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EAA AirVenture Today is published by the Experimental Aircraft Association for EAA AirVenture from July 27 - August 3. It is distributed free on the convention grounds as well as other locations in Oshkosh and surrounding communities. Stories and photos are copyrighted 2008 by EAA AirVenture Today and EAA. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without written consent.


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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Volume 9, Number 6 August 1, 2008     

A dream of flying the mail realized
By Randy Dufault

John Bevan, Addison, and Ryan Pemberton with the 1928 Boeing 40C. Photo by Phil Weston

A key part of aviation history, and arguably, a key part of U.S. history, is the transportation of mail by airplane. The early air mail system contributed a tremendous amount to the development of airplanes as well as to the development of the airway system, and Addison Pemberton plans to keep the history alive and flying.

Part of Pemberton’s plan is his recently completed restoration of a 1928 Boeing Model 40C mail plane. He brought the big biplane, the only flying example of a Boeing 40, here to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2008 from his home in Spokane, Washington.

"I wanted to do something significant," Pemberton said.

"My dad grew up in Greenfield, Iowa," he continued. "CAM (Contract Air Mail route) 18 that ran from Chicago to San Francisco went right over Greenfield, Iowa. In the ’20s he saw these things overhead every day and when I was a kid I’d hear stories at night of Boeing 40s going by every day like clockwork. He said scheduling was uncanny with the planes showing up within five minutes of the same time.

"So that is what took me [in 1982] to the Henry Ford Museum to look at the airplane. When I saw it I was struck by two things. Number one was the airplane was a fabricated airplane with no forgings or castings. It’s all flat plate and tubing. I realized it is probably doable by a hobby guy. So he set out looking for an airframe.

"I have a friend in England whose name is Pete Pavey," Pemberton said. "His expertise is aircraft archival and research and over a two-year period he had accounted for every Boeing 40 ever built. There were 81 serial numbers."

Five airplanes seemed promising and Pemberton attempted to track them down. None of the five turned out to be truly available and so in 1987 he came to the realization he was not going to find one.

In 1998 Pemberton brought a Beechcraft Staggerwing he had restored to EAA AirVenture and Jack Cox did an article on the airplane in Sport Aviation the following spring. In that article Jack asked about Pemberton’s dream project and of course, the Boeing was mentioned. Shortly after the article was published, Golda Cox, Jack’s wife, got a call from a gentleman named Eustice French. French said he had a Boeing 40, in a horse trailer, in his backyard.

The airplane in French’s backyard had crashed in Canyonville, Oregon, on October 2, 1928.

"This particular airplane showed up as never having been recovered. There were newspaper articles that made me believe that it was still on the mountain. I talked to some local people and the legend of the Canyonville mail plane was alive and well."

The Oregon Aviation Historical Society had acquired the salvage rights and over the course of three years, had carried the whole thing out piece by piece. They intended to create a plane crash exhibit out of the airframe.

Pemberton convinced the society that he was capable of restoring the airplane. A deal ensued with Pemberton swapping an engine and propeller for the Boeing remains.

But the airframe alone was not enough.

"The project is not doable without documentation," Pemberton said. "I had gone to Boeing and they were not able to give me any drawings because of liability issues and concerns. But what I did find out is that a set of drawings had been made in the 1960s, and given to a guy named Bill Hill in Houston."

Initially Pemberton was unable to locate Hill or the drawings.

"I ran an ad in Trade-A-Plane for a year," he said. "It said, ‘Boeing 40 dream is alive. Bill Hill where are you? Please call.’ That worked, they called me and I was able to get the drawings.

"So we got this fantastic historic airplane that is hobby rebuildable, with a set of drawings, and with an engine that is still available."

A restoration project ensued. In the end the airplane ended up with a standard airworthiness certificate with no restrictions, a fact that Pemberton is very proud of.

Power for the plane comes from the same Pratt and Whitney R-1340 that powered the original, albeit a more modern version. The only other deviations from the original Pemberton chose to make include covering the plane in modern fabric, equipping it with modern brakes, and including a tail wheel instead of the skid the original was equipped with.

From the factory the Boeing did have a primitive electrical system, though somewhat sophisticated for its day. It had electric start, an intercom system for the passengers to talk to the pilot and the large landing lights that mail planes of the day typically were equipped with. Pemberton modernized the electrical system, but only because of the need to operate the airplane in today’s airspace.

The airplane has already accumulated 60 hours and Pemberton expects the total to easily reach 200 by the end of the year.

Following EAA AirVenture he is headed to Blakesburg, Iowa, for the Antique Airplane National Fly-in. The theme this year is airmail and 30 mail planes are expected. A temporary post office will be in place and the classic airplanes, including the Boeing, will be flying official mail again, if only for the duration of the fly-in.

In September the Boeing, along with two other classic mail planes, will refly the transcontinental airmail route from New York to San Francisco. Sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service and the National Air and Space Museum, the flight may even land at Crissy Field at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Crissy Field was the Western termination for the original transcontinental airmail routes.

Pemberton credits a number of volunteers for making the restoration possible. Those volunteers included son Ryan Pemberton, John Bevan, Matt Burrows, Art Swenson, Randy Ingrham, and his wife, Wendy.

The Boeing 40 can be seen in Vintage parking, just south of the Theater in the Woods.

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