So far away from home: The Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Part 2

The Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, ca 2007. Wikipedia.

You made it, my reading friend. Yours truly is very glad to, err, acknowledge you presence.

Given that last week’s issue of our, oh, so fascinating blog / bulletin / thingee dealt with the potted history of the descendants of the Wright Bellanca WB-2 Columbia / Maple Leaf record breaking airplane, made by the American firm Bellanca Aircraft Corporation and by Canadian Vickers Limited of Montréal, Québec, in the 1920s and 1930s, and Northwest Industries Limited of Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1940s, it occurred to me that an equally potty history of the Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker of the supercarlifragilisticexpialidocious Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, might be of interest.

Our story began at the Bellanca Aircraft factory, in late 1929, where and when said airplane was completed. Its first owner, El Paso Air Service, Incorporated of, you guessed it, El Paso, Texas, registered the Pacemaker in December. While next to nothing is known about its activities, the airplane was seemingly based in Mexico for some time between January 1932 and April 1933. It carried a Mexican civil registration at the time.

A gentleman hailing from Long Beach, California, by the name of George W. Leonard bought the airplane in April / May 1933. G.C. Gracier of Los Angeles, California, bought it in 1934.

Marine Airways, Incorporated, of Juneau, Alaska, bought the Pacemaker, its only airplane perhaps, in August 1936. Would you believe that one of the 2 cofounders of this small air carrier was a gentleman born in British Columbia, thus in Canada, by the name of Alexander B. “Alex” Holden? Another gentleman involved in this firm was a well-known Alaskan, James V. Davis. This engineer owned several cannery tenders and a mail boat, the latter through Davis Transportation Company. Davis wanted to use Marine Airways to compete with another small air carrier, Alaska Air Transport, Incorporated of Juneau, founded by a well-known Alaska bush pilot, Shell Simmons. In May 1939, Marine Airways merged with Alaska Air Transport to form Alaska Coastal Airlines, Incorporated of Juneau.

Yours truly has so far been unable to find information on the flying activities of the Pacemaker in Alaska, but I will keep at it.

It should be noted that, at some point in its Alaskan career, the Pacemaker was nicknamed “Shakey Jake.” The source of the vibration which led to this moniker may, I repeat may, have remained unknown.

Yours truly wonders if the moniker “Shakey Jake” bestowed upon the Pacemaker had any link with the expression “Shakey Jake” bestowed upon certain engine types made by Jacobs Aircraft Engine Company. This is far from certain given that said Pacemaker was not powered by a Jacobs engine. In any event, yours truly cannot say when either moniker was introduced.

In any event, again, in April 1962, Alaska Coastal Airlines merged with Ellis Air Lines, Incorporated of Juneau. The new air carrier was (briefly?) known as Alaska Coastal / Ellis Air Lines, Incorporated of Ketchikan, Alaska. In turn, this air carrier was taken over by Alaska Airlines, Incorporated in April 1968.

Uninterested in keeping the Pacemaker in its fleet or, seemingly, in donating it to an Alaska museum, Alaska Coastal / Ellis Air Lines sold it in May 1964, to the National Aviation Museum of Ottawa, Ontario, the ancestor of today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum where yours truly has the pleasure to earn his bread. The museum immediately re-registered the airplane. Its curator, Kenneth Meredith “Ken” Molson, a fine gentleman mentioned in July 2018 and August 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, sat beside the pilot during the 4-day trip from Juneau to Ottawa, in May 1964.

The Canadian registration chosen, yes, yes, chosen, by Molson commemorated another Pacemaker, this one flown in Canada during the 1930s. Before I forget, you may wish to note, or not, that this airplane was completed by Bellanca Aircraft in April 1929, but back to our story. A bush operator mentioned in the previous issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee whose main office was in Toronto, Ontario, General Airways Limited, bought the Pacemaker from its owner, W.A. MacDonald of New York City, New York, in late August or early September 1932. The airplane, then on wheels, arrived in Canada in September. It was registered that same month, after or before its arrival on this side of the border.

If I may be allowed to digress for 30 seconds, the President of General Airways was Arthur Roy Brown, a Canadian First World War fighter pilot of modest origin who had served in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force (RAF). And no, from the looks of, Brown did not shoot down the ace of aces of German fighter aviation, Baron Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron, in April 1918.

It should be noted that, when it worked on the paperwork allowing the export of the Pacemaker to Canada, General Airways neglected to mention it intended to use this airplane as a floatplane. The Civil Aviation Branch of the Department of National Defence, at the time the one organisation with powers to regulate all aspects of civilian aviation in Canada, realised this and demanded that the firm get an amendment to the Bellanca’s certificate of airworthiness.

An aircraft manufacturing company mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2017, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC) of Downsview, Ontario, near Toronto, overhauled and inspected, or is it the other way around, the Pacemaker in October 1932. Its staff also replaced the wheeled undercarriage / landing gear with a pair of floats. A pilot then flew the floatplane to its base of operation, namely Rouyn, Québec. The Pacemaker was presumably fitted with skis as the temperature got colder.

In late December, the Pacemaker broke through the ice of Kipawa Lake, in Québec, near the Ontario border. Yours truly does not know if it was taking off or landing at the time of the incident. I use the term incident because none of the 6 people aboard the Pacemaker, 5 passengers and 1 pilot, Joseph Earl Jellison, was injured. The skiplane spent 4 or so hours underwater. As was the case with many other incidents of this type, its wing rested on the surface of the ice, which was a good thing. Indeed, having said wing on the ice kept the Pacemaker from sinking to the bottom of the lake.

Carefully retrieved from its watery prison, the partly dismantled Pacemaker was shipped to Downsview where DHC’s staff repaired and inspected it, or is it the other way around. In any event, the skiplane was deemed airworthy in early February 1933. A pilot, possibly Jellison, flew the Pacemaker to its base of operation in Québec.

In December, as it landed on a field at / near Amos, Québec, one of the Pacemaker’s skis, the left one perhaps, ran over some bare ground. The skiplane immediately swerved to the left and hit a fence which was more or less parallel to its landing path. The Pacemaker suffered some damage in the collision (right wingtip, undercarriage leg, horizontal stabiliser and elevator). It was partly dismantled and shipped to Downsview where DHC’s staff repaired its right wing and mounted a new horizontal stabiliser and elevator. DHC’s staff also mounted a new undercarriage gear leg on the right side of the Pacemaker, not to mention a new engine. Yours truly cannot say when the skiplane was deemed airworthy. This being said (typed?), a pilot flew the Pacemaker to its base of operation, which may have been Rouyn or Chibougamau, Québec.

In January 1938, General Airways sold the Pacemaker, by then seemingly based in Noranda, Québec, to the founder and owner of Turnbull Fishing Company Limited, a small firm based in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Aware that fish was a commodity that people in southern Manitoba would pay good money for, Archibald J. Turnbull founded Turnbull Fishing in to take advantage of this interest.

Turnbull learned to fly in 1928. This efficient, careful and able pilot had several years of experience under his belt in 1938, having flown with, although not necessarily in that order, Brooks Airways Limited of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan; Canadian Airways Limited, a well-known bush air carrier mentioned in January 2018 and May 2019 issues of our you know what with multiple bases in Canada; and Commercial Transcontinental Air Lines, Incorporated, a virtually unknown American air carrier.

Before proceeding with our story, I would like to point out that what follows is tragic in nature.

Early in the morning of 17 June 1938, Turnbull took off from Douglas Lake, near Flin Flon. With him aboard the Pacemaker was Allan J. Wallace, an American employee of the Geological Survey of Canada on his way to Reindeer Lake, Manitoba, where he was to take charge of a small team of surveyors. The Pacemaker was carrying a pair of canoes on its floats as well as some freight.

Although lovely at Douglas Lake, the weather grew increasingly worse as Turnbull and Wallace flew north. They were in fact rushing into a massive thunderstorm, arguably the worst one seen in these parts in more than a decade. What happened then amidst the lightning, rain, thunder and wind is unclear but the outcome was nothing short of tragic. The Pacemaker crashed near the northern shore of Laurie Lake, Manitoba, slightly more than 200 kilometres (130 miles) north of Flin Flon, and burst into flame. Turnbull and Wallace presumably died on impact.

Turnbull and Wallace were 33 and 22 years old. The latter had received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University of St. Louis, Missouri, less than 2 weeks before. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had just confirmed his appointment to a fellowship there, scheduled to begin during the winter of 1938-39.

When Kenneth “Ken” Main arrived at Reindeer Lake later on 17 June, aboard the second floatplane owned by Turnbull Fishing, seemingly to pick up some fish, he was informed that Turnbull and Wallace had not arrived. He was concerned but not overly so. Main kept a sharp lookout for the Pacemaker as he flew back to Douglas Lake but saw nothing. His concern grew.

On 18 June, Main made another flight north. He then learned that members of a prospecting party based at Laurie Lake had heard an airplane the previous day, in the morning. Main kept a sharp lookout for the Pacemaker as he flew back to Douglas Lake. Again, he saw nothing. His concern grew further. Main returned north to search for the missing floatplane. He seemingly spent the night at some lake.

On 19 June, James “Alex / Jack” Moar, a cofounder of a bush air carrier based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Wings Limited, flew from Douglas Lake to Reindeer Lake to establish a gasoline cache and continue the search for Turnbull and Wallace. Later that day, Main also flew to Reindeer Lake, with 3 people, to search for them.

Would you believe that another cofounder of Wings was a gentleman by the name of Francis Roy Brown who had served in the Royal Flying Corps and RAF during the First World War? This gentleman and the aforementioned Brown were not related. Small world, isn’t it?

On 20 June, Main took off from Reindeer Lake with 3 people, including 2 employees of the Geological Survey of Canada. After a fruitless 2 or so hour search near Laurie Lake, one of Main’s passengers spotted something. The latter immediately alighted on the lake. The 4 men ran into the bush. They found the burnt out remains of the Pacemaker, as well as the bodies of Turnbull and Wallace.

Still on 20 June, Moar flew back to Reindeer Lake to deliver the sad news to the people of Flin Flon. He flew back to Laurie Lake the following day with officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Turnbull and Wallace were put aboard his floatplane and flown to Flin Flon.

Yours truly cannot say why Molson chose to give the registration of the Pacemaker flown by General Airways and Turnbull Fishing to the airplane acquired by the National Aviation Museum. Given the type of person he was, he undoubtedly had good reasons to act as he did.

One thing is for sure, however. The Pacemaker was one of the aircraft types Molson wanted to see on display at the National Aviation Museum. As was said (typed?) above, close to 20 descendants of the aforementioned of the WB-2 flew with distinction in various regions of Canada from the late 1920s onward. Sadly enough, none of these prewar workhorses was still around when the museum came into being, in 1960. Molson faced the same problem when he tried to locate other famous bushplanes that flew in Canada’s northern regions in the 1920s and 1930s. If truth be told, the only one he could find was a German-made Junkers W.34, acquired / delivered in September 1962 and on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum as of February 2020. This unique machine was in fact donated by Muriel Sprague Richardson, the widow of James Armstrong Richardson, one of the great figures of commercial aviation in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s.

Faced with the choice of having on display no significant Canadian-flown bushplane, or airplane in general for that matter, from the 1920s and 1930s and acquiring bushplanes, or airplanes in general for that matter, again, from that period which had not flown in Canada but could be given phony markings, Molson chose the latter alternative. The rare and valuable Fairchild FC2W-2 bushplane on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum as of February 2020 was / is another airplane acquired by Molson because no Canadian-flown example of this family of airplanes had survived in that country.

Incidentally, the Pacemaker was also on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum as of February 2020.

If I may be permitted a deeply personal and potentially controversial thought, I find it a bit sad that this floatplane, which spent most of its active life in Alaska, more than 27 of these 35 or so years in fact, finds itself so far away from home.

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Rénald Fortier