Breathing life into old wings

When the body was found, it was clear the years had taken their toll. Hidden behind a fence, overgrown with weeds and sinking into the moss of a B.C. forest, the Fairchild’s skeleton was barely recognizable.

When the body was found, it was clear the years had taken their toll.

Hidden behind a fence, overgrown with weeds and sinking into the moss of a B.C. forest, the Fairchild’s skeleton was barely recognizable.

Today she stands proudly in the Yukon Transportation Museum, nearly whole again, thanks to Whitehorse’s Bob Cameron.

Cameron, a flying man from a flying family, has a passion for vintage aircraft that has kept him busy with welding torches and belt sanders for most of his years, breathing fresh life into the wings of broken planes.

“I just do it because I want it done,” he said.

He spent three decades searching for a Fairchild to bring home to the territory. There are only a handful of Fairchilds left in the country – three that Cameron knows of – mostly sitting in museums, and he wanted to make sure the Yukon had one of its own.

“I knew about this aircraft. I knew where it was, that it was bouncing around down there in B.C. as a wreck. I had set my sights on getting it back here to the Yukon and getting it restored, because the Yukon was opened up by these old Fairchilds,” he said.

Cameron was finally able to convince a B.C. museum to give him the shell of this particular Fairchild in 2004, and he’s been working on the restoration ever since.

The Fairchild was one of the first planes used in Carcross by Northern Airways when it opened in 1933 and began providing what Cameron said was the first reliable air service to the Yukon.

The Fairchild was first built in 1928, a year after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Notoriously difficult to see out of, the Fairchild had a 420-horsepower engine and a potential payload of 1,200 pounds. It helped provide a crucial link to the outside world in the years before the Alaska Highway was built.

Pilots would fly them in nearly any conditions to bring mail, medicine and supplies to remote Yukon communities.

When the Second World War broke out, Northern Airlines was approached by the U.S. military to help with the Canol Road and Alaska Highway projects. Aircraft were almost impossible to come by because all the factories were turning out warplanes to fight the Nazis, so Northern’s owner, George Simmons, began scouring the continent for older used planes.

“He bought four Fairchilds, had them shipped to Carcross and put them to work. They were already antiques when he put them to work, but it was still a good, tough airplane that could haul a 1,200-pound payload. He served those two big projects with these Fairchilds,” Cameron said.

One reason for the airplane’s popularity was that it had folding wings. It could be towed through town to the garage or hanger without the mechanics having to worry about crashing into light posts or smashing shop windows.

But the Fairchild wasn’t alone in its efforts. Northern Airlines also had a small fleet of Wacos, smaller bi-wings that also fared well against the Yukon’s brutal conditions. They were purchased in the ‘30s to start a scheduled air service between Vancouver and Dawson City, and Cameron is restoring one of them as well.

The work to restore the planes is enormous. When both were found, they were little more than tangled piles of steel tubing, only recognizable as a plane to Cameron’s trained eye.

That same eye helps him see clues to the plane’s former life in the markings on the weathered steel and wood.

“To most people, it just looks like garbage, but every mark, every nail, every groove is a message to us,” Cameron said.

The projects now actually look like real planes again, but Cameron still has a lot of work ahead of him to finish the canvas skins and other internal components. He figures about nine years total.

Cameron also has a family connection to this particular Fairchild plane. The frame came without an engine, but he was able to find a replacement from the wreckage of another plane his father owned.

“In 1950 my dad and his partners bought the sister ship to this Fairchild and put it to work with their charter service. It caught fire and crashed at Quiet Lake. It lay there for 35 years, sitting in the mud. Kyle (Cameron’s son) retrieved it and cleaned it up, not to run, as it’s still all rusted out inside, but he cleaned it up to look good,” he said.

The Waco’s Jacobs engine, affectionately known as the Shakey Jake, Cameron got by trading unused Fairchild parts to a museum in Edmonton.

While the planes’ skeletons were intact – if badly damaged – the rest was totally gone. Both planes’ wings are mostly wooden slats, and the canvas-wrapped airframes are incredibly flammable. What doesn’t rot can easily burn up in a second if exposed to even a single spark. Everything that was missing had to be rebuilt by hand.

Given the challenges of restoring the planes and the rigorous benchmarks needed to get flight approval, these planes won’t be leaving the ground again on their own.

“I’m trying to retain as much of the original airplanes in these restorations because they’re not going to fly. If they were going to fly, you wouldn’t be able to use any of the original parts; they’re just too perished and deteriorated in their integrity. You could never certify an airplane that has rusty tubing.

“I could build replicas and we could make them fly, but I wanted to restore the original airplanes because they have the history. Rather than have them go to a dump to be buried and forgotten, I thought well, we’ll make them look like they used to when they worked,” Cameron said.

Because the planes won’t be airworthy, the cost to rebuild them is relatively low. Cameron said the most expensive parts are the canvas wrapping and the paint, which will form the skins of the aircraft.

He’s also had a lot of help with the work. Kyle has been helping a lot on the projects. Don Graham built the Fairchild’s wings, and Joe Pollock built the Waco’s.

“If it wasn’t for those guys helping me, I wouldn’t be anywhere near this far advanced. Phil Merchant is another great guy who has done a lot of good work for us as well,” Cameron said.

It’s a lot of work, but Cameron said he isn’t doing it for money. He just wants to see the historic planes restored to their former glory.

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