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Diamonds in the Wreck

Riches to rags and back again: A 1928 mailplane is reborn.

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SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, PACIFIC AIR TRANSPORT MAILPLANE NO. 5339 plunged into treetops over southern Oregon and burned, only to have its engine ripped out by a salvage team and then fall prey to townspeople who pilfered its remains and amputated its tail. Steeped in mountain fog and wet Northwest weather for six decades, the Boeing 40C eroded until its remnants, looking like the twisted bones of a great primitive biplane, were scooped from the Willamette Valley and cached in a horse trailer.

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Despite all this misfortune, Spokane, Washington engineer Addison Pemberton is today spending $100,000 to make 5339 flyable again. “This airplane has an amazing history,” he says. If he succeeds, his will be the only airplane of its type flying.

The 40C, a 44-foot-wingspan, 6,000-pound, open-cockpit behemoth, originated in a design Boeing entered in a 1925 competition to replace the Post Office’s aging de Havilland DH-4s. Boeing lost the competition, but when the company lowballed bidding for Contract Air Mail two years later, a fleet of Model 40s began ferrying mail on two routes—San Diego to Seattle and Chicago to San Francisco—under the banners of the company’s Pacific Air Transport and Boeing Air Transport divisions. In addition to 749 pounds of mail, each 40C could accommodate four paying passengers in two cramped cabins in the forward fuselage.

On the morning of October 2, 1928, Pacific Air Transport pilot Grant Donaldson took off in 5339 from Medford, Oregon, on his way to Portland with nine pounds of mail and passenger D.P. Donovan, a West Coast drugstore chain owner and a gemstone dealer who carried a satchel of diamonds. An hour into scud-running beneath low-lying clouds, Donaldson heard booming noises and discovered that he was scraping treetops. There was no time to recover. The 40C dove forward “as if it had been a giant scythe,” reported the Roseburg, Oregon News-Review. “One tree, nearly a foot in diameter was cut off about 25 feet from the ground.”

Donaldson rushed out of the cockpit as the biplane’s nitrate-doped cotton skin fueled a fire so intense it melted the aircraft’s metal propeller. He fought through the flames to check on his passenger, but saw that Donovan had been killed on impact. Donaldson’s actions left him with severe burns; for the rest of his life he would have a scar tissue circumscription of flight goggles on his face. Bloody and incoherent, Donaldson staggered down to a highway, where a preacher and his family hurriedly drove him to a pharmacy nine miles north, in Canyonville.

“The next day the airline went up there and they got the remains of poor Donovan,” says Pemberton. “They picked out what diamonds they could, and they salvaged what they could of the engine.” For years afterward, townspeople hiked up to the crash site to sift for diamonds. (Rumors abound of Canyonville wives who own rings set with diamonds from the crash.) In 1929, they hacksawed the tail section off to use as a nursery school jungle gym.

Pemberton first grew interested in restoring a Boeing 40 after seeing one at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. He researched the fates of all 81 Model 40s built and in 1982 began a two-year hunt for 5339’s hulk. As luck would have it, a remark published in a 1999 magazine profile of his restored Beechcraft D-17 Staggerwing caught the eye of a member of the Oregon Aviation Historical Society, which had scavenged 5339’s parts over several trips in the mid-1990s. “I just casually mentioned that my lifetime dream had been to acquire and restore a Boeing 40,” Pemberton says. The OAHS member told him that most of the crash was in a horse trailer in his backyard. Pemberton struck a deal: He traded the society a propeller and $5,000 for the parts, and promised to restore 5339 to its original livery and exhibit it to the public.

Though Pemberton had restored 18 aircraft, none had been as ravaged as this one. “I tease him about it—that he didn’t bring a project home, he brought home DNA,” says his wife Wendy, who does fabric work for his team. Perhaps 50 original pieces will be absorbed into a 30,000-part aircraft, making the effort more a cloning than a restoration.

The reusable parts—all made of the alloy chromoly steel, durable enough to survive 5339’s prolonged exposure—included the cockpit entry steps, the wobble pump, and seat brackets. “If it wasn’t a structural part, we’d try to incorporate it into the airplane,” says team member James Love. Wood from the wreck has been salvaged and combined into new gussets and cross-strips.

When parts have had to be fabricated, the team has benefited from 600 schematics on microfiche preserved by former Boeing employee Harl Braken. Years of work have been saved by using a device called a water jet, which cuts metal plates with a 50,000-pounds-per-square-inch stream of water. Three years into the seven-year project, the cockpit and instrument panel, control systems, wing ribs and fittings, oil tank, engine mount, fuselage, and mahogany-accented cabins have been restored.

What’s left? “We have to construct the tail flying surfaces,” says Pemberton. “We have to do the final assembly and completion of all the wing panels, scratch-build the landing gear, and finish the sheet metal.”

Since Pemberton owns the manufacturer’s data plate and has technical drawings to prove 5339’s conformity to the original design, the Federal Aviation Administration will be able to classify the aircraft as a standard—not experimental or a replica—though that may be stretching things, suggests welder Ernie Buckler. “If you have the [data plate], you can put a new fuselage, new wings, new tail, new engine, new cockpit, new instruments,” he laughs, “and it’s still the same airplane.”

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