The saga of old #249 would make a great plot for an action-packed
adventure movie. Picture, if you will, Paul Newman playing the
daring young airmail pilot Henry G. Boonstra. The scene opens
with Boonstra lifting off from Salt Lake City airfield in his
de Havilland 4 bound for Rock Springs, Wyoming. The date is
December 15, 1922; the time, 7:30 a.m.
This is a day that ducks stay
grounded, but U.S. Air Mail Service pilots rate no such luxury.
Clouds hang low and the wind swirls dry snow into the air like
desert dust devils. Boonstra flies low at 200 feet under a thick
layer of clouds. Now and then he peers over the side of his
DH to view the rugged landscape below.
Suddenly, over Porcupine Ridge,
southeast of Coalville, Utah, a gust of wind, whips against
the side of his plane. Caught by surprise, Boonstra has no time
to turn, slow his speed or even cut the switches. Helpless,
he holds tight while the DH skids on its belly to a stop on
Surprised to find himself bruised
but alive, Boonstra clambers out of the cockpit and looks around.
He assesses his prospects -- he has landed on a remote mountain
ridge 9,400 feet high, far from signs of human life -- his prospects
don�t look promising. He tucks his compass in his pocket, grabs
his traveling bag and slogs through the snow, sometimes waist-deep.
All day he trudges on. Light fades as night approaches, but
still he stumbles down the slope through the woods. The temperature
dips below freezing, and when he rests, his feet turn numb.
Dawn arrives and with it a raging
blizzard. Boonstra, still on the move, spots the first sign
of human habitation -- a barn about three miles ahead of him.
He pitches ahead, eventually reaching the building. There, he
is discovered and given shelter and nourishment.
He rests for two days as a guest
of the farmer. In the meantime, the Post Office Department conducts
an extensive ground and air search for their missing pilot.
Finally able to ride a horse, Boonstra travels three miles to
the nearest phone and relays his position to Salt Lake City.
A few days later he’s back in
the air flying the Salt Lake City – Rock Springs route.
The story should end with the
pilot safe and the plane an unretrievable hulk sitting on a
remote ledge. But it doesn't.
More than 40 years go by. A new
hero enters the picture. His name is J. W. (Bill) Hackbarth,
and he�s an aging but still vital U.S. Post Office Service mechanic
played by a Spencer Tracy look-alike. Hackbarth�s dream is to
find and rebuild an old de Havilliand 4 in time for the golden
anniversary of the inauguration of the airmail service.
It doesn�t take him long to decide
on old 249 now laying in three feet of grass and snow atop Porcupine
Ridge, virtually undisturbed since Boonstra left it all those
years before. Most other airmail planes had long since been
destroyed, burned or scraped.
Old 249 found in its original condition -- Bill
Hackbarth in the pilot's seat. Photo courtesy
of Vera Cola.
Hackbarth convinces a back-country
sheep man to retrieve the 600 remaining parts of the plane and
haul them down the mountain. Once the bits and pieces are salvaged,
the Air Mail Pioneers, under Hackbarth�s direction, set about
putting them together.
Then, as in any good movie, a
near catastrophe brings the plot to a dramatic climax. In mid-October
1967, the raging flames of the South Mountain Fire consumed
Hackbarth�s ranch in Santa Paula, California, and lay waste
to old 249, now within a month of completion. "The fire was
so hot," Mrs. Hackbarth told The Ventura County (Calif.) Star-Free
Press, "that it completely melted an engine. The handle of a
cast iron frying pan is also completely melted."
What to do? According to former
Strategic Air Command pilot Jim Collison, a Pennsylvania widow
came to the rescue.
Collison writes: In May, 1990
was hung 60 years visual history of Burbank (CA) Airport. It
is laid out by decades beginning with the �20s through the �90s.
The lead photograph is of Bill
Hackbarth's marvelous smiling face (�68) as he looks out at
you from the cockpit of his DH-4. Two weeks later he left on
the cross-country flight eastward.
This exhibit area has undergone
some interior architectural changes in the last eight years.
The photographs and copy are spread along 60' of two opposite
walls. It is worth hesitating a moment to look, read story/captions
and reflect. Amelia is there--the war years--and more.
You may recall, a grass fire,
which burned the DH-4. Bill was almost broken in spirit even
as he repaired the damage, but with long silences, his wife
told me. Where was he to find a Liberty engine? What recourse?
Where to go--and what to do? Were there any left in Hollywood?
In the 20s the silent era movie
studios began using Liberty engines as wind machines for westerns
and other outdoor films. Too late, these big-bladed aircraft
engines were long gone.
Then it happened. A sweetest of
calls to the Hackbarths in Santa Paula, CA, home of old 249.
A long retired and widowed Pennsylvania farm lady said, "My
husband kept a new Liberty engine in the barn... and it's never
been used..still in its original wrappings...full of grease
these many years..and it is yours for nothing if you will pay
the transportation out there."
And you know the rest of the story.
And so the widow and the Liberty
engine resurrected the dream; and the Air Mail Pioneers hurried
to rebuild what they�d lost. They tucked some of the wreckage
into the replica and on May 9, 1968, as scheduled, Hackbarth
arrived in Washington D.C. after winging his way across the
continent in old 249 along the old transcontinental route.
Our movie closes on an upbeat
note as Air Mail Pioneers gaze proudly on the rebuilt de Havilland;
the music swells.
Postscript from Collison: Sadly,
Bill became ill at the start of his 50-year Air Mail anniversary,
west-to-east flight routing in the restored DH-4. While
eating breakfast at the Santa Paula airport cafe, his wife and
I discussed his respiratory challenge and the endurance required
for the open-cockpit demands in wind and cold.
She asked of me, "Since your family is part of this aviation
history, would you fly in Bill's place if he can't make it?"
Filled with antibiotics, with the ground crew and everyone's
support, Hackbarth made the flight without apparent mishap.
It wouldn't have been an updated story without his attempt.
And, also, he would have died "wishing" instead of the fulfillment
he wore so proudly.
The aircraft resides in the atrium of the National Postal