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Veteran pilot toils to restore rare 1926 airmail plane
|Written by ALEX BRANCH, Fort Worth Star-Telegram|
|Monday, 18 February 2013 11:57|
HAMILTON, Texas (AP) – Harry Hansen was a Continental Airlines co-pilot in 1961 flying from Dallas to Abilene when his captain pointed down to a decrepit airplane parked next to a farmhouse near Lake Worth.
An aficionado of old aircraft, Hansen was intrigued. After the flight, he learned that the farmhouse was on Amon G. Carter Sr.'s Shady Oak Farm. Hansen knew Carter's son, Amon Carter Jr., from a previous job flying for oilman W.A. Moncrief.
So Hansen called Carter Jr. and told him he was interested in the aging airplane. Carter Sr. had died in 1955.
“He asked me, ‘What do you want that old piece of junk for?’” said Hansen, now 79. “I said I wanted to restore it one of these days. And I was there the next morning to get it.”
The aircraft that Carter gave him was a Travel Air 5000, a rare and iconic plane that today is considered the oldest known piece of the Carter family's aviation legacy in North Texas, according to the Veterans Memorial Air Park in Fort Worth. It was one of only 14 such planes built and was operated by National Air Transport when it first added passenger service to its Chicago-to-Fort Worth airmail route in 1927.
Now it is an aviation artifact that organizations supporting the air park hope to return to Fort Worth. They're seeking financial pledges and a grant to raise the money to buy the airplane, which Hansen plans to auction later this year.
“This is the oldest piece of aviation history that we have,” said Jim Hodgson, executive director of the airpark. “We really feel it belongs here.”
Hansen declined to say how much he hopes to sell the airplane for. But, if airpark officials can raise enough money, he has agreed to sell it to them before the auction. The auction could occur in August or September, he said.
Airpark officials say they hope to raise $200,000 to buy, transport and continue rehabilitation of the aircraft.
Hansen told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram said he has slowly restored the plane in his hangar in Hamilton during the past 10 to 15 years but didn't have time to do it all. He had a friend rebuild the wooden wings out of spruce. He refurbished other parts like the rudder, elevator and aileron, he said.
Plenty of work remains. The plane, which has a 51-foot wingspan, needs “skin,” the cotton fabric covering the outside. The engine must be restored. Age and health will keep Hansen from finishing it.
“As you get older, you don't get to do everything you want to do when you are younger,” Hansen said.
Bill Morris, who researches aviation history, documented the Travel Air 5000's story for the airpark.
The aircraft grew from a 1925 effort by a group of investors in Chicago, New York and Detroit looking to connect the cities with airmail service. They formed the airline National Air Transport, also known as NAT, which would become United Airlines in 1931.
Carter Sr. and other local Fort Worth business leaders began working to put Fort Worth on a NAT mail service route. In November 1925, the airline was awarded a contract by the U.S. Post Office to carry mail between Fort Worth and Chicago.
“By transferring its airmail operations to private companies, the government effectively created the commercial aviation industry in the United States,” Morris wrote.
Initially, NAT moved mail on 10 Curtiss “Carrier Pigeons,” open-cockpit biplanes designed for airmail delivery, according to the airpark's literature. But the airline soon wanted to add passenger service to the mail flights.
The Travel Air 5000s were developed by Wichita, Kan.-based Travel Air Manufacturing Co., which was founded in 1925 by three young aircraft designers – Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. All three would go on to become giants in the aviation industry.
Only 14 Travel 5000s were built. One of the airplanes provided Fort Worth with its first scheduled interstate passenger airlines service at Meacham Field in 1927.
With their enclosed cabins, the planes could fit four passengers behind the pilot, Morris said. But they had to squeeze in with the bags of mail.
“If you had a big load of mail, you might only be able to put three passengers in there,” he said. “If it's Christmas time and you have a bunch of packages, you definitely aren't going to fit four. There was no center aisle and certainly no stewardess.”
The tight seating meant the Travel Air 5000's time was limited. Looking to expand passenger service, NAT replaced the 5000s with 14-passenger Ford Trimotors by 1931. The Travel Air 5000 was gifted to Carter for his contributions to aviation during a presentation Feb. 1, 1931, in Fort Worth.
Hansen has an old washed-out photograph of the ceremony. In it, Carter and NAT President Paul Henderson stand in front of the airplane looking at a piece of paper. Carter's friend, humorist Will Rogers, stands next to them, smiling at the camera.
Carter stored the airplane at Shady Oak as a souvenir until he gave it to Hansen. The retired pilot said he contacted United Airlines to see if it was interested in the aircraft, but the company was not.
Morris said that airpark officials are pursuing a grant to help with the expense of buying the aircraft. In the meantime, they're accepting financial pledges from the public on the air park's website. Ideally, they would like to see the plane serve as the centerpiece for a museum. So far, the airpark has raised more than $20,000, he said.
“We're seeing some enthusiasm out there for this,” Hodgson said. “This is a unique piece of history, and we hope people will take an interest.”
Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, http://www.star-telegram.com
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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|Last Updated on Monday, 18 February 2013 12:18|