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Aviation Trailblazer Flew Under the Radar in New Castle

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In the annals of early aviation, Giuseppe Mario Bellanca is a towering figure. In the history of Delaware, not so much—though he should be.

Bellanca was an immigrant engineer whose airplanes set dozens of records for speed and distance. Charles Lindbergh himself wanted to fly a Bellanca craft on his trans-Atlantic attempt in 1927, and he would have, if one of Bellanca’s business partners hadn’t objected. Lindbergh’s 34-hour, 3,600-mile flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis got the glory, but Bellanca’s design, the WBII—the very plane Lindbergh had wanted to buy—had already set a world record for endurance, having flown 51.5 straight hours.

It had not, however, crossed an ocean. Yet two weeks after that first trans-Atlantic, the WBII, christened Columbia and heavily loaded with fuel and supplies, repeated the feat and then some—with a passenger. Columbia landed in Berlin after nearly 43 hours and 4,000 miles. If not for a storm, it could have flown to Moscow.

New York to Berlin with a passenger should have been distinction enough, but history is cruel. “If you come in second, you come in second,” says Bellanca buff Frank Ianni. Put another way, second place is first loser.

Just the same, the Time magazine for July 4—the most American of holidays—featured the Italian national on its cover. By the time his Columbia was grounded in 1934, it had long before become the first plane to cross the Atlantic twice. She retired at Bellanca Airfield in New Castle, destined for an honored berth at the Smithsonian when, the night before it was to be moved, its storage barn caught fire. One of the most important planes ever to fly went up in flames.

An accidental monument to Bellanca’s legacy remains. Air Service Inc., part of the old Bellanca Airfield, became the first full-service, public-use aviation center in the state when it opened in 1928, the place fliers could go for fuel, tune-ups and weather reports. The second of its hangars, built in 1936, is now home to the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame museum and a host of Bellanca memorabilia.

By the time I discovered the old Bellanca Airfield as a New Castle Little League player in 1974, the hangar had become the warehouse for a pole and line company, and the old strip behind the diamonds had become a dump, full of abandoned vehicles and other trash.

Owned by the Trustees of New Castle Commons, the property was slated for sale when Jane Churchill, one of the first Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame inductees, rallied a group of enthusiasts to save it. The friends petitioned the trustees, secured a long-term lease in 2003, then, with state and federal grants and some volunteer labor, restored the exterior, rebuilt parts of the building and started moving in its memorabilia.

Beyond the larger community of aviation history buffs and the much smaller community of New Castle folks who can recall the active days of plane building at Bellanca Airfield, the story is not well known, the Bellanca legacy underappreciated.

Ianni, 84, knows it better than most. A New Castle native, he was born a couple years after two early air enthusiasts, cousins Henry B. and Francis du Pont, lured Bellanca from New York to New Castle, by building an airfield on the old Spring Garden Farm and promising Bellanca a production facility. Ianni was 5 years old when his father bought him a $5 plane ride, his first, during an airshow there. “They put me in a racing airplane, between the pilot’s legs, without a seatbelt,” he laughs. “We flew out toward Wilmington, over the river. I told my father, ‘Dad, I saw New Jersey!’ That was a big thing.”

It should be noted that Ianni is a great storyteller. Any visitor to the hangar would be lucky to have him show off the place. (With a free span of 120 feet, the building is an engineering wonder in its own right. Before the Friends filled the place up, Ianni says, radio fliers gathered there to slalom through the trusses.) Inside are the remains of three vintage Bellanca aircraft. “Now we’re running out of room,” Ianni says, chuckling.

About 3,000 planes were built in New Castle between 1928 and 1954. They set myriad records for distance, efficiency, altitude and more, due in large part to their superior wing design. Many models were so innovative, they remain the standard. Some designs were built well into the 1970s, long after the demise of the original AviaBellanca company, and they are highly collectible.

Those were the everyday planes, so to speak. Among others manufactured in New Castle was the iconic Miss Veedol. In October 1931, the J-300 Long-Distance Special, modified to carry extra fuel and to dump its landing gear, barely lifted off from a beach in Japan. When it belly landed in East Wenatchee, Wash., 41 hours later, it became the first plane to fly nonstop across the Pacific.

Like the Columbia, the Miss Veedol was, sadly, lost. A gleaming replica is displayed proudly at the Misawa Aviation & Science Museum in Japan, and its bent propeller hangs in a Wenatchee museum, but the plane itself, repaired and renamed by later owners, disappeared at sea on a flight to Europe a few months after its historic crossing.

Now the Friends are working to bring one of their own back to roost. When the National Air and Space Museum went looking for a home for its Delaware-made 1947 Bellanca 14-13 Cruisair Senior—one of 600 built after World War II—the Friends jumped. “We told them, ‘Built in New Castle, stays in New Castle,’” Ianni says. “They bought our argument.”

They are raising funds to prepare the plane for transport. A visit to the museum would convince anyone that the effort is important for teaching us who know too little about the pioneering Giuseppe Bellanca and Delaware’s place in aviation history.  

 

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