Bellanca built his first successful aircraft in Brooklyn, New York in 1913. The design became standard for today’s planes which incorporate a tractor design with a front propeller, wing in the middle and tail aft, just the opposite of other planes designed at that time. It was powered by a 25 horsepower engine. Pilots shuddered at the thought of attempting to fly it and Bellanca stated, “The experts gave me 15 days to live. But this was hopeful for it gave me the impression they thought the machine could get off the ground.” It did!
- Came to the U.S. in 1910 and built his first successful aircraft in 1913, a parasol monoplane with a propeller in front, wing in the middle and a tail aft.
- Opened a flying school in 1914 after teaching himself to fly a monoplane.
- His 1916 design became state-of-the-art for its time and won 13 first place prizes in the four meets in which it completed.
- Worked for the Wright Aeronautical Corp in 1924 and designed the Wright-Bellanca WB-1 and WB-2. The WB-2 was later renamed the Columbia.
- Started his own company the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation and in 1931, his Miss Veedol aircraft completed the first successful non-stop Pacific crossing.
- Bellanca aircraft set the trail for international commercial aviation.
The year was 1900 and a small boy named Giuseppe Bellanca was flying a kite from a high cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Sciacca, Sicily. The winds were fierce and while the other children attached small weights on their kites to counter the gales, young Giuseppe had ingeniously placed holes in his kite to bleed the air through it. The other children soon noticed how well his kite flew and they begged him to fix their kites like his. For the rest of Giuseppe Bellanca’s life, others would look to him to set the standards for aviation.
His father, aware of Giuseppe’s mechanical talent, wisely sent him to a local technical school from which he entered the Royal Institute of Milan and studied mathematics. While in Milan, Giuseppe read a Paris newspaper telling of a man named De La Grange who stayed aloft for six minutes in a Voison airplane. This article inspired Giuseppe himself to dream of flight. Bellanca tried in 1909 to build his own flying machine, but the attempt failed due to lack of money for an engine.
In 1910, Bellanca journeyed to America with the hope he could find success in aviation in the “land of opportunity.” He built his first aircraft in Brooklyn, New York in 1913. He christened the design a “parasol” because of its high wing. The design became the standard for today’s general aviation. It incorporated a tractor design with the propeller in front, the wing in the middle, and the tail aft. This was a departure from the popular designs popular of that era, which followed more the structure of the Wright Brothers aircraft (tail in the front of the wing and the propellers pushing). Bellanca’s plane was powered by a 25 horsepower engine. Other pilots shuddered at the thought of attempting to fly it and Bellanca once said, “The experts gave me 15 days to live. But this was hopeful for it gave me the impression they thought the machine could get off the ground.” It flew very well.
Using the plane he had built, Bellanca taught himself to fly. He opened a flying school in 1914 where he taught many to fly including Fiorella H. LaGuardia who later became a World War I Ace and the mayor of New York City. This was the era of the barnstormers, men who were mostly World War I pilot veterans. Hooked on flying, they would travel the country in their Army surplus Jennies, offering the experience of a flight to people for money. They lived hand-to-mouth and often, said one man, “They were are good as they talked, and some of those Gypsies were first class orators.”
In 1921, Bellanca moved to Omaha, Nebraska. In the back of a fire house he built his first high-winged monoplane called the CF, which now rests in the Smithsonian. The CF was the first design to include distinctive struts that added strength and lift to the wings. It was five place with a 90 horse power engine and a top speed of 110 m.p.h. This plane was state-of-the-art in 1922 and it won thirteen first place prizes in the four meets in which it competed. Clarence Chamberlin was a barnstormer in 1920 when he heard mention of an Italian immigrant offering a plane for sale for $5000 that would outperform any of the World War I era Jennies. Chamberlin ordered the very first one and after taking it up, declared it could fly itself. A strong friendship began at that moment as Chamberlin became Bellanca’s test pilot. Although the aviation industry highly regarded Bellanca and the CF, the $5,000 CF couldn’t compete in price with the war surplus Jennies, Standards, and DeHavilands, which cost only hundreds of dollars.
Out of money, Bellanca returned to the East and joined, as consultant, the Wright Aero Corporation of New Jersey in 1924. The Wright Company was looking for a plane to showcase its new J-5 Whirlwind engine. Bellanca answered their call by building the Wright-Bellanca WB-2, a plane that swept the air races in 1926 and set a non-refueled endurance record of 51 hours. Many people believed this plane would make the first trans-Atlantic crossing.
Raymond Orteig had offered $25,000 for the person who made the first cross Atlantic flight. A young man by the name of Charles Lindbergh had his eyes on the prize. While he was shopping for a plane and navigator, he attested to the reliability and performance of Bellanca’s planes when he declared, “Well, if I can get a Bellanca, I’ll fly alone.” Meanwhile, the Wright Company decided they wanted only to build engines, not aircraft, so the company found a buyer for the Wright Bellanca WB-2. His name was Charles Levine, and Bellanca collaborated with Levine as president of their newly formed Columbia Aircraft Company. They renamed the WB-2 the Columbia.
Lindbergh came to Bellanca to buy the Columbia to fly for the Orteig Prize. Bellanca agreed to the sale, but Levine, who was chairman of the board, said no. An enraged Lindbergh went to the Ryan Aircraft Company to have the Spirit of St. Louis built, and the company constructed it in record time. Levine and Bellanca prepared the Columbia for winning the Orteig Prize, but no one knew that Levine intended to be a passenger on this flight except perhaps for the planned pilot, Bertaud. Levine quarreled with Bertaud and attempted to cancel his contract. Levine chose Clarence Chamberlin be his pilot and by May 1927, both the Spirit of St. Louis and the Columbia were at Roosevelt Field and ready for the flight to Paris. At this point Bertaud sued the Columbia Aircraft Company and had the Columbia impounded. On May 20th, 1927, Lindbergh took off and completed the flight to Paris. Two weeks later, the Columbia took off for Germany with Levine as a passenger. Landing in Berlin, they beat Lindbergh’s distance record. Ironically, Bellanca’s airplane had been complete several years before the Spirit of St. Louis and could have been first to cross the Atlantic had it not been for the lawsuit. Not only did the Columbia fly further than the Spirit of St. Louis, but it carried a passenger. It also had a windshield so the pilot could see ahead. This design set a standard for the modern aircraft. Bellanca appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in recognition of this achievement.
Bellanca severed ties with Levine and again started his own company, the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation, financed by a Wilmington, Delaware group. He began to receive orders faster than he could fill them. In 1931, his Miss Veedol made the first trans-Pacific flight, from Japan to the state of Washington, with Clyde Pangborn at the controls. Pangborn belly-landed outside of Seattle because Pangborn ditched the landing gear to lessen the airplane’s weight.
Over the next five years, Bellanca aircraft set record after record for endurance and distance, including his Pathfinder which made the second Atlantic crossing from America to Spain, continuing on to Rome. Bellanca aircraft blazed the trail for international commercial air transportation. He was known mostly for his long range aircraft but he also built racing planes such as the 28-92 tri-motor racer which placed second in the 1938 Bendix races. The Bellanca Flash racer model 28-90 set a speed record across the Atlantic in 13 hours in 1936. After World War II, his company built approximately 500 four-place Cruisaire general aviation type aircraft at the rate of five per day. His company became established as a leading manufacturer, but he continued to specialize in quality aircraft rather than in quantity of production until his retirement in 1954, when he sold his interest in the company. After his retirement, he and his son, August, conceived the idea of building a composite general aviation aircraft. Before they could complete the aircraft, Bellanca died in 1960, at the age of 74.
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