North

Rare vintage plane lands in Yellowknife

The 1929 Bellanca Pacemaker is one of just two operational aircraft of its kind in the world.

1929 Bellanca Pacemaker has strong ties to the North

Warren, right, and Carolyn Wright stand with Warren's restored 1929 CH 300 Bellanca Pacemaker. The aircraft was in Yellowknife last weekend for the biennial Midnight Sun Fly In. (Submitted by North-Wright Air)

When a rare, 90-year-old aircraft landed in Yellowknife last weekend, it was more than just a coming-out for the vintage plane — it also signified a homecoming.

The recently-restored, 1929 CH 300 Bellanca Pacemaker is one of just two operational aircraft of its kind in the world. It garnered much attention at this year's Midnight Sun Fly In, a biennial gathering of bush pilots and their planes.

The fire engine red aircraft was flown in by Warren Wright, a Norman Wells resident and founder of North-Wright Air. 

'A lot of history in the North'

As Wright told CBC this week, the Bellanca has "a lot of history in the North." 

Indeed, the aircraft's storied past in the Northwest Territories is was what motivated him to track one down.

Bellanca planes, designed in the late 1920s by Italian-American engineer Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, set a number of long-distance records. 

Warren Wright's CH 300 Bellanca Pacemaker is one of just two operational aircraft of its kind in the world. (Submitted by North-Wright Air)

The Bellanca Pacemakers were known for their "reliability and weight-lifting attributes," according to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and as such, they were ideal in the 1920s and 1930s for flights up to northern settlements along the Mackenzie River. 

In 1929, famed aviator and World War One fighter pilot Wop May made the first airmail delivery to the Arctic in a Bellanca. 

Three years later, the RCMP asked May to help in the hunt for Albert "The Mad Trapper of Rat River" Johnson, an accused cop killer on the lam around the northern reaches of the Yukon-Northwest Territories border.

Flying a Bellanca, May searched for traces of Johnson and reported what he saw to police on the ground. 

Bellanca planes, designed in the late 1920s by Italian-American engineer Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, set a number of long-distance records. (Submitted by Becky Pike)

Rare find

Acquiring the six-seater Bellanca and making it flight-ready was a mission in and of itself, said Wright. 

The first time a Bellanca Pacemaker came up for sale, Wright's wife Carolyn shut down the purchase.

"Being the common sense one, [Carolyn] said, 'We can't afford that, no way,'" he said. 

Hawaiian Airlines snagged that plane, but five years later, Wright came across a second Pacemaker online.

"I didn't quite ask this time, I just picked it up," he said. "Got in a little bit of trouble over that one, but [Carolyn's] happy with the airplane now."

In 1929, famous aviator and World War One fighter pilot Wop May made the first airmail delivery to the Arctic in a Bellanca. (Submitted by Becky Pike)

The previous owner planned to fly the Pacemaker from New York to Lithuania — seeing through a 1933 flight by two Lithuanian pilots which, after 37 hours in the air and an encounter with bad weather, ended in a fatal crash in Germany. 

"His dream was to use a piece of the original part of that airplane that crashed and finish the 300 clicks that they ran short of," said Wright. "But he was getting up in the ages ... so he put the aircraft back up for sale and that's how I came to acquire it."

Restoration

Then there was the matter of bringing the aircraft back to life.

"It was basically just an airframe, and the engine was all taken apart and a little bit corroded up here, and there was pieces missing," said Wright.  

Wright said that when he acquired the aircraft, 'it was basically just an airframe, and the engine was all taken apart and a little bit corroded up here, and there was pieces missing.' (Submitted by North-Wright Air)

John Pike of Big Sky Stearman in Oregon restored the Hawaiian Airlines Bellanca Pacemaker, so Wright took his plane to Pike.  

Wright said flying his Bellanca is "a lot of fun and enjoyable."

But the old bush pilots must have had to bundle up flying the aircraft around the territories in deep winter, he said. 

"It's not a warm airplane to fly if it's in the colder weather."  

Written by Sidney Cohen based on an interview by Alyssa Mosher

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