BY RACHEL BARDUSON
Bellanca will forever be connected to Alexandria history. It’s one of the oldest and most respected names in the history of aircraft manufacturing, known for the Super Viking 300 airplane, and voted the Best Airplane in 1969.
What is Bellanca?
The company was named for Giuseppe Bellanca, who emigrated from Sicily to the United States in the early 1900s. His name is mentioned when talk turns to the Wright Brothers, and linked with Charles Lindbergh and Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, Lindbergh’s first choice for his New York to Paris flight was a Bellanca, however, the company’s insistence on selecting the crew drove Lindbergh to Ryan Airlines; its B-1 design was modified for the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, yet the team of Clarence Duncan Chamberlain and Charles A. Levine, flying the Bellanca-designed Columbia airplane, accomplished the feat just two weeks and two days later, setting a distance record of 3,911 miles. It was the first plane to cross the Atlantic both ways.
Through the flight of the Columbia, Bellanca’s reputation soon profited. Bellanca airplanes figured prominently as efforts by test pilots began to set time, distance, and speed records. The Cruisair 190, designed in the late ‘30s, has been considered one of the most nearly perfect design accomplishments in aviation history. The Cruisair 190 was the direct forebear of the Viking 300, which was placed into production in Alexandria, Minnesota.
How did Bellanca get to Alexandria? Roy Strong, Jr., who was a florist in Alexandria, dreamed about flying. Flying was a skill he had learned as a bomber pilot in World War II. The Northern Aircraft Inc Company he started in 1955 purchased ownership of the Type Certificate and associated physical assets for the Model 14-19 Cruisemaster from Giuseppe Bellanca in New Castle, Delaware. The purchase included assistance to help put an upgraded Cruisemaster Model 14-19-2 into production. Subsequent Downer Aircraft Industries added the Model 14-19-3 with tricycle landing gear, and the Model 14-19-3A with a single tail. Bellanca Aircraft Corporation (BAC) brought the Viking and Super Viking models into play, ending up with the Super Viking Models 17-30A (Continental engine) and 17-31ATC (turbocharged Lycoming engine). BAC produced the most of the 1800 airplanes built in Alexandria.
Keeping the Connection
In its heyday, it was a strong secretarial team, including Audrey Behrens, that kept Bellanca’s day-to-day business communications running smoothly. A resident of Alexandria and a history-enthusiast, it’s no wonder that one of Audrey’s tasks was to compile company history as it was being made. After all, Bellanca was a ground-breaking industry in Alexandria, employing up to 200 people.
“I was hired as a receptionist in 1967 and stayed employed with the company until 1974. I was part of the secretarial team, and would fill in as receptionist when needed, and established a good connection with the plant personnel. When the plant was in full force, there were around 20 office personnel, plus the sales people,” Audrey said. “I remember that a lot of the sales people made a point of coming in on Wednesdays in order to be able to go to the Colonial Club for ‘rib night.’ The Viking Motel would be where they all stayed.”
She added, “Bellanca was a company where everyone got to know one another. In those days, you manually delivered messages in person.”
Along with her secretarial duties, Audrey assisted in coordinating annual dealer meetings, held at either the Holiday Inn or at Arrowwood in Alexandria. “One year, we were privileged to go to the dealer meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., and I flew there with one of the salesmen.” Audrey also coordinated company gatherings, including the annual Christmas party. She reflected, “We worked hard, but enjoyed our socializing, too. I especially enjoyed when the Miller Flying Service officers would come from Plainview, Texas. That’s a whole other story.”
Selling a Bellanca
Marketing and selling Bellanca aircraft required a workforce of its own. Rich Haas of Mankato began his sales career with Bellanca in 1967 as a Regional Sales Manager serving about six states and selling an average of three Bellanca airplanes each month. Haas had secured the job when the CEO, J.K. “Jay” Downer, gave him a call. (When Downer invested in the struggling plant in Alexandria in 1958 he had changed the name to Downer Aircraft Corp., but in 1966, hoping to better capitalize on the famous Bellanca name and to solidify the company’s image, Downer and his colleagues changed the corporate name to Bellanca Aircraft Corp. A year later, the 300-horsepower Viking was introduced and won the “Plane of the Year” award from Plane and Pilot magazine.)
Haas, who had learned to fly in his hometown of Sleepy Eye, Minn., in 1961, explained, “My name had been given to Downer by a friend of mine from the Marine Corp. When Downer called, he said he was looking for an aircraft salesman. I flew up to Alexandria in a Mooney Marka 2A – 160 mph – for a 30-minute flight. I went through the plant with Downer. I flew a Viking and Downer asked, ‘Do you think you can sell these planes?’ Well, I took the job, and I sold four in the first month.”
In 1970, Haas became Bellanca’s National Sales Manager. His duties included setting up aircraft dealers and assisting them in selling Bellanca airplanes, “At this time, we were building 12 – 15 planes in Alexandria per month. At the Osceola, Wisconsin plant we were building about 25 Bellanca ‘Champion’ airplanes a month,” he said.
In 1975, a banner year, Haas sold 142 airplanes in his six-state region, “I sold 22 Vikings and 120 Citabria planes.” Haas went into real estate and auctioneering after his sales career with Bellanca. He began an auctioneering school, and has trained over 5,000 student auctioneers over 32 years. Still an aviation enthusiast, Haas owns a Bellanca Viking and continues to pilot. “Back in 1960, a brand new Piper Colt sold for $4,995. When I started flying in 1960, aviation gasoline was 30 cents a gallon. Last time I filled up, it was $5.50 a gallon.”
Engineering a Bellanca
“Looking back it is obvious that the success of Bellanca in Alexandria is the direct result of the employees who made it happen, they could be counted on to produce a unique hand-crafted airplane that set the highest quality standard for General Aviation,” Andrew Vano said.
Vano was hired in 1974 to be the Viking Project Engineer, and later promoted to be the company’s Chief Engineer. Prior to his move to Minnesota, Andrew was an engineer at the NASA Flight Research Center in California. He was part of the team that conducted flight research on aircraft such as the hypersonic X-15, YF-12 Blackbird, and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle.
The BAC Engineering Department’s primary responsibility was to support Production and Quality Control to keep the airplanes safely moving out the door. There was time to produce only small changes, which were most always directed at improving performance.
“The Anderson/Greenwood Company bought controlling interest in BAC in the late 1970s to put their prototype Ayres Model T-250 into production; three were built before the 1980 bankruptcy. BAC had contracted with a group in Idaho to put their Eagle Ag Airplane into production. Many of the BAC employees moved to Eagle Aircraft after the bankruptcy,” Vano said. A group of local business men created Bellanca Inc. and later, several former BAC employees formed Alexandria Aircraft LLC, which primarily provided parts and service support to the field of Bellanca aircraft.
Vano accepted an offer from the University of Minnesota Department of Aerospace Engineering to be their Akerman Professor of Design for the senior design class.
“Bellanca has a rich history, and extraordinary employees that made the company a success during its tenure in Alexandria,” Vano said. He suggests reading the book Bellanca’s Golden Age by Alan and Drina Able for history enthusiasts.