Hawaiian Air goes back to its roots


POSTED: Thursday, April 22, 2010

I flew back into the past yesterday.

It was the ultimate of time machines—a vividly red 1929 Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker that marked the beginning for Hawaiian Airlines' predecessor, Inter-Island Airways, more than 80 years ago.

I squeezed into the six-passenger, high-wing aircraft, the only one of its kind in the world that still flies, fastened my seat belt, put on my headset to drown out some of the rumbling from both the vintage Pratt & Whitney radial engine and the propeller, and then within seconds it was aloft over Oahu.

And just like that I was transported back in time to 1929, the year my parents were born.

This was and still is a touring plane. It was restored by Hawaiian last year to commemorate its 80th anniversary and the company eventually plans to make it available for “;good causes”; in the islands as a different way to contribute to the community. It also plans to give all its employees the opportunity to take a historic ride.

On this particular day, the winds were strong at about 25 miles per hour and the aircraft, flying at 110 miles per hour, had a little bounce to it.

But no matter. The breathtaking scenery below from an altitude of between 1,500 and 2,000 feet commanded my entire focus.

And the pilot was none other than Mark Dunkerley, the president and chief executive officer of the company.

How's that for service at the airline that this year was rated the nation's top carrier for service quality for the third time in four years.

“;This is really flying. This is the way it was meant to be,”; said Dunkerley, a pilot with 25 years' experience who is licensed to fly virtually any aircraft. “;This is an extraordinary piece of history. For those of us who are passionate about this, it doesn't get any better than this.”;

On Oct. 6, 1929, Hawaiian's predecessor began offering sightseeing tours over Honolulu with the Bellanca to introduce people to the concept of flying. Back then, four passengers and two pilots could squeeze into the plane, which has two seats behind the controls and then two passenger seats in each of the other two rows. Nowadays, though, people are bigger and Dunkerley said the plane really can seat only four people total, with the last row left empty so the weight can be distributed toward the front of the plane.

Dunkerley's co-pilot, Capt. Bruce Clements, who normally flies Boeing 767s, marveled at the significance of being able to fly in the Bellanca.

“;This is Hawaiian Airlines' very first airplane,”; Clements said. “;How many airlines have their very first airplane? This isn't a replica.”;

The only other passenger on this 20-minute flight was Star-Bulletin photographer Dennis Oda, who snapped away as we flew from Honolulu Airport over Waikiki and to Koko Head and back.

Although the 27-foot, 9-inch-long Bellanca has a range of more than 500 miles, it never was meant to fly interisland when it was introduced in 1929. That role was left up to two Sikorsky S-38 amphibian planes capable of carrying eight passengers and two crew members. They began scheduled interisland service on Nov. 11, 1929.

The Bellanca, meanwhile, was designed to operate in and out of farmers' fields since there were very few actual airports at the time it was built. No wonder, then, its takeoff and landing yesterday seemed almost instantaneous—nothing at all like the extended time it takes with today's commercial aircraft.

Prior to the generation of aircraft that included the Bellanca, air travel was mostly for daredevils and the like where the pilot and passengers would ride on the outside in the breeze and have to wear big sheepskin fleece coats that were wrapped over their knees.

“;It was really an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience,”; Dunkerley said.

But the comfort level improved immensely when the cabin was enclosed and passengers got to ride in the inside.

On my trip yesterday, as the plane was being jostled by the extremely windy conditions, Dunkerley offered to open the window to enrich my experience.

I told him no thanks and that I liked things just the way they were.

Dave Segal is business editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.