Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Call Aircraft Company

Reuel Call was an American success story through and through. He was born Jan 29, 1908 in Afton, WY and was the founder of, among other things, the Callair Airplane Factory in Afton.

From the resume above, you can see he was a visionary businessman long before he became involved in the manufacture of airplanes. Reuel was a pioneer in the marketing of self-service "independent" gasoline. His were some of the first self-service gasoline stations in the country and his Maverik Country Stores, a chain of convenience stores/gasoline outlets located throughout the mountain west, were supplied by oil from two refineries that he also owned. 

Reuel Call learned to fly in 1930 and was bitten hard and deep by the flying bug. His purchase of a new Kinner Sportster in 1933 (which he flew from California to Wyoming in the dead of winter) must have been an inspiration. With the assistance of his Uncle Ivan, brother Spencer, cousin Barlow and Carl Peterson, the Call team designed and built the original CallAir aircraft. With no aviation background, this visionary group of civil engineers and businessmen tinkered until their plane was ready to fly. There are conflicting accounts; some write that the airplane was ready in 1940, Jane's "All the World's Aircraft" dates the first flight in 1941 (on snow skis) with production following two years later. Design characteristics were strikingly similar to the Kinner Sportster but that flight by Reuel Call to Wyoming in December dictated that the airplane have a closed cabin and, presumably, cabin heat.

CallAir A-2

The first CallAir airplane, the Model A, was a 2-place, low wing, strut braced aircraft powered by a Continental A-80 (80 horsepower) engine. It was woefully underpowered. The next iteration of the aircraft was still a test article, re-engined with a Lycoming engine of 100 horsepower and designated the Model A-1.  Production began in 1944 and with the new Type Certificate (ATC # 758) in hand, the Calls designated their production aircraft as the Model A-2. The A-2 was quickly re-engined in 1946 with a 125 hp, O-290 Lycoming.

The manufacturing run of the 2 and 3 place civilian, A-series transports eventually ran to 218 units, but the glut of surplus aircraft that flooded the market in the late 1940s took its toll on the young company. Even with more power and more load carrying capability in the Continental-powered, 125 hp A-3 (1947) and the Lycoming-powered, 135 hp A-4 (1954), only a few A-series cabin airplanes were built after early 1947. 

The Callair "A" series was noted for its outstanding performance on short, high altitude fields and was equipped with both wheels and skis for summer and winter flying. The most distinctive features of the airplane were the long sloping windshield and the virtually unrestricted visibility enjoyed by pilots who were more accustomed to very poor visibility over the nose of airplanes of the day, particularly when taxiing on the ground.

Reuel Call faced some big challenges and addressed them the way a self-made man would face them: When the market turned downward, Mr. Call simply pulled back production to compensate - and he began looking for other ways to keep the airplane company afloat. 

The A-4, when fitted with a 150 hp Lycoming engine, became the A-5, a real load hauler in its role as a passenger plane. The enterprising Mr. Call took a look at yet another market, removed the right seat and replaced it with a hopper and a distribution chute through the bottom of the fuselage for crop dusting. A tank for liquid spray could be substituted as well, and the next big thing for Callair was born - agricultural applicators. The A-4 "AG" was not the first purpose-built aerial applicator aircraft (that distinction goes to the Huff-Daland "Duster", built from 1924). It was succeeded by the A-5 "AG". The airplane was so successful that CallAir dealers tried twice to buy the company and the second attempt resulted in a sale. The new owners couldn't make a go of it and the company declared bankruptcy. All rights for the CallAir AG airplanes were bought from the creditors by IMCO (Intermountain Manufacturing Company, headed by Barlow Call) in 1960 and a new design series of progressively more capable agricultural airplanes beginning with the A-6 was born.  

Back up a little. One of the challenges Mr. Call faced was a shortage of materials to build his airplanes. The shift from wartime production to peacetime meant the companies that were well established could fall back on stockpiles of materials such as steel tubing, aircraft grade spruce wood, engines and finishing materials; the Calls couldn't do that, having started their company essentially from scratch. It turned out that an aircraft manufacturing company was for sale, and Reuel Call needed it for the supplies that came with it. The airplane was the Interstate Cadet.

There was an extra benefit to be realized by the Interstate acquisition. A shortcoming of the Call Model A design was the low wing configuration; farmers and ranchers liked to look down and that was hard with the low wing. Another problem was that often the pilots had to use unimproved landing sites and low brush did a lot of damage to the underside of the wings. A high wing airplane was needed to relieve these design limitations. 

Interstate Cadets were brought to Afton for repair during the war years and when the Cadet, or L-6 in its military configuration, became available in great numbers, the Calls found a way to keep their workers working by refurbishing and upgrading the former military airplanes to meet the civilian market.  The Cadet had all the attributes the Calls needed: a high wing, good short field and high altitude performance, and a ready supply of cheap airframes and engines thanks to the availability of war surplus machines and parts stocks. 

The Calls knew the farmers and ranchers of the Afton area very well and their refurbished Cadets were a popular choice for herding cattle, horses and sheep, and were effective in the management of predators such as wolves and coyotes. It was only natural that a production line might be in the offing for the sturdy airplane. Once the design and supplies were purchased (supplies from Interstate and type certificate from Max Harlow, who had bought it from Interstate and who, ironically, was the designer of Reuel Call's Kinner Sportster) the Calls set out to gain a production approval. Two S-1A Cadets were built, both were initially test aircraft. The certification status of the first was resolved by badging it as an Interstate (after all, the Calls didn't own the Type Certificate yet). The second was initially experimental, relegated to testing and demonstrations, but was eventually certified in the standard category with the CallAir imprimatur. That one remains on the FAA Aircraft Registry and it is the pride and joy of which I write. 

My Callair S-1A-90C in 2007

Production certification became expensive after the war. There was enough money to be made by refurbishing Cadets and L-6 airplanes to make the continuation of the Callair Cadet line impractical. However, a re-engined, Lycoming-powered, 150 hp version, the Super Cadet "150", quickly became a favorite in the wilds of Alaska. 

Tragedy struck the Call family twice when, on September 16, 1968, Barlow Call died in a mid-air collision while herding horses in his S1-B1 (civilian L-6). His son, Barlow, died following an air crash five months later. The heart had gone out of the program at Afton. 

Barlow Call's widow sold the Type Certificate and remains of the CallAir Cadet project to William A. "Big Deal" Diehl of Anchorage AK in 1969 and the airplane was beefed up and remarketed as the "Arctic Tern". Diehl was bought out by Bart Miller who, in the process of setting up the line in New Hampshire, was tragically killed in 2006 before production began when a piece of equipment toppled over on him. The design is currently in limbo.

Stay tuned for more fascinating ramblings about the refurbishing of the one and only CallAir Cadet.

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