in 1929, CF-OAJ (Metalplane Serial # 65) was sold in a floatplane configuration to the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS), a government agency charged with supporting management of the province’s vast forestland. The plane was used to conduct aerial surveys, spot forest fires and deliver men and equipment. In 1945, NC-879H was sold to Northwest Air Service of Seattle. The plane was listed as out of service in 1947 and disappeared into the mists of backcountry aviation history.
In 1951, Northwest Airlines pilot Harry McKee arrived in Deering, Alaska, an Inuit fishing village that once served as a supply base for nearby mining operations. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, Deering was the definition of the middle of nowhere. For McKee, however, it was the end of the rainbow. On the edge of the settlement, the veteran aviator found what he’d come looking for: the dilapidated NC-879H, abandoned years earlier, most likely because of irreparable engine trouble. Somewhere in its journey the H-47 had shed its original floats for wheels.
McKee transported the plane to Minneapolis where he planned, with Northwest’s support, to restore the plane as a non-flying exhibit. Faced with mounting costs and unanticipated challenges, McKee was forced to drop the project after just four months. NC-879H went back into aviation’s attic.
Twenty years later, in 1972, Minnesotan Jack Lysdale purchased NC-879H and undertook a meticulous three-year restoration with the goal of making make the plane airworthy. Lysdale, a proud perfectionist, replaced just about every piece of the H-47, often with parts fabricated to the original specs. The controls, electrical system, nose cowlings, firewall, oil tanks, and fuel tanks were all replaced, along with the wicker and leather seats. Most remarkably, Lysdale convinced Alcoa Aluminum to dig out the original 1929 H-47 rolling dies and produce a short run of the corrugated airframe material – just enough to re-skin NC-879H.
As a finishing flourish, Lysdale had NC-879H’s fuselage painted with Northwest Airlines markings, circa 1929.
The result is an acknowledged masterpiece of vintage aircraft restoration, wowing crowds and winning numerous prizes, including the Experimental Aircraft Association’s prestigious Silver Age Championship Trophy in 1976. Shortly after that honor, Lysdale placed the H-47 on static display in Minneapolis while keeping the plane airworthy.
NC-879H, the last H-47 in existence, is one of about 20 such craft built in 1928 and 1929 by Hamilton Metalplane of Milwaukee, an early manufacturer of metal airplanes. This was the Time of Legends for aviation – an era when pioneering titans with names like Boeing, Hughes, McDonnell, Junkers and Hamilton launched an endless stream of innovative aircraft that set the stage for civil and military aviation as we know it.
Hamilton produced the H-45 (450 HP) and the optional H-47 (525 HP) passenger and mail planes. The only significant difference between the models was the engine. The H-45 came equipped with a nine cylinder 450 HP Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine, while the H-47 rolled off the line with a 525 HP Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial.
James McDonnell, later of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft fame, oversaw the design process. The H-47’s corrugated aluminum skin, angular fuselage and high wing design evoke the legendary Ford Tri-Motor, in which McDonnell had a role during his time at Ford’s Stout Metal Airplane Division.
A base model Hamilton Metalplane H-47 carried a list price of $24,000 with $3,500 extra for the seaplane configuration. Other available options included an electric starter ($900), mohair or leather upholstery ($150) and landing lights ($150).
Northwest Airlines was an early version of a "launch customer". The company bought at least nine of the six-passenger planes, some of which were assigned to its MSP-Dakotas-Montana-Spokane-Seattle route in September 1928. Isthmian Airways used float-equipped H-47s for its “transcontinental service,” which transited the Panama Canal Zone. A Wien Alaska Airways H-47 made the first roundtrip flight from North America to Asia in 1929 when company founder Noel Wien piloted the craft from Alaska to Siberia and back.
In 2010, Lysdale’s family decided to sell the H-47. They listed the aviation gem with the Barrett-Jackson auction house, where it sold to Howard Wright, a Seattle businessman, pilot and vintage aviation enthusiast.
While Wright greatly admired Lysdale’s work, he felt something was missing. The floats. A devoted seaplane pilot, Wright was determined to return NC-879H to its original configuration.
To that end, he set about locating the plane’s original 1929 EDO 6400 floats, which he believed were still in Alaska.
Sure enough, the pieces showed up in a Fairbanks junkyard. Unfortunately, the salvage man thought such a one-of-a-kind item should be priced astronomically. A deal was struck only after Wright was able to make the seller understand that NC-879H was the only plane in the world that could use the floats. Seattle’s Kenmore Air, which specializes in float planes, was able to restore the weather-battered and unairworthy floats to pristine condition using EDO's original plans.
Wright made one other modification to the H-47. He replaced the Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine with the H-45’s super-charged Pratt & Whitney Wasp. The change was necessitated by the scarcity of replacement parts for the Hornet.
Howard Wright sees himself as less the owner of NC-879H, and more a steward of a piece of living history. He takes great satisfaction in sharing his H-47 with the public, routinely piloting the plane to airshows and fly-ins, where it draws large and curious crowds. Howard Wright hopes NC-879H's next owner will keep the plane in the public eye as an homage to the genius, determination and courage that built modern aviation.