Bill Wiebe (left) and Frank W. Sawatzky who built the first aircraft in Steinbach 1932.
An extremely rare photograph of Frank and Annie Sawatzky beside the "Mennonite built Pietenpol".
Bill Wiebe and Frank W. Sawatzky asked Jacob R. Friesen, the owner of a local garage in Steinbach, to help them build an aircraft based on the Pietenpol Air Camper plans . None of these people had any experience in aircraft making. Still, Friesen agreed to fund the project if, in return, Wiebe and Sawatzky supplied the labour, material, etc. As well, if the venture proved successful, the two agreed to head a company in Steinbach that would produce and sell Air Campers. As unorthodox as it may seem, Friesen’s decision was in keeping with his innovative spirit. He had bought one of the first cars in town back in 1912 and had obtained one of the earliest franchise for Ford automobiles in rural Western Canada, and this as early as 1914. Friesen’s interest in the new vehicles had not gone unnoticed among Mennonite elders. It apparently led to a schism within the local church.
No less than three home-built airplanes were put together in Steinbach in the first half of the 1930s. In the winter of 1931, William “Bill” Wiebe and Frank W. Sawatzky found plans for the Air Camper in an issue of the monthly magazine Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The idea of building their own airplane fired their imagination.
Original plans of the Pietenpol
Curiosity and unsolicited advice in the small community were such that the doors of the farm implement garage, located next door to H.W. Reimer’s department store, in which the small airplane was being built had to be locked at all times. Indeed, not everyone approved of such modern and radical ideas as flying in airplanes. Wiebe and Sawatzky soon realized that the drawings they were using were incomplete. They were forced to improvise, interpret and seek the help of people in Winnipeg who were knew about aviation. One such person was Frank Brown, former Great War pilot, Goodyear Tire salesman and a director of the Winnipeg Light Aeroplane Club. An example of Weibe and Sawatzky’s ingenuity was their use of the radiator from a Fordson agricultural tractor to cool the souped-up and lightened 40-hp Ford Model A water-cooled inline automobile engine mounted on their airplane. Such engine work was performed in the repair shop of Friesen’s garage. The latter’s son, Edwin, or “Ed”, proved more than willing to help.
Some time after the Air Camper was completed, two inspectors from the Civil Aviation Branch of the Department of National Defence came to look at it. One of them suggested that the application for a licence be rejected. His companion was more open-minded. The duo finally agreed that the airplane, while quite well built, would require some modifications, especially stronger bolts. The Air Camper was given the registration CF-ASP on 29 April 1932.
Now that the airplane was complete, Wiebe and Sawatzky decided to test it. To avoid problems with crowd control as well as embarrassment in case the Air Camper refused to lift off, they snuck out at supper time and set out to tow it down the main street of Steinbach all the way to a somewhat stony field used for grazing, on the East side of town. Sawatzky was to fly the airplane. Their hope that their friends and neighbours would be too busy having supper to notice them proved did not pan out. Some people were there when Sawatzky struck a rock during take off. The Air Camper immediately tipped on its nose, damaging the metal propeller beyond repair. Wiebe and Sawatzky were devastated. The airplane was loaded on a truck and taken back to its hangar. The shock of the incident took some time to dissipate.
Unable to afford a new metal propeller, Wiebe and Sawatzky decided to make a wooden one. They unfortunately did not quite know how to do this. The principal of a local school, a graduate engineer, Julius Toews, soon came to their rescue. He provided the two young men with the mathematical formulas required to prepare the templates used to carve a block of laminated birch and mahogany planks. Wiebe and Sawatzky mounted the propeller on the Air Camper but concluded that it was safer to let a seasoned pilot test their airplane.
Frank Brown offered his services, which were gratefully accepted. The airplane flew on 2 May 1932. The crowd which had gathered behind the school to witness the flight, quite probably the largest seen so far in southeastern Manitoba, had waited for the pilot to arrive but was not disappointed. The small silver airplane proved very much airworthy. Indeed, the event was considered so important that some local businesses shut down. Farmers came from all points of the compass with their wives and children to see the airplane fly. The local German-language newspaper, The Steinbach Post, published an enthusiastic article that very day. The monthly magazine Canadian Aviation published two photos of CF-ASP, as well as some information, in its July 1932 issue.
Other pilots soon volunteered their services as well. Among them was Harvey Windsor. After bending the axle on landing at the end of his first flight, he went up again but the engine misbehaved. Windsor barely cleared a line of telephone wires on take off. The engine failed soon after and the pilot was lucky enough to glide between a fence and a line of telephone wires. Sadly, CS-ASP’s wheels hit a ditch and the airplane flipped over, snapping the propeller. Windsor was shaken but uninjured. He helped Wiebe and Sawatzky make a new propeller.
At some point, the Air Camper was fitted with homemade skis for winter operations. Sawatzky was taking off one day in Altona (Manitoba), near the border with North Dakota and Minnesota, when a ski snapped. The wing was damaged and the propeller broken in the ensuing crash. The airplane was soon repaired, however, and Sawatzky climbed on board to check the controls and the engine. He had only one glove on and had not buckled his seatbelt. Given the stormy weather that day, Sawatzky had no intention to fly. Even so, he found himself flying as soon as he moved the throttle.
The young man decided that having to choose between landing immediately and flying back to Steinbach, he might as well go home. The wind was favourable but the turbulence was such Sawatzky could not buckle his seatbelt or put on his second glove. Battling the updrafts and downdrafts, he cleared the banks of the Red River and came uncomfortably close to farm buildings. A few kilometres from Steinbach, as he was trying to land while avoiding a haystack, Sawatzky was thrown out of the airplane which promptly turned over, breaking yet another propeller.
By then, Wiebe had phoned the Friesen residence to say that Sawatzky had vanished in a blizzard. There was shock among those present who wondered what could be done to locate him. The phone rang again. It was Sawatzy who told them where he could be picked up. By the time Ed and William Friesen showed up, Sawatzky had righted the Air Camper and pushed it closer to the road. Deeply concerned by what might have happened to his son in law, Jacob Friesen gave him a severe dressing down.
William May, a pilot who later worked for British Overseas Aircraft Corporation, flew the airplane during the Manitoba Goodwill Air Tour of 1932. Indeed, CF-ASP was in the lead when the participating aircraft took off from Winnipeg on their twelve-day trip. The Air Camper apparently did not complete the tour, possibly as a result of a propeller change. The following year, the airplane joined the aircraft participating in another Manitoba Goodwill Air Tour as they left Steinbach in early September. It is said that the airplane’s pilot on that occasion, Carlton Ross, later flew on the Republican side during the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939, against the fascist-aided rebels led by general Francisco Franco y Bahamonde.
Even though it was thought illegal to carry paying passengers, CF-ASP was often used for this task. It is said that the pilot would sell packages of chewing gun in exchange of which he would graciously offer the buyers short flights above the countryside.
Ed Friesen piloting the home built Pietenpol.
It looks as if CF-ASP last flew on 21 August 1935. The airplane was sold to Ivor Milne of Homewood (Manitoba), southwest of Winnipeg, in 1936 after which point it disappeared from the Canadian civil aircraft register. The poor condition of the glued joints may have caused it to be dismantled. The fuselage was sold to Spud Skelton, a resident of nearby Carman (Manitoba), who may have resold it to Milne. CF-ASP’s wing burned in a fire in 1940.
Two other homebuilts were put together in Steinbach up to 1935, one of them a Pietenpol Air Camper. In both cases, the airplanes were built under the name of Jacob R. Friesen, even though Wiebe and Sawatzky may have done most, if not all of the work. The Air Camper, CF-AMV, was registered on 7 May 1935 by Friesen. As may be expected, it greatly benefited from the accumulated experience of its makers. The radiator, for example, was mounted below the engine rather than on top of it, which improved both performance and looks. Sawatzky and his friends flew it until early 1939, when its certificate was allowed to lapse, on 13 March. It last flew on 11 August 1945. Withdrawn from use soon after, the airplane spent almost twenty years in storage until Friesen sold it, in 1958, to a couple of Royal Canadian Air Force officers stationed in Winnipeg (Manitoba), Flying Officers “Chuck” Sava and McLeod. It was destroyed by fire not too long after as its 40-hp Ford Model A inline engine was being replaced with a more modern Continental horizontally-opposed air-cooled engine.
The third airplane built under Friesen’s name was CF-AVP, a Corben Junior Ace powered by a British-built 80-hp Armstrong Siddeley Genet air-cooled radial engine originally mounted in a wrecked Nicholas-Beazley, or Barling, NB-3 monoplane built in Marshall (Missouri). The airplane in question, CF-AMJ, was operated by the Sprott-Shaw School of Aviation of Vancouver (British Columbia). The NB-3 had been damaged beyond repair in early October 1931 when it hit a tree shortly after taking off from Douglas Lake (British Columbia).
Two gentlemen from Steinbach, Jacob W. “Jake” Fast and Arthur B. Reimer, formed a partnership and asked Wiebe and Sawatzky to build them an airplane. Business was slow and the two readily agreed. Plans for the Corben Junior Ace apparently came from an American magazine but construction proved more complex than had been the case for the Air Campers. Wiebe and Sawatzky constructed the wooden wing in a shop owned by their father in law. “Massey” Helfrich built the welded-steel tube fuselage in the repair shop of Friesen’s garage. For comfort’s sake, the airplane was fitted with an enclosed cabin.
Sawatzky test flew the Junior Ace in early 1934. Fast and Reimer registered the airplane as CF-AVP on 21 May of that year. In 1936, Ed Friesen flew the airplane to give a hand to a government of Manitoba forest ranger named Gerald Malaher who needed to map out the damage caused to the Sandilands forest reserve by rather serious fires. Malaher had previously asked the provincial air service which had allegedly turned him down because it did not operate wheeled aircraft. The forest ranger eventually completed his task in little more than an hour. “Stanley” Kopp of Rennie (Manitoba), a town located between Winnipeg and the Ontario border, bought the Junior Ace and re-registered it on 19 February 1940. He used CF-AVP until February 1941 when he allowed its certificate to lapse because of wartime restrictions. Sadly, Kopp later died overseas. The Air Camper was withdrawn from use and dismantled. “Massey” Helfrich may have bought its Genet engine.
The two Air Campers had been advertised for sale under the name Steinbach Pietenpols in the mid-1930s. Plans and propellers were sold, most of these for use on snow vehicles used in the area. Sadly, because of the Depression, Friesen and his family could not raise enough capital to support airplane manufacturing in their small town. The little company headed by Wiebe and Sawatzky thus simply went out of business. This was rather disappointing to Wiebe, Sawatzky and Friesen’s son Edwin, all of which had obtained their pilot’s licence fairly early on.
The only memorial to the remarkable accomplishments of the Steinbach team is a small display - a brief text and a few photos - at the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon (Manitoba).
Pictured here is the original machine built by Bill Wiebe and Frank Sawatzsky. This picture was taken when the plane flew it’s maiden flight. The three in the picture are , from left to right, Bill Wiebe, co-designer and builder and later pilot; Frank Brown, a Goodrich Tire Co. salesman, ex World War I pilot and the man who test flew the machine. At right is Frank Sawatsky, co designer and builder and one who also did a good deal of flying. The small gadget visible on the plane’s right strut at left of picture is a home made air speed indicator, entirely designed and built by Bill Wiebe.
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