Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hawaiian Airlines Keeps 1929 Plane Flying • Carrier’s Bellanca Pacemaker soars on free sightseeing trips for employees, special guests

Hawaiian Airlines’ Merle Clawson is one of several aviators who get to fly the carrier’s oldest plane, the Bellanca Pacemaker. 

The Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2015 7:47 p.m. ET

HONOLULU—Most airline pilots like to fly the biggest, newest planes. Hawaiian Airlines ’ Merle Clawson happily pilots the tiniest, oldest plane in its fleet: a single-engine, six-seat 1929 Bellanca Pacemaker that was the first aircraft operated by the carrier’s predecessor company 86 years ago.

Mr. Clawson is one of seven aviators, including Hawaiian Chief Executive Mark Dunkerley, who take aloft airline employees, their families and special guests in the Bellanca most weekends for free sightseeing trips over Diamond Head and other Oahu sights.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian operates 48 modern jetliners and has more on order. The Bellanca flies at about 100 knots, or 120 miles an hour, compared with a cruising speed of 470 knots for some of Hawaiian’s wide-body jetliners. But the Bellanca is an important way for employees to feel connected to the history of the carrier and its home state, a place unusually reliant on air travel, says Mr. Dunkerley.

Fliers “are so awed about this plane and its roots,” says Mr. Clawson, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt one Saturday as he repaired the plane’s radio.

Many companies preserve artifacts of their history to help build workers’ esprit de corps, or to use in marketing. A number of them have built entire museums, including auto maker Volkswagen AG, chip maker Intel Corp., and farm-equipment maker Deere & Co., which has two. Delta Air Lines Inc. has a museum that includes a 1928 Waco 125 biplane like the model its Northwest Airlines merger partner used to carry mail, and a restored Delta Douglas DC-3 plane from 1940.

But few companies’ museum pieces actually fly. Hawaiian believes it is the only carrier of its era that still operates its first airplane.

“There are a number of airlines that sponsor and support their early vintage planes in museums,” says John Plueger, a private pilot and president of Air Lease Corp., an airplane leasing company. “But there are damned few, if any, that keep them flying. It’s one thing to go look at an old plane in a museum and another to strap yourself in and fly it,” which he says Mr. Dunkerley allowed him to do when they were up in the Bellanca.

The antique plane, painted bright red and made of steel tubing, linen and spruce, still has its original cockpit instruments, save for a digital fuel gauge. It taxis on custom-ordered 1925 Ford Model T pickup truck tires and is powered by a 400-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine.

Mr. Dunkerley, an aerobatic pilot in his spare time, is a big fan. “It’s a very docile plane in the air,” he says. “On the ground, it’s a handful. It doesn’t handle crosswinds well and tends to want to weather vane.” A special Federal Aviation Administration rating is required of pilots who fly such so-called “tail wheel” planes.

Charles Lindbergh tried to buy a Bellanca for his famous trans-Atlantic flight, but couldn’t agree on the price. So he turned to another manufacturer. Two weeks later, a Bellanca flew nonstop from New York to Germany—300 miles farther.

Hawaiian’s reunion with its Bellanca almost didn’t happen. The plane was sold by its predecessor company, Inter-Island Airways, in 1933. It flew for three decades in Alaska and northern Canada, mounted on skis and floats. In 1963, taking off from a lake in British Columbia, the wingtip caught the water and the plane cartwheeled. While the occupants survived, the Bellanca was ruined.

A year later, a relative of the pilot trucked the wreckage to his home in Oregon. John Pike, an antique airplane restorer in Oregon City, Ore., paid $150 for the parts and spent 15 years restoring the aircraft, which became his family plane for two decades. When he realized it would need a major overhaul to fly safely, Mr. Pike called Hawaiian about a decade or so ago and offered it for sale. He says the airline wasn’t interested.

But in 2008, Hawaiian called back, looking to purchase the plane to celebrate its 80th anniversary a year later, Mr. Pike says. He sold it for $95,000 and Hawaiian hired an Arlington, Wash., aircraft restorer, Joe Pritchard, to get the Bellanca airborne. Given the tight deadline, he hired a variety of subcontractors.

Once the plane was proved airworthy, Mr. Pritchard says he disassembled it and shipped it to Honolulu by sea, where it was reassembled for the November 2009 celebration. For the event, a huge lei was wrapped around the fuselage, a priest blessed the plane, pilots dressed in 1929-era uniforms and the Hawaii governor spoke.

Erin Ito, who works in Hawaiian’s human resources department, says she waited years before her first Bellanca flight in November because she was so afraid. “The nerves went wild when we walked around the aircraft” that day, she says, “and we felt really tiny taking off amid all the jets.”

But the 30-minute trip was a thrill. “I’ve lived in Hawaii all my life, but I’ve never really seen it from that perspective,” she says. “They found it. It’s crazy. You just can’t believe it,” she says of the Bellanca. She plans to take her mom up next.

Story, comments and photo:    http://www.wsj.com

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