Article: “Big Bellancas” Carried Big Cargoes and Became a Bush Plane Legend

  • Image of a Bellanca Aircruiser, 66-70

    Altitude, Spring, 2014

    You don’t have to page through many books on Canadian bush flying to find a picture of CF-AWR, the Bellanca Aircruiser 66-70 that is now in the final stages of its restoration in the museum shop.

    Only a handful of Bellanca Aircruisers were registered in Canada, beginning in the late 1930s, but they made a lasting impression in the bush flying community.

    In January, 1947, CF-AWR ran out of fuel carrying supplies to a mine in northwestern Ontario and crashed near Root Lake. It was so badly damaged that its owners abandoned it after recovering the cargo, the engine, instruments, and anything else that could be salvaged for spare parts. Over the years, other parts of the fuselage such as the doors, windows and fairings became furnishings in local trappers’ cabins. After 26 years, what was left of CF-AWR was recovered by museum volunteers for restoration.

    According to the Canadian civil aircraft register, CF-AWR was the first Bellanca Aircruiser to be registered in Canada on March, 14, 1935. It was purchased by Leigh Brintnell of Mackenzie Air Service, who initially operated it under exclusive contract to Eldorado Mining and Exploration. CF-AWR was named the Eldorado Radium Silver Express and was used to move cargoes of uranium concentrates from Eldorado’s mine at Great Bear Lake. It is reasonable to speculate that it may have carried the uranium used in the first atomic bomb. CF-AWR was later sold to Canadian Airways and eventually ended up with Canadian Pacific Airlines.

    What kind of an aircraft was the Bellanca Aircruiser 66-70?

    Image of a Bellanca Aircruiser, 66-70, believed to be CF-AWR

    The “Big Bellanca” was described as a “workhorse” and “ugly.” In Canada, it was also called a “Flying W” because of its unique wing/strut configuration. Bellanca built the first of 23 of the model type in 1930. Of its production run, five were sold to Canadian operators. According to the Canadian aircraft registry, Mackenzie Air purchased two more Aircruisers – CF-BKV and CF-BTW in 1938 and 1943, respectively. British Yukon Navigation registered a fourth, CF-BLT in 1938. The fifth Bellanca was the passenger configuration of the model type and was called the Airbus; it was registered first in the U.S. as NC785W before being sold into Canada in 1937 and registered that year as CF-BBJ; it was owned by British North American Airways and Wings Limited, respectively.

    The Bellanca Aircruiser/Airbus was a high-wing, single-engine aircraft (powered by either a Wright Cyclone or Pratt and Whitney Hornet engine) built by Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of New Castle, Delaware. It was configured in cargo (Aircruiser) and passenger (Airbus) versions, and could fly on wheels, floats or skis. (The “66-70” in CF-AWR’s model designation reflects Bellanca’s system of denoting horsepower and wing area: 660 hp and 700 sq ft.)

    Guiseppe Bellanca, the company founder, considered economy and efficiency as fundamental design principles. For example, one of his objectives was to have all external fittings contribute towards lift, as evidenced by the “W” strut concept. The Aircruiser was considered the most efficient aircraft of its day and would rank high amongst all aircraft designs. Bellanca’s single-engine airplanes were capable of carrying payloads that some other 1930s-era multi-engine aircraft could not match. Specifically, the 6,000-lb Aircruiser could load cargoes of up to 3,000 lb. American legislation in the mid-1930s which prohibited the country’s air carriers from flying single-engine airplanes virtually eliminated the company’s market.

    William Paul Ferguson in an article titled “Aircruisers Over Canada,” that was published in a 1980 edition of Airline Quarterly said that Guiseppe Bellanca was “a person who was at home in any country – so long as he was able to pursue his passion for aeronautical engineering.” The article says that Bellanca’s passion for aviation was a serious obsession: “He suffered a malady well known to the fraternity of airmen – the personal need to fly! So great was his predilection that he experienced psychosomatic illness until a perceptive psychologist deduced the cause. The malady disappeared with the construction of Bellanca’s first aircraft. It was a Zust-powered biplane and was built in 1909.”

    Bellanca, who was born in 1886 in Italy and lived until 1960, emigrated to America in 1911. After a short period as the operator of a flying school, he launched his aviation design and manufacturing career with a parasol monoplane powered by a 30 hp Anzania engine. This was his first completely successfully machine. Although his aviation expertise did not contribute directly to the American First World War effort, his post-war work established his reputation as a designer of long-distance airplanes. This reputation was earned in a New York to Washington flight that achieved the potential of a passenger air fare lower than the train.

    During the 1920s and 30s, Bellanca manufactured cargo aircraft of novel and unorthodox designs that, fortunately for the company, flew well and carried large cargoes at low cost.

    Bellanca Aircruisers filled a niche in the bush plane industry by providing a middle level of cargo capacity between the Canadian Airways Junkers JU52/1M (the museum’s CF-ARM) and the many light aircraft serving the bush country, such as another Bellanca product, the CH-300 Pacemaker.

    According to Ferguson’s article, the Aircruiser “with its straightforward and viceless flight characteristics, was noteworthy due to its combination of orthodox construction methods and materials which were combined into a decidedly unorthodox configuration.” The article notes that pilots flying Aircruisers were universally complimentary in their assessments.

    CF-AWR is one of two surviving Bellanca Aircruisers. CF-BTW, which saw service in Manitoba, was acquired and restored by the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon.

    Restoration of CF-AWR was first started by George Fournier of Lac du Bonnet who had previous experience working on Bellancas. Before he died he was only able to make initial repairs to the fuselage frame.

    Since 1990, restoration progress on CF-AWR has been steady and includes: rebuilding the fuselage frame; building gearboxes for the stabilizer trim system; reconstructing the instrument panel from old and fuzzy photographs; building the wings; sewing and applying the fabric covering to wings and fuselage; installing electrical components and cockpit amenities. An engine is ready for installation and a propeller has been located and is set to be overhauled.

    As of this writing, the fuselage and wings of CF-AWR are in the restoration shop waiting to be painted. This step in the restoration process will be followed by final assembly and its debut as a display aircraft.

    Image of a Bellanca Aircruiser, 66-70, CF-AWR at an undisclosed locationImage of a Bellanca Aircruiser, 66-70, CF-AWR at an undisclosed location

    This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2014 edition of Altitude.

3 Responses and Counting...

  • Louise Slemko 06.21.2016

    Hooker Air owned B T W in the 70’s out of Pickle Lake,Ont
    Do you know where the plane is now and could I get in contact with them?
    Louise(Hooker) Slemko

  • Karen

    The information we have in the story on our website is that CF-BTW, which saw service in Manitoba, was acquired and restored by the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon.

  • John Robert

    My family lived near Eldorado on Great Bear Lake and my father worked at the mine there. My sister Alice and I flew out to school in Edmonton in 1936 or 1937 on CF-AWR flown by Stan McMillan. This initiated an interest in me toward a 50-year career in aviation accumulating 42,000 hrs of pilot time. Please advise the status of restoration of CF-AWR at this time as I’m very interested in visiting the Museum in Winnipeg to see old AWR again before it’s too late. I’m now nearly 86 years old. Many thanks for any information.
    Yours truly, JM Robert

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