Restoring the Russian Connection

Airframe tech Don Hitsman (l) with Royal Air Force veteran Mark Crompton (r).

Don Hitsman and Mark Crompton are volunteering their talents and their time to rebuild a little-known piece of Edmonton’s World War II history.

Beginning in 1941, 8,000 American war planes transited through Blatchford Field. They were on their way to Alaska via Northern Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon, along a corridor known as the Northwest Staging Route. The command centre for the northern route was based at Blatchford Field.

From Alaska, the planes were picked up by Russian pilots to be ferried through an equally treacherous Siberian route to the Eastern Front.

More than half of those aircraft were Bell P-39 Airacobras or P-63 King Cobras, a later derivative.

To tell this incredible story, the Alberta Aviation Museum has begun restoration work on a P-39 with the help of craftsmen like Hitsman and Crompton.

“We sent a lot of airplanes over to Russia during World War II,” says Hitsman, an aircraft structures technician who trained in Edmonton and worked at a number of local aviation firms. “We don’t have one of these. So this is part of our story here. ”

Structures technician Don Hitsman with student Christian Chenard, one of several young people working on the P-39. (See more about our mentoring program here.)

Hitsman joined the museum’s restoration department when the B-25 Mitchell was being rebuilt. He did a lot of the detailed sheet metal work. Now he is in charge of the P-39 project, which he admits is a new role for him.

“Before, when I came in here it was easy. The work was all laid out for me and all I did was open my tool box, looked at the drawings and did the work. Now I’ve got to look at the bigger picture and coordinate. So that’s a bigger challenge.”

Crompton, another key member of the restoration team, also brings a career’s worth of experience. He spent 22 years in the Royal Air Force, mainly working with Harrier jets.

He fell in love with Alberta after taking part in Operation Maple Flag, an international military training exercise held in Cold Lake. He and his wife moved here after he retired. He says he knew little about Edmonton’s vast aviation history and finds much of it incredible.

“If someone said to me in the street there were 8,000 aircraft through Edmonton during the Second World War I’d of said, ‘Nah I don’t believe that.’ It happened. We have the facts. So, yeah definitely.”

The P-39 being restored at the museum is part of the Reynolds Heritage Preservation Foundation collection. The airframe is mostly complete, but requires many repairs. The wings are in poor condition and will need major reconstruction. The Reynolds Foundation will supply materials for the restoration and the AAM will provide the labour. Once completed, the aircraft will be shared with the Reynolds Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin.

Mark Crompton, who spent 22 years working on fighter jets in the Royal Air Force, is working on the P-39’s horizontal stabilizer.

AAM Curator Lech Lebiedowski worked with Byron Reynolds, the RHPF’s director, to make this cooperative project happen.

“This is one of the most important World War II stories for our airport and for local history,” Lebiedowski says. “At the time this was a secret mission, the Lend Lease program and the North West Staging Route. Yet Edmontonians could see these aircraft coming in by the hundreds pre-painted in Russian markings.”

The aircraft being restored will have a unique connection to Alberta. On December 30, 1942, Herald Williams, an American military pilot, was forced to bail out of his malfunctioning aircraft near Wetaskiwin. A young Stan Reynolds was contracted by the American military to help recover parts of of the crashed P-39.

Reynolds would go on to build a collection of airplanes, trucks and farming equipment that would become the Reynolds Alberta Museum. Byron Reynolds, is Stan’s nephew and is carrying on the family’s historical connection to aviation.

“What makes this airplane special is that we have a complete story to go with it,” says Lebiedowski.

“We have this local story and the faces of the people who took part. The fact that the Reynolds family continued their fascination with aviation is what makes this story more tangible.”

The Reynolds family kept some parts from the original crash site. If possible they will be used in rebuilding the existing P-39 airframe, which came from a different aircraft.

“It’s five years at least. There’s a lot of work to be done here,” says Hitsman of the restoration ahead. But he says word of the project has been spreading and volunteers have been showing up to join the team.

“We’ve got an aero engine guy who heard about it. We have someone from a local welding o

utfit. We have young people who are important in passing the skills along, but we also have skilled tradespeople who are coming in so the energy is building.”

The P-39 sitting in the restoration shop at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

Crompton, who is already hard at work rebuilding the Airacobra’s horizontal stabilizer, is also excited about the project.

“This is very important to me. It’s a nice way of extending my history with aircraft and bringing people in and training the younger people to help pass on my knowledge into the future.”

You can check out the progress on this unique project by dropping by the museum. The restoration area is open every Tuesday and Thursday. Or keep an eye on our website and our social media feeds for update.

And we are still looking for skill tradespeople to help with the P-39, particularly those available during the daytime. You can get more information about volunteering here.