacturing of the missing panels, doors, interior furnishings and wings are all on the docket.

Once ready for display, the P-39 will split time between the Alberta Aviation Museum and the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin.


Stephen Cook


Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.


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