The Fabulous Flying-W

The Aircruiser design was created for a purpose. In 1928 aviation records were falling right and left when an Italian WWI ace, Caesare Sabelli, commissioned a design for a plane that would be able to to fly non-stop from New York to Rome. Giuseppe Bellanca, a gifted designer, came up with the Model K, which never made that flight, but the design survived. Its distinctive frontal W-silhouette was derived from aerodynamically shaped, triangular lifting struts extending down from the bottom of the fuselage and continuing up to points outboard under its wings.

    Bellanca Airbus/Aircruisers numbered 23, all totaled. The first Aircruiser was built in 1930. It was originally called the Airbus and designated P-100. An efficient airplane design, it was capable of carrying 12 to 14 passengers — later versions differed in being able to carry 15, depending on how the cabin interior was arranged. In 1931, test pilot George Haldeman flew the P-100 a distance of 4,400 miles in a time aloft of 35 hours. Although efficient, with a cost/mile figure of .08 cents/mile calculated for that flight, the first Airbus didn't sell because of its water-cooled engine.

    This was followed by the P-200 Airbus with a larger, more reliable, air-cooled engine. One version available (the P-200-A) came with floats, and operated as a ferry service in New York City, flying between Wall Street and the East River. Other versions included a P-200 Deluxe with custom interiors available and seating for 9, and the 15-passenger P-300.

    The final model, the Aircruiser, was the most efficient airplane of its day, and even ranked high among all airplanes designed. With one air-cooled and supercharged Wright radial engine (Cyclone), rated at 715hp, the Aircruiser could carry a useful load greater than its empty weight! It could carry 4,000 pounds of payload at speeds of 145-155 mph. This was in the mid-'30s; Fokker and Ford tri-motors could not come close to this capacity despite the additional engines!

    So, why isn't this "Flying W" a more recognizable shape in US aviation history? Three reasons, I feel. First, when Charles Lindbergh and his backers were looking for a plane to win the $25,000 Orteig prize, a Bellanca WB-2, a powerful, proven performer and race winner, was first considered. Unfortunately, the chairman of the board of Bellanca's Columbia Aircraft Corporation, Charlie Levine, proved to be too much of a wheeler-dealer.

    Bellanca was all for selling the plane to Lindbergh for his New York-to-Paris flight, but Levine had other ideas. He agreed to sell to Lindbergh for $15,000, but when Lindbergh arrived with a check, Levine told him, "We'll sell you the plane, but we reserve the right to select the crew that flies it." Understandably, Lindbergh was furious. He left New York City and the Columbia Aircraft Corporation, went straight to San Diego, and purchased the Ryan in which he successfully completed his historic flight.

It is only speculation, but one can imagine what the boost in prestige and attention to Bellanca and his designs might have ultimately done for his company. As it was, after two weeks of bickering between Levine and his pilot, Clarence Chamberlin, over both crew and what equipment would be on the plane, Miss Columbia flew from New York to Berlin, the first plane to do so. In 1931, a version of this same model, Miss Veedol, was the first plane to cross the Pacific.

    Another reason would be the Depression of the early 1930s, not a time when an airline market would afford to support a plane, even one that would have been a successful pioneering passenger transport.

    Finally, in 1934, Federal regulations outlawed single-engine transports on US airlines. No one of these factors was responsible more than the other, but the cumulative effect did its damage. Canadian interests utilized several of the Bellancas, and the Aircruiser, known in Canada popularly as "The Flying W," was used in mining, ferrying supplies and ore, for quite some time.

    The last flying Aircruiser [CF-BTW] served into the 1970s, then was purchased in 1996 and flown from Manitoba to Oregon, where it is now (2001) on display in the Blimp Hangar of the Tillamook Air Museum. (— Leo Horishny)