By Jeff Holubitsky
The Covid 19 pandemic may have temporarily grounded restoration work on the two rare Bell Aircraft P39 Airacobra Second World War fighter planes at the Alberta Aviation Museum, but the virus couldn’t kill the enthusiasm of the ground crew of talented volunteers who show up twice a week to breathe new life into the old machines.
They typically come together every Tuesday and Thursday morning to carefully cut, shape, rivet, and rebuild the hundreds of aluminum parts in a decade-long joint project with the Reynolds Museum in Wetaskiwin that may well take another five years to complete.
Walking though the workshop on a recent Tuesday morning, Lech Lebiedowski, the project lead and a lecturer at the University of Alberta, talks about the complexity of the restoration. Very little is straight forward. Each piece of aluminum cladding often requires several complex curves and probably more than 80 per cent of each aircraft is being recreated by hand. One of the planes is a joint restoration project with the Reynolds Museum, and the other, originally sourced as a parts plane, is also being slowly rebuilt.
“It is a very slow, tedious process,” he says. The original parts were stamped out in seconds in a major industrial complex. “But we don’t have that … and these airplanes don’t really have any straight lines.”
These particular planes will never again take to the air, but they will forever remain an important part of Edmonton’s long history of aviation.
During the Second World War, in a top secret mission that was never reported in newspapers or on radios of the day, more than half of the 9,588 P39s built in Buffalo, New York., landed and took off through Edmonton on their way to Fairbanks, Alaska, where they were handed over to Soviet pilots as part of the war’s Lend-Lease program in the war against Hitler. When the planes arrived in Edmonton, they went to a paint shop in a hangar at the airport where they were painted with the Soviet red star.
It may be hard to believe these days, but for a time in 1943 and 1944 Edmonton’s Blatchford Field was the busiest airport in the world. Edmonton’s then population of 105,000 was commonly believed to have doubled by the mainly American servicemen stationed here, as military gear was flown and shipped overland to Russia on the Alaska Highway. Military personnel, both male and female, took bedrooms in private homes and filled the city’s streets and businesses.
But the P39 is not only interesting because of its brief connection to Edmonton. In many ways, it is a fascinating and innovative aircraft in its own right, even though it wasn’t particularly popular during the war.
“This is a plane that probably shouldn’t have been built,” Lebiedowski says, “because it started with the wrong premises.”
The U.S. Navy apparently had a large surplus of Oldsmobile 37-millimetre cannons in stock and decided to build an airplane around it. In a different sense, the museum is doing the same thing.
“The reason they moved the engine behind the pilot is because they had to put the cannon in front,” he says. “This is bizarre in every way and shape. The most bizarre thing about the P39 that few people know about is the drive shaft that goes from the engine to the gear box, passes through the actual control stick.”
He wiggles the joystick in one of the planes and sure enough, it splits in two to encircle the driveshaft, much like a road might encircle a traffic circle.
“It’s amazing engineering,” Lebieiowski says. “They had to solve a lot of problems related to weight distribution, related to the recoil of this enormous gun and what resulted was this very innovative airplane. But it also caused a lot of problems for the pilot.”
By far the biggest concern, he says, is that pilots couldn’t get out of the plane if the water-cooled Allison V-12 engine overheated whether in combat or just flying.
“Within seconds, the engine would seize and a fire would result because of the heat generated. As it went down the pilot would try to bail out but he couldn’t open the door.”
An emergency release would often jam. Needless to say, this did not endear the machine to pilots. One of the P39s at the museum crashed outside Wetaskiwin for this reason, but luckily the pilot escaped and an intrepid local teenager named Stan Reynolds pulled the remains from a five-metre hole in the ground.
Early P39 models also suffered from poor power because they lacked a turbocharged engine, limiting its usefulness to about 15,000 feet of altitude. That made it almost useless against superior German and Japanese aircraft.
“It was a 15,000-foot airplane in a 30,000-foot war in Western Europe,” Lebiedowski says. “It became quickly obsolete and that’s why it was offered to the Russians.’’
The Soviet military loved it for its low altitude capabilities and the big cannon and dual machine guns that caused havoc against the enemy on the ground. Some P39 pilots became national heroes.
“If you have nothing and then you have this airplane,” he says. “Then that is much better than nothing.”
The restoration process so far has involved dozens of volunteers and has taken thousands of hours. Lebiedowski has created extremely realistic looking 50-calibre machine guns from plastic, shells for the cannon, also plastic, and is currently at work to return the cockpit, with original controls and dials, back to its former glory.
Meanwhile, other volunteers happily toil at other tasks.
Dave McIlmoyle is a retired meteorological technician who rebuilt two planes – and a wooden P39 model – in his spare time during his long career in Watson Lake, Yukon. The challenge of the museum’s P39 project fit his skills perfectly. He spent many months building a working tail section for one of the fighters from scratch.
“We are rebuilding it as close to the original as we can get,” he says. While plans for some of the parts exist, in other instances, the volunteers must painstakingly reverse engineer the part.
The structure of the rear stabilizer, for example, likely represents six months of work. “And the rudder another six months,” he says.
The Reynolds’ project plane will have an engine restored to working order at the Wetaskiwin museum. Meanwhile at a nearby bench, volunteer Erich Wohlmuth works on the engine for the second plane. At first glance it looks nearly ready to fire up but that proves to be an illusion.
“It’s a faux engine,” he says. “It has no parts inside.” He taps on the realistic manifold, but it is made of light plastic. Parts of the cylinder heads are little but an autobody filler called Bondo. Interestingly, one of the original manifold covers is stamped with the name of its manufacturer: Maytag. It demonstrates how companies pulled together in the war effort.
Another longtime volunteer, Phil Vere, doesn’t forget the historical significance of the engine. Early P39s may have underperformed with a naturally aspirated carburetor, but turbocharged versions also powered both Hurricanes and Spitfires. They stopped Hitler from setting foot on British soil.
“This is the engine that won the war,” he says. “A lot of the Second World War bombers also had these engines. And after the war they had thousands of these engines brand new, and probably every farmer in the United States had one to motorize something.”
It may be only an old engine, but for those who pay attention, it is also another important artifact from days gone by.