A Little History of the “Viking” Aircraft and It’s Company
By: James R. (Bob) Humphreys, P.E.
To better understand the whole story of how the Bellanca “Viking” evolved, we have to also discuss the “Northern”, “Downer” and “International Aircraft and Manufacturing” Company’s involvement and histories. In order to get this background information, lets go way back in time to when the writer first became acquainted with J. K. Downer. My getting to know Jay in the 1950’s, resulted in me eventually becoming General Manager of the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of Alexandria, MN from January 1965 to August 1967. In the late ’50s, I was a Preliminary Design Engineer and Service Test Pilot at Beech Aircraft. We were studying ways to build lower cost aircraft and it was discovered that the Republic Aviation Corporation’s “Seabee” was by far the lowest cost airframe ever manufactured, i.e., Cessna was building their aircraft in very high production at about .56 man-hours per pound, whereas Republic was down to a very low .075 man-hours per pound for the “Seabee” at just over the 1300th production aircraft! We immediately contacted Republic for any and all information they might provide us on how they built the “Seabee” in so few man-hours. Of course they had long since quit building the aircraft when they received our inquiry, but responded that the entire program had been sold to J. K. Downer of Saginaw, Michigan.
I contacted Jay and since he wanted an engineering report done on the “Seabee”, he sent me all the aerodynamic and stress reports, plus all the Industrial Engineering “stop watch” times for the manufacturing operations. Jay wanted to re-engine the “Seabee”, plus make some other improvements, so I put an “outside” engineering team together and we did a report for him. The “Seabee” report and results, plus the Beech aircraft that was designed utilizing the Republic low cost manufacturing approach are “two other stories” that I won’t bore you with at this time, so that we can get on with discussing the history of the “Viking”. Jay Downer (left) points out unique wing structure Because of the “Seabee” report done for Jay and also the fact that I had just left Learjet in late 1964, Jay contacted me and asked if I would be interested in running a small aircraft company he now owned. It sounded interesting so I made two flying trips to the company in Alexandria, Minnesota with Jim Miller (VP-Marketing) and Marge Mitchell (Corporate Secretary) to look the situation over and talk to Downer in more detail. What I found was the most dingy, darkest, saddest looking aircraft factory I had ever been in! The last straw was seeing the only company truck sitting in the middle of the production line with 4 flat tires and the transmission out. The reason it was parked in the final assembly line was because the company was only building one “Model 260” (260 HP, 4 place) every two months.
In other words the factory was nothing more than a big experimental shop with about 25-30 part-time employees. The Company’s name at that time was “International Aircraft and Manufacturing Co., Inc.” As I understand the company’s previous history, some WWII pilots in Alexandria, bought the rights to the Cruisair from Mr. Guiseppe Bellanca and they manufactured them for a few years under the name of Northern Aircraft Corporation. Eventually they sold the company to Jay Downer and the name was changed to Downer Aircraft Corporation. Besides the purchase cost, Jay also spent considerable money, time and effort redesigning the Northern Aircraft’s 230 HP Cruisair into a tricycle gear, single fin, 4 place, 260 HP “Model 260”. Incidentally, if you have ever wondered why your “Viking” has such a large vertical tail, the story I was told by the company employees was that Jay wanted the triple tail Downer “Model 260” designed with a single fin. He gave the job to an Engineering Consulting firm in Minneapolis. They obviously didn’t know about aircraft tail volume coefficients, so they just added the areas of all three fins together for the total area used on the “Model 260” and now the “Viking”. Model 260 As V.P./General Manager, I took over the company’s problems Jan. 15, 1965. Alexandria, MN really is no place to build airplanes as there are just too few good flying days and the winters are very long and very cold (-48 degrees F. is not uncommon), so for the first few months, considerable time was spent talking to various Chambers of Commerce Directors from the Southwest states, because Jim Miller, et al, preferred to have the plant located in Texas or at least somewhere in the Sunbelt area. It was finally decided to leave the factory in Alexandria because of several reasons: 1) The employees are all Scandinavians and Germans and are extremely hard working, industrious and quality conscious people. They also work for much lower salaries than Beech/Cessna/Piper employees. 2) We were not building very many Model 260 aircraft, but we still couldn’t afford to lose what little income there was being realized from aircraft and spare part sales. 3) The company couldn’t afford the cost of the move anyway, plus we would lose all our good workers, as they would not leave Minnesota. During most of 1965 and 1966, the production rate of the “Model 260” was steadily increased until eventually we were building and selling one airplane approximately every two days (8-9 deliveries per month). This was basically accomplished by obtaining “work in process loans” from the local bank in order to buy and have sufficient inventory on hand to meet the increased production and sales requirements. The aviation magazines were also running a lot of articles and our ads on how good our airplanes looked (inside and out) and of course how fast and stable they were, which helped to generate sales. During these first two years, we had no Chief Engineer, but in addition to all the problems a General Manager has, I personally initiated some 2000 “Engineering Orders” (EO’s) to correct minor problems, lower cost, lower weight, etc., on the “Model 260”. Fortunately, we never had an FAA “AD” “against the Model 260” or the “Viking” during my 3 years with the Company! Also during 1966, several phone calls went back and forth between August Bellanca and myself. In our conversations I always bragged on his R/D effort with the tremendous “Skyrocket” aircraft and he seemed to be very impressed with our production rate of the “Model 260”, plus the good things the various aviation magazines were saying about us. As I remember the way the conversations evolved, we began to discuss August’s company could be the R/D effort and the Minnesota Company would be responsible for all the production. In other words, we would utilize August’s R/D expertise to come up with new models and we would be the manufacturers—all under the name of “Bellanca Aircraft Corporation”. I, nor any of the other Directors, would have arbitrarily started using that name without some kind of general agreement with August, and to my knowledge during my time at International Aircraft, there never was any hard feelings between August and myself about us changing our name to Bellanca Aircraft Corp. I have heard there was some resentment on the subject displayed in about 1971 (5 years after I was involved), but I don’t know any of the details. Now let’s discuss the actual conception and development of the “Viking” model. During a regular monthly Director’s meeting sometime in the latter part of 1966, additional potential Bellanca models to the “260” were discussed. There were actually two different lines of thought on the subject, i.e., 1) I and the local businessmen/Directors wanted to offer an austere version of the “Model 260” that would have a 180 horsepower Lycoming engine and fixed/spring steel landing gears like Cessna aircraft. Our suggested new model would basically be a 2+2 place aircraft and be offered at a much lower price than the “Model 260” in order to entice a lot more dealers into our marketing organization. 2) The other suggested model was a bigger version of the “Model 260” with at least 300 horsepower that would sell for a higher price, thus providing an improved margin of profit for the company and the current Dealers. It should be mentioned that at the time, the Company had 8 Directors: Myself and two local Alexandria businessmen, plus 5 others that were either Dealers or Distributors. Needless to say, when the decision for a new model was made, the higher priced model won 5 to 3, since the sales people wanted to make more profit per sale and also didn’t want the competition of additional dealers. The new, 300 horsepower, higher priced “Model 260” therefore would be our new model and was named the “Viking” in respect to the many Scandinavians of the area. The Bellanca Aircraft Model 300.
The development of the new model began and contrary to how most aircraft companies set up a budget for such and R/D expenditure, there was little or no costs on the books for the “Viking”. This low cost approach was possible because the 300 HP engine was provided by Continental “on bail”. The materials needed for the new engine mount and longer cowl were already available in the Company’s inventory. The man-hours required to fabricate and assemble two new engine mounts (one for testing and one for the prototype) were provided free by the employees either doing the work during their regular day or on their own time after hours. The new cowl was fabricated and provided by the fiberglass department the same way. I drew up the drawing for the engine mount and the cowl by staying at the plant late at night (“keeping an eye on the second shift”, plus providing the new designs at no cost to the Company). The much heavier and longer IO-520D, 300 HP engine required a much longer and stronger engine mount of course and I’m proud to say my new mount only weighed about 1 pound more than the old “Model 260” mount. Was it strong enough though? Well, Al Trone (our Chief Inspector) and I static loaded it to 100% full ultimate bending loads and it held. Then we loaded it to 100% full ultimate torsional loads (to test for “rolling pullouts”) and it held. Then, just for the fun of it, we applied both full ultimate bending and torsional loads simultaneously and it still held—so you certainly don’t need to ever worry about the strength of your engine mount. Therefore, as the new engine mount and cowl became available, the Company’s “Model 260” was taken out of service and modified with them and the big engine. This was accomplished in a period of only 4 months from the Director’s meeting “go-ahead” to becoming the first “Viking” prototype. I personally flew this aircraft about 35 hours before anyone else was allowed to fly it. During my initial flights, “saw tooth” climbing performance figures were collected up to 15,000 feet (no oxygen system was available to go higher), speed runs were conducted over a laid out 2 mile course (a 213 mph up-wind and down-wind clocked average maximum speed was obtained, but the “SL Standard” speed will be less), plus minor acrobatic maneuvers were performed such as Immelmans, chandelles, etc., however no spins were done (I left them for the FAA test pilot to do). At the end of the 4 months of building, flight testing and applying a beautiful paint job, Roland Friestad (our new Chief Engineer) and myself flew the “Viking” prototype to Kansas City for the FAA to inspect and hopefully issue the new Type Certificate. After two days of looking it over and flying it, they only required one additional item to be added before we could start selling the airplane to the public, i.e., straps had to be installed behind the rear seat to prevent luggage from coming forward in the event of an accident. They issued the “TC” while we were there however, and we took it back with us to Alexandria where a big party was held to celebrate. Bob taxiing the Viking Prototype out for a test (This prototype started life as a 210, was modified to 260, then became the first 300. A quick check of the FAA registry shows the aircraft currently registered in Corpus Christi, TX…Tom)
I have heard that several people take credit for “designing the Viking”! Taking credit for designing a new airplane can always be shared by a team of people because so many different engineering disciplines are usually involved. In my own case, I usually say, “I designed the Viking”, when in reality all I did was draw up a new configuration, design a new engine mount and cowl, plus test fly the airplane. This probably equates to only about 1% (if that) to the R/D efforts accomplished throughout history by the great Guiseppe Bellanca on the early Cruisairs, the bigger engine versions developed by the Northern Aircraft engineers and the tremendous changes envisioned, funded and accomplished by J. K. Downer in order to launch the “Model 260” series. As an example, one of the many items the 5 sales Directors always wanted done while I was General Manager, was to design and install multiple fuel tanks between the wing’s wood ribs. I considered this too big of an undertaking and change in the old wing and never accomplished it, but I hear they are now in there so some engineer can say, “I designed the Viking”, if he designed the system as it would have been a major job. Also, someone designed the landing gear doors and somebody else re-designed the landing gear/flap hydraulic actuator system, etc., so the improvements and/or new model changes are always on-going and anyone involved can honestly say, “I designed that aircraft”—but like myself, they don’t usually say how little of a percentage their contribution was to the total effort. \
To be honest, your “Viking” is a great airplane, but it is only a slightly redesigned Downer “Model 260”, increased horsepower Cruisair version by Northern Aircraft and basically goes clear back to the aerodynamic and manufacturing genius of Guiseppe Mario Bellanca with the original little Cruisair. J R Humphrey (signed) Mr. Humphreys currently works for Century Aerospace and heads up the manufacturing effort and production planning for the Century Jet . His experience in aircraft manufacturing, engineering and consulting has been long and varied with companies such as Learjet, Canadair, Vought as well as Bellanca. Humphreys’ stay with Learjet included the development, certification and production of the Model 23. Mr. Humphreys has been kind enough to offer a response to comments or questions you may have about his experience with the Viking. He may be reached via e-mail at: BobandGinH@aol.com Finally, I thought the following ‘blueprints’ would also be of interest to some. They depict a couple “models that never were”!
Bellanca 500 DESCRIPTION: Low wing, single engine turboprop, pressurized 4 place executive aircraft. CONSTRUCTION: Wood wing alum foil covered, fiberglas/sheetmetal fuselage, alum vertical & horiz. tail. ENGINE: AirResearch TP331 turboprop. 600 shp for take-off & 550 shp for cruise. PERFORMANCE: Vmax=320 mph @ 24000′ (est.) WEIGHTS: Wg=4000 lb., We=1800 lb., Wp=2200 lb. RANGE/FUEL: 4 hr+45 min. reserve. 160 gal. JP-5 PRICE: $60,000 + nav/comm equip. (est.)
Machine guns, rocket launchers, and three 250 lb. bombs! The print notes: “The Model M300 “Close Support” Military Aircraft is made from the Bellanca Model 300 Executive Aircraft with very minor redesign.”