Thursday, July 1, 2004
Bellanca Viking: Wood, Fabric & Genius
The brainchild of an Italian designer, this classic airplane exudes a rare combination of style and substance
It’s almost inevitable that Italian airplanes are compared to Italian automobiles. You can’t look at the smooth, sculptured lines of a Marchetti SF-260 or Partenavia P68 without thinking of a Ferrari or Maserati.
But Bellancas aren’t Italian airplanes. Although they’re the brainchildren of an Italian-born designer, they’re all-American products, designed and built in the U.S.
Still, most design parameters of the last product in the Bellanca line, the Viking 300, fit the Italian mold. Power is plentiful, handling is better than virtually anything else in the class and the interior is snug enough that you wear the airplane.
Most of all, there is that indefinable Italian characteristic—the handling, the feel. The first Viking 300s were offered in 1967, and there were some 1,700 units produced over the next 30 years. In fact, Bellanca continued in limited production right up through 2001, delivering a handful of handmade airplanes in the last few years, often as few as two a year. Under the direction of a group of seven investors, including long-time chief engineer Andy Vanno, the Alexandria, Minn., plant currently is producing parts and performing major wood overhaul work. Bellanca hopes to go back into limited production of the IO-550-powered Viking—which was introduced in 1996—within the next year or two.
Construction by hand has always been a key ingredient of the Bellancas that few other manufacturers could match. By definition, a wood-and-fabric airplane is constructed by hand. The Sitka spruce and mahogany plywood wings are lovingly assembled from 1,800 individual, pre-formed pieces, some as small as a matchbook.
In fact, the wing has always been Bellanca’s primary claim to fame. A classic airfoil shape, the Viking’s smooth, seamless, 34-foot, Bellanca B wing is probably the closest thing in aviation to a work of art. Ask aircraft designers who truly understand light aircraft construction and performance, and they’ll tell you that, in many respects, Sitka spruce is a better material for building small- to medium-sized airframes than metal or composite materials.
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