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'Old Blue,' a key part of Unity museum, has frigid flight history

| Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, 11:54 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
(from left) Don Rossi of Latrobe and Mike McCann, who lives half the year in Montana and the other in Alaska, pose for a photo opportunity in front of the 1942 Stinson V-77 Reliant that McCann sold to Rossi and others in the 1980's at the KLBE Air Museum in Latrobe on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Mike McCann, who lives half the year in Montana and the other in Alaska, documents the 1942 Stinson V-77 Reliant that he sold to a group of collectors from the Latrobe area in the 1980s at the KLBE Air Museum in Latrobe on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

It had been 30 years since Mike McCann saw the single-engine airplane he pulled from Alaska's frozen tundra, then hauled piece by piece to a nearby river to be shipped to Montana for rebuilding.

“It's bigger than I remember,” McCann, 61, said when he was reunited with the plane on Tuesday at the KLBE Air Museum at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity. “The last time I saw it was heading out of Billings.”

The Stinson V-77 Reliant, dubbed “Old Blue,” was one of 1,327 built between 1939 and 1949. It is the same model of airplane that flew the first scheduled airmail pick-up at Latrobe in 1939.

McCann, a nurse who was working in a large Alaskan village, was looking for old planes he could rebuild.

“There were a lot of wrecked airplanes around Alaska,” he said. “I had saved up $3,000 and got laughed out of Fairbanks.”

Then he learned of the blue plane he found frozen upside down. It had been there 30 to 40 years.

“The Indians along the Yukon River used (the plane) as a campsite,” said airport authority chairman Don Rossi. “They built fires in the cockpit.”

Despite the plane's state of disrepair, McCann took it on as a project.

“The price was right … and then I became an expert on scrounging stuff,” said McCann, who has worked onairplane “skins” in Ireland and New Zealand. His searches for old planes took him to Russia and other countries.

The toughest part of his effort to disassemble the plane?

“Beating the spring sun,” said McCann, who spends half of the year in Ennis, Mont., and half in Homer, Alaska. He had five days to complete the task.

“This panel was gone, “ McCann said after climbing into the cockpit on Tuesday. “I rebuilt it.”

For Rossi, the plane's connection to Latrobe was strong enough to warrant a visit to see McCann in 1984 with hopes of acquiring the plane. The mechanism for airmail pick-ups was developed by Lytle S. Adams, a dentist from Jeannette, Rossi said.

Rossi, Elias “Babe” Krinock, Ed Sobota and Attlio Negro headed to Montana and bought the plane for $30,000. It flew in the Westmoreland County Air Show for a number of years but has been housed in the museum since its last air show in 1998.

“I thought it was quite a significant thing to have this piece of history,” said air museum director Sam Schrengengost, 74, of Delmont.

Getting the plane back to Latrobe wasn't without incident, Rossi said. After leaving Billings, they were to land in Sheridan, Mont.

“We landed at the end of the runway and it stopped ... It was leaking oil like a sieve. We couldn't get it started again,” Rossi said. “We had to push it the whole way back up the runaway.”

In addition to their use as airmail planes, the Stinsons were used for flight training and firefighting, and as cargo carriers or air ambulances.

Once back in Unity, the plane was painted the original red and gray colors of All American Aviation, the company that delivered airmail via the Adams system to small communities throughout western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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