Even though Greg Messner has thousands of hours flying countless different planes under his belt, the first real flight in his 1929 Alliance A-1 Argo biplane last week was like nothing he’s ever experienced.
“It felt like I was in an airplane for the first time, and I was the pilot,” Messner said, shortly after touching down at the South Cariboo Regional Airport in 108 Mile Ranch last Thursday.
Feeling the wooden wings expand and contract in the hot and cool air, the shoulder harnesses holding him into the open-air cockpit as he bounced over every bit of turbulence, the vibrations of the 92-year-old aircraft coursing through his entire body, Messner said the flight was equally as crazy as it was exciting.
“My first flight was only 20 minutes, and after I landed I realized I was the most high-timed Argo pilot in the world,” Messner laughed. “No one is alive who can give you any instruction on flying it.”
It was a thrilling homecoming for Messner last week as he completed the final leg of his journey home. His route took him from Campbell River to Sechelt, then to Pemberton, on to Lillooet and finally 108 Mile Ranch. The plane has a fuel capacity of only 130 litres, which allows for about an hour and a half of flying time; its cruising speed, depending on the headwind, is about 75 miles per hour (120 km/h), he said.
Messner first set his sights on the classic biplane 13 years ago, when he was in Minnesota purchasing another small plane.
It was one of 43 rare airplanes owned by a collector at the Golden Wings Air Museum near Minneapolis. At the time, Messner said he only dreamed of owning such a classic and unique plane.
More than a decade later, Messner saw a post on Facebook about the museum’s fleet being up for sale.
“I called to see if the Argo was up for sale, and they said there was a deposit on it but that they’d call me if anything changed,” he said. “The next day they called and said it was mine if I wanted it, and I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ And then I thought, what have I done? I didn’t even ask how much it cost!”
Shortly after, Messner drove to Minneapolis, took the biplane apart and drove it back to B.C. loaded into a 26-foot U-Haul truck. A good friend of his in Campbell River – Bill Alder of Sealand Aviation – spent more than three months helping Messner put the plane back together and getting it flight-ready.
It took just as long to get the proper licensing from Transport Canada as it did to prepare the biplane for its first flight in close to 80 years.
“This plane has never existed in Canada, so they weren’t really sure what to do and how to go about this,” Messner explained, noting that when it was built in 1929 it was granted a “type certificate” which allows it to fly anywhere in the world.
“That’s what makes it so special, it’s not just some home build. This is an actual approved, certified plane in Canada, the US and anywhere else. That makes it so rare.”
Adding to its rarity is the fact that it was one of only 20 such planes built in 1929 in Alliance, Ohio. It is the only one of those 20 that remains airworthy today, something that Messner attributes to the nearly 70 years it spent in storage before being bought by the Minneapolis museum owner.
While parts like the wing fabric and paint have been esthetically refurbished, the mechanical elements – including the propeller, engine and spark plugs – are all original from 1929.
“It’s the only one remaining, so it’s rare – there are no spare parts,” he said. “Anything that breaks or wears out, I’ll have to get a machine shop or someone to fabricate something for me.”
Messner said he plans to fly it a few more times this fall, on good weather days, before storing it for the winter. In the spring, he’d like to take it to some air shows or flying club events around the province, he said.
“I want to take some time to really go over the plane, get a feel for the engine and get a few things tweaked,” he said. “It will be a 100 years old in a few years. So my thought is to maybe keep it till 100, then sell it to somebody else to look after. It needs to be looked after all the time.”