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July 4, 2013
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Historic airmail plane to revisit Roseburg's skies

Like clockwork, twice a day between 1927 to 1931, Roseburg residents would hear a resonant squeal overhead. Those who looked skyward would see the same shimmering, single-engine ship.

This weekend the city will return to those thrilling days of yesteryear as an airmail plane with a special local connection returns to the Roseburg Municipal Airport for the Wings and Wheels plane and car show.

“What’s really exciting about coming to Roseburg is this plane was a common sight,” said Addison Pemberton, who restored and flies the country’s only operational Boeing 40-C. It’s the oldest Boeing fit for flight.

It’s also the plane that lay in pieces near the summit of Canyon Mountain, after pilot H.G. Donaldson crashed in 1928 on an morning of low-hanging fog. Donaldson barely survived, but the wreck claimed the life of a Los Angeles diamond distributor riding with him. The wreckage remained unclaimed for more than 70 years.

Long interested in airmail’s role in aviation history, Pemberton spent 12 years searching for Donaldson’s plane before a rival team with the Oregon Aviation Historical Association literally stumbled upon the doomed plane.

“They were able to carry it all down off the mountain,” said Pemberton, who lives in Spokane.

After purchasing the wreckage, Pemberton and a group of nine friends and relatives spent eight years and 18,000 hours restoring the plane at the hangar of Pemberton and Sons Aviation in Spokane. His team tracked down original drawings and specifications and fabricated new parts. Seventy original components, including one wing fitting and the landing-gear forgings, made the final assembly.

Today, Pemberton travels the country displaying his handiwork and telling the story of the American airmail pilot. To cap the completion of the restoration project in 2008, he recreated a transcontinental flight from New York City to Los Angeles, taking an original route and ferrying real mail.

Pemberton calls his plane, N5339, the “missing link” of aviation, a hybrid of the barnstorming stunt planes that came before it and the commercial planes it helped usher in.

“This was when the airplane went from being a novelty to being a tool,” Pemberton said.

The wood-winged 40-C could fly faster than previous biplanes, up to 120 mph, but was unable to travel safely above cloud level. Further complicating matters, Pemberton said, the craft is unusually difficult to control. Depressing the rudder pedals requires 70 pounds of force, or about 10 times more than a modern plane.

“Flying it is a very physical experience,” he said.

Flying a biplane as low as 100 feet above ground, a 40-C pilot could get a letter to Los Angeles from New York City in two days. Making the jog just once in the cumbersome 40-C was a treacherous and nervy affair, Pemberton said.

Doing it without modern navigational equipment, every day, sometimes at night, was “just crazy, almost beyond belief.”

For a brief four-year period, Boeing maintained contracts to deliver U.S. mail. Roseburg was an important central stop along its West Coast route from Oakland-San Francisco to Seattle, Pemberton said. It was also the point delineating smooth sailing to the north, and a deadly, mountainous trek south to Redding, Calif.

Pemberton plans to touch down in Roseburg for Wings and Wheels at 4 p.m. on Friday and leave sometime on Sunday. Cabin rides in the 40-C will be raffled by festival organizers.

Planes from before and after the airmail era will also be displayed on Saturday. Admission to the third annual show is free, but food collection barrels for nonperishable items will be near the south airport entrance off Aviation Boulevard.

Last year, the show was held on Graffiti Weekend, which meant high attendance, but fewer cars in the Wings and Wheels show. Airport Director Mike Danielle expects to fill all 100 car slots this year, informally kicking off Graffiti Weekend.

Retired military and commercial airline pilot Mike Carpentiero will also descend to Roseburg, showing off his New Standard D-25 “Flying Circus” biplane and selling 15-minute rides for $75. Carpentiero calls himself the country’s last professional barnstorming pilot.

At 65 mph and 500 feet above the ground, flight in the Flying Circus is little different, Carpentiero said.

“It’s a whole different machine,” he said. “People can see you when you wave at them. They can hear you when you yell at them.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 10, 2013 11:00AM Published Jul 5, 2013 07:08PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.