Tucked away in a woodworking shop in a small North Dakota town is the largest privately owned collection of wooden ground-adjustable, variable-pitch, and controllable propellers from the “golden years” of aviation. Surprisingly, fewer than 40 people have ever had the opportunity to personally view this museum-quality collection.
At the age of 17, when Monte Chase was given his first propeller upon receiving his private pilot certificate, little did he know that it would fuel the passion for the collection he has assembled. But that was over 30 years and 100 propellers ago.
This collection, with propellers from 20 different manufacturers, represents perhaps the most exciting years of aviation history, spanning 1926 through 1948. This period is referred to as “golden” because of the countless advances in aviation technology that occurred, the many expeditions undertaken, and the numerous records set. There was major progress made in aviation during this time, and the public was intensely interested in aviation events and speed. The names of air-race pilots and aerobatic flyers were constantly in the headlines and newsreels.
The development of these propellers started shortly after WWI when the aviation industry was tiny and Depression-bound and many of the factories weren’t mass producers, but really just custom builders.
Metal propellers replaced the majority of the early wooden fixed-pitch propellers during the mid-1920s and 1930s. But by January 1941, nearly a year before U.S. involvement in WW II, manufacturers could no longer get aluminum alloy for use in light aircraft and commercial airplanes. The nation’s entire production of aluminum was being used for military purposes, and the United States went from producing as few as 3,000 planes a year before 1939 to responding to wartime needs that saw production of aircraft reach more than 96,000 annually by 1944.
The shortage of aluminum led manufacturers to design ground-adjustable, variable-pitch, and constant-speed propellers for general aviation and small military trainers using wooden or composite propeller blades and steel hubs. The various manufacturers – Engineering and Research Corp. (ERCO), Freedman Burnham, Flottorp, Sensenich, Hamilton Standard, Standard Steel, Beechcraft, Hartzell, McCauley, Hoover Hydraulic, Everel Propeller Corp., Aeromaster, Aeromatic, Continental Aviation Sky Power, Maynard DiCesare, Annesley, Westinghouse Micarta, Curtiss Reed, Fairey Reed, and Camfield – are all represented in the collection.
These wooden propellers are scarce due to the short period of production – roughly eight years – and the conditions that affected them. Bird strikes, moisture, and rock chips from undeveloped runways made it difficult to keep the planes balanced and flying. The propellers were easily damaged and not safely repaired which led most of them to be removed and discarded.
Some of the propellers in the collection are the actual prototypes, but also included are multiple one-of-a-kinds, first-production serial numbers with new ones, and old stock that has never been in service. Building a complete collection of this size and rarity has taken years of searching for parts, reference materials, and original manuals from all over the United States and Canada, along with extensive research and impeccable, painstaking restoration.
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