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Volunteers help raise WWII fighter plane from the ashes

Passion for flight and the remarkable history of the P-39 aircraft keeps volunteers busy at the Alberta Aviation Museum.
Museum volunteers like Dave McIlmoyle will spend several more years restoring the P-39 aircraft, an important plane in Edmonton aviation history. Photo: Terry Jorden.

Not long after Dave McIlmoyle moved to Watson Lake, Yukon in the late 1960s, he began to hear stories about a local crash site of the WWII-era P-39 Airacobra fighter plane.

A licensed pilot and meteorological technician working for the federal government, he searched a local site to see if he could find any bits and pieces.

“We never did find anything we could rebuild,” remembered McIlmoyle, but his interest was kept alive when he heard the territorial government’s Department of Tourism was looking for a historically significant plane they could mount on a pedestal at the 'Welcome to the Yukon' sign on the Alaska Highway.

“I told them I could build one out of wood. It took me three and a half years to build a full-scale replica and it was there for 10-12 years,” he said.

Decades later, after retiring and moving to Edmonton, McIlmoyle toured the Alberta Aviation Museum and discovered a group of retirees like himself rebuilding and refurbishing two P-39s. McIlmoyle's offer to help was gladly accepted. "I've been working on it for three years now and I really enjoy it."

Most Tuesdays and Wednesdays, a handful of volunteers like McIlmoyle continue the painstakingly detailed work of preparing the fighter plane for public display. But the P-39 is not just any old plane. Built by Bell Aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Forces and sold to allies in Great Britain, France and beyond, the plane holds a special place in Edmonton’s history.

“During the Second World War, Blatchford Field briefly became the busiest airport in the world, said aviation museum curator Ryan Lee. “There was much going on between the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S Air Force and the ferrying of aircraft to the Soviet Union. The P-39 was a big part of that. We shipped several thousand planes through to Alaska to help the Soviet war effort.”

But the P-39 had an unusual design that made it a magnet for criticism. The water-cooled Allison V-12 engine was installed in the centre of the plane behind the pilot, where it was prone to overheating and catching fire. The drive shaft ran under the pilot's seat, spinning at 3,000 rpm. Pilots disliked it because it was nearly impossible to eject from the plane if it caught fire.

Instead of the typical design built around the engine, the P-39 seemed to have been built around a 37mm cannon that fired through the centre of the propeller hub. Although very effective when it worked, the cannon had limited ammunition, a low rate of fire, and was prone to jamming. Early models of the P-39 also suffered from low power compared to other fighter planes, limiting maximum altitude.

“It was a 15,000-foot airplane in a 30,000-foot war in Western Europe,” said Lech Lebiedowski, the museum’s project lead.

With lower altitude combat common on the eastern front, the Soviet Union successfully utilized several thousand P-39s. But getting the planes to the Soviet Union was no easy task, seeing U.S pilots first ferry the planes to Edmonton for repainting in Soviet colours. The planes were then flown to the Yukon, Alaska and eventually across the Bering Strait to Russia.

“It would have been quite an experience in 1942-43," said McIlmoyle about young pilots flying to Alaska. "There was no insulation, no heat and navigation meant resting a map on your lap as you kept an eye on the mountains and rivers below."

“There is an island near Watson Lake, where one of these planes had crashed. There were bits and pieces there, “he recalled. “I don’t know if the pilot stalled. It was right on the threshold of the main runway. He didn’t make it."

Lee says when the project is finished, it will be restored with Soviet markings representing one of the many aircraft that made the journey from Edmonton to the Soviet Union. “It will be shared between us and the Reynolds Museum in Wetaskiwin--displayed here for at least five years and then to the Reynolds Museum on a rotating basis," he said.

“When we are done in five or six years it will look like the real thing,” said McIlmoyle. “It just won’t be flying.”

The Alberta Aviation Museum, at 11410 Kingsway Ave., is open to the public Tuesday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm and 10 am to 5 pm on weekends.


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