The Yukon Transportation Museum had an open house last Friday afternoon, and Bob Cameron and his airplane restoration projects were the featured attraction of the event.
Cameron, a long-time aviation history enthusiast and author, has devoted considerable time to preserving the tangible dimension of that history by restoring two important aircraft, a ZQC-6 Custom Waco (rhymes with taco), and a Fairchild model 2W2. He can still recall the throaty rumble of the Waco and the Fairchild from his childhood.
When I arrived at the museum, I was ushered into a small workshop where I was greeted by Cameron and the skeletal remains of the Custom Waco.
The Waco, call sign CF-BDZ, was destroyed in a fire in October 1949. When I saw it at the museum, it was nothing but a fuselage made up of a criss-crossing network of tubular steel, although the tail section, which has the final fabric covering installed, gives a hint of what the restored version of the aircraft is going to look like.
George Simmons, who operated out of Carcross, saw the optimistic move of Grant McConachie to provide twice-weekly air service between Edmonton and Dawson City. If McConachie was going to take a chance, why not Simmons too? He proposed to open a competing route between Vancouver and Dawson City.
Simmons purchased the brand-new Waco Custom in January of 1938. It could seat five passengers, including the pilot, and a small amount of luggage. Simmons had the Waco designed with a passenger door on each side of the fuselage, as well as a larger than normal freight door aft on the pilot side of the aircraft.
The first northward flight of the new airplane took place at the end of January, when pilot Bill Holland took three passengers north to Dawson City. The plane had to make several stops to fuel up; at Burns Lake, the pilot changed the wheels for skis for the completion of the trip to the Yukon. According to Cameron, the passengers were pressed into service to assist in the change from wheels to skis.
The route did not prove viable, and McConachie and United Air Transport ultimately received the mail contract for this route. Holland made only six scheduled passenger trips from Vancouver to Dawson before Simmons placed the Waco into local charter service.
Cameron has been working simultaneously on the restoration of the Waco and the Fairchild (call sign CF-BXF) for 10 years now. They have both been advanced to the same state of repair, although the Waco is his current focus of attention. He is now installing the control cables, he explained, demonstrating the operation of the tail rudder as he spoke.
The original fabric was totally incinerated, the wood burned, and the aluminum components melted, leaving only the charred and rusting tubular frame to work with. Using the network of contacts he has developed over the years, he has been able to scrounge badly needed parts from all over the map. They don’t have to be functional pieces, he notes, as the restored plane is not intended to be airworthy when restoration is completed.
He explained how a lady in Skagway has been able to weld together pieces from the control column using design details that were obtained from original drawings at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.. Certain sprockets were damaged in the fire, he told me, but a contact at a bicycle shop was able to supply him with what he needed, as well as bicycle chain when he couldn’t find suitable original parts anywhere.
The cables have been installed, and he is measuring up fabricating the wooden floor panels and stringers. Eventually, the cloth skin will be installed over the remainder of the fuselage (The wings are already completed). Mounting the material to the airframe is very exacting work. For one thing, the fabric must be stitched tight to the wings and body so that it doesn’t flap in the wind during flight, causing excess wear.
There is a real art to doing this well, says Cameron. His friend, Peter Killon, who flies the only remaining Martin Mars water bomber, is also a “fabric guru,” a man who can quickly and skillfully do this work. When they stitch the skin on the main fuselage, Cameron will mount the frame on a gigantic “spit” which will enable him to rotate it to any orientation, making the work easier.
Cameron has arranged for tickets from Vancouver, accommodation and the scotch for Killon’s visit to do this volunteer work. But Killon is not the only person who has contributed extraordinary time and skill in the project.
Among the many volunteers who have helped him along the way, he singled out three other local individuals for the amount of time they have contributed to the project: Don Graham, who built the wings for the Waco; Joe Pollack, who constructed the wings for the Fairchild; and Phil Merchant, who built the stabilizer for the Waco.
He had just mentioned these volunteers when Merchant arrived in person, drawn in by the radio announcement of the open house. The two men began an impassioned discussion of the progress of the work, with Cameron pointing out some of the details of the restoration on which he had been recently working.
Another eight years are required to bring the restoration of these two planes to their completion. In the meantime, each spring the aircraft are reassembled for the visitor season and displayed in the north gallery of the museum.
But as if that wasn’t enough work for him, he already has another project under way. This fall, he retrieved the remains of a 1950 Hiller 360 helicopter, which had been damaged and abandoned in 1952 near Old Crow.
He has the main body of the helicopter stored in his back yard for the moment, while other parts, including the engine and transmission, are resting at his son’s home. Meanwhile, he has sent the landing apparatus to another restoration devotee in Texas, who needs the details of the float struts to fabricate similar parts for another restoration project.
Cameron appears to be the only one on the planet who can help the fellow out with this detail. In exchange, the Texan will send back the struts along with a pair of the rubber floats, tail boom, and rotor blades for Bob’s restoration project.
So is he almost finished, or just starting his restoration work?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org