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Man restores advanced WWII trainer plane

If you could control it, ‘you could fly anything’.

By Lisa Ridder

Farrel Helm with an advanced WWII trainer plane that he restored. The plane was originally built in Dallas and shipped over to England to be used in the Royal Air Force. It took 16 winters for Helm to restore it. Photo by Lisa Ridder

Farrel Helm of Casselton, ND, is no stranger in local aviation circles. He’s been flying much of his life. As a crop sprayer by trade, he gets his winters off and is always looking for projects to fill his time. It’s not surprising that some of those projects also involve airplanes.

Like most people, pilots tend to have their own bucket list of sorts- places they want to fly to. They also have a list of planes they want to fly, and aviation-related projects.

In Farrel’s case, he has spent about 16 winters working to restore an 80-year-old World War II trainer plane. The plane he restored was built by North American Aircraft in the early 1940s. Approximately 12,000 to 15,000 were built. It was used as an advanced trainer plane, the last airplane pilots flew before they moved on to flying the P-51 fighters and the Corsairs. “At the time, it was said that if you could master that plane and keep it under control and control it for landings, you could fly anything,” said Farrel.

The plane was actually used in WWII by the Royal Air Force. It was built in Dallas, crated up and sent straight to England. It stayed in the English inventory until it was sent to South Africa, the last country to fly the plane. “In the United States, the plane was referred to as the T-6 Texan, but since it was shipped straight to England it was designated as a Harvard IIA,” said Farrel. “In England and Canada the plane is a Harvard, so technically, it’s a Harvard.”

Farrel said, “The plane is fully aerobatic and very strong. The planes were used for all types of pilot training, and they were weaponized, as was this plane. It had four 30-caliber machine guns, bomb racks, and rocket rails on it.”

And how exactly did the planes make their way back to the United States?

“A gentleman from the US bought the whole inventory. The airplanes were purchased and imported to the US after the South African Air Force retired them in the mid 1990’s,” Farrel said. “He was really into the WWII stuff. It’s a select group of people who are interested in the older planes, overall; not everybody is.”

Farrel got into it, because of his friends, Bob Odegaard from Kindred, ND, and Jerry Beck from Wahpeton, ND, both of whom are WWII airplane enthusiasts.

How did he come across the plane in the first place?

“It was actually a fluke,” he said. “A group of us had flown in Bob Odegaard’s plane to the Reno air races. We were talking with everyone and found out that one of these planes was available for sale in Wahpeton, so we went down and got it.”

“In fact, I bought my plane from Jerry Beck,” Farrel said. “When we went down there to get it, we took two pickups and two trailers. We got a bunch of cardboard boxes filled with pieces. We really didn’t know what we were getting. Just as we were getting ready to leave, Jerry looked at me and said, ‘just like a jigsaw puzzle’ and I said, ‘yeah, figure it out.’”

Helm started working on the plane in earnest back in the winter 2006, working the project just like a jigsaw puzzle, a little bit every day, one step at a time, completing it in the spring of 2022. “I am guessing that I did about 95 percent of the work with assistance from my kids and friends,” said Farrel. “The manuals for the plane were pretty good, so it wasn’t too bad.”

When Farrel committed to the project, he was all in, giving top priority to safety, accuracy, and detail, resulting in everything being put together according to the manuals. In spite of his great attention to accuracy and detail, he did make one very intentional choice that resulted in his plane having a slightly unique look than the others.

“I painted the plane myself but I did have Roy and Tom Keiffer help me lay out the markings,” he said. “Both of my spray planes were yellow and I didn’t want another yellow plane. During WWII, the planes were either yellow for the Army or blue for the Navy. I didn’t really want Navy. My son, Skylor, was a pilot in the Air Force at the time, and I really kind of wanted to go with Air Force markings. The paint scheme was fashioned after the paint scheme of the 6147th Tactical Control Group referred to as “The Mosquito Squadron” in Korea. They used the plane for forward air control, marking targets, and then the jets would come in and drop the bombs and stuff.”

Given the age and the history of the plane exactly how rare is it?

“It’s not extremely rare, because there’s probably several hundred flying yet,” he said. “However, it is an 80-year-old airplane, and it will go away some day.” Because of the commitment and dedication of WWII buffs, like Farrel and his friends, aircraft like the one he owns are preserved, maintained and still able to fly.

Farrel will be the first to tell you that even though he has a great deal of knowledge about aviation mechanics and knowledge of this particular aircraft, the project, like any project had its challenges.

He laughs and said, “The most challenging part of assembling the airplane, in my opinion, was installing the trim control cables. These are cables that run from the cockpit back to the trim tabs on the tail section control surfaces. At different aircraft weights and speeds the control surfaces need to be held in different positions to obtain the desired flight path. The trim tabs help counteract some of the heavy forces on the control stick to hold the control surfaces in the desired position. The trim control cables were very challenging to route.”

Farrel did a little bit each day. “I would put one piece on and then two,” he said. “I did more some days than others, but I worked on it every day during the winter for close to 16 years. Perseverance was the biggest part of getting it done.”

“The insurance required that I put in five hours flying the plane solo before I could take up passengers,” he said. “I had paid great attention to detail through the entire restoration process. I had two different inspectors go through the plane. By that time, I had fairly good confidence the plane was air ready.”

Any reservations about flying the plane?

“No,” said Farrel. “I also had a friend who owns the same type of plane, and he had an issue with the landing gear and had to land that way and that was in the back of my mind. I always treat the plane with a great amount of respect too. Honestly, if you don’t, they have a history of biting you in the butt.”

It’s tough to say what might be next on his bucket list of projects. He spent this past winter putting together a kit plane that he had acquired. He will start his 47th year of crop spraying this summer.

Farrel has known since he was in the first grade that he wanted to be a pilot; flying and aviation-related projects are in his blood. He passed his love of flying on to his kids. He taught both of his sons to fly. His daughter is not a pilot, but enjoys flying. All three pitched in and helped him with this project.

What would he like people to know about the plane?

“Just the history of the plane itself,” said Farrel. “I would like them to know the role it played in history being used during WWII, and to gain a better understanding of what things were like back then,” said Farrel.

What does he plan to do with the plane?

“I plan to continue to give people rides with it, he said. “I continue to have a list of people that want a ride. Many of those people have only been in an airliner or a Cessna aircraft, and this plane is completely different.”

Being an air show enthusiast, he also has hopes of now being a participant and not just a spectator. “I would like to get to the point where I go around to air shows and do demos with it and have it on display,” said Farrel. “I think that would be a lot of fun. I have not done anything like that before, but I’d like to.”

Now that it’s all done, would he ever sell it?

“No plans at all to sell it,” he said.

Now that the project is complete, was it worth doing?

“It’s been a great project,” he said. “I would absolutely do it all over again. In a heartbeat. I paid extreme attention to every detail so it is fair to say it cost more than originally anticipated, but it’s absolutely been worth it. Without a doubt.”

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