Giuseppe Mario Bellanca was born in 1886 in Sciacca, Sicily. As a young man, he attended the Technical Institute in Milan, graduating with a teaching degree in mathematics in 1908. During his quest for a second mathematics and engineering degree, he became enamoured of aviation, and set out to design and build his own airplane. Bellanca’s first aircraft design was a “pusher” aircraft, somewhat similar to the Wright Flyer. Lacking funds for such an endeavor, he joined with two partners, Enea Bossi, and Paolo Invernizzi. The union of the three produced the first flight of a totally Italian-designed and Italian-built aircraft in December of 1909. Bellanca’s second design, was a tractor-type aircraft. Although the aircraft was successfully constructed, it was never flown due to insufficient funds for an engine.
At the urging of his brother Carlo, who was already established in Brooklyn, New York, Giuseppe Bellanca immigrated to America in 1911.
Before the end of the year, he began construction of his third airplane design, a parasol monoplane. After construction was completed, he took the small craft to Mineola Field on Long Island, NY, and proceeded to teach himself to fly. He began by taxiing. He then, taxied faster, which gave way to short hops. The hops got longer, until, on May 19, 1912, there was not enough room to land straight ahead, and Bellanca had to complete a turn in order land safely. Having successfully taught himself to fly, Bellanca then set about teaching others to fly, and from 1912 to 1916, he operated the Bellanca Flying School. One of his students was a young Fiorello La Guardia, the future mayor of New York City. In return for flying lessons, La Guardia taught Bellanca how to drive a car.
In 1917 the Maryland Pressed Steel Company of Hagerstown, MD hired Bellanca as a consulting engineer. While there, he designed two trainer biplanes, the CD, and an improved version, the CE. With the conclusion of WWI, Maryland Pressed Steel’s contracts were cancelled and the company entered into receivership. Thus, the CE never went into production.
In 1921, a group of investors lured Bellanca westward to Omaha, NE, in hopes of establishing that town as a center for aircraft manufacture. Before the aircraft could be built, the company went bankrupt, but construction of the aircraft continued under the financial backing of a local motorcycle dealer named Victor Roos. The resultant aircraft, the Bellanca CF, was called by Janes’s All the World’s Aircraft “the first up-to-date transport aeroplane that was designed, built, and flown with success in the United States.” Among the local people helping to build the aircraft was the daughter of Bellanca’s landlord, Dorothy Brown. Giuseppe and she were married on November 18, 1922.
Despite its advanced design, the Bellanca CF could not compete with the economics of the time. In the days just after World War I, a surplus Curtiss Jenny could be purchased for as little as $250.00. A Bellanca CF, with a price tag of $5000.00, was just too expensive and the aircraft never went into production. After the disappointment of the CF, Bellanca designed wings for the Post Office Department’s DH-4’s. His new wings were a tremendous improvement over the original design, but only a few aircraft were so modified.
In 1925, Bellanca went to work for the Wright Aeronautical Corporation of Paterson, NJ. His assignment there was to develop an aircraft around the new Wright Whirlwind engine. He already had a design in mind, which was an improved version of the CF, called the CG. This design evolved into the Wright-Bellanca WB-1.
The WB-1 enjoyed a short, but successful flying career. The aircraft had already won one race and efficiency contest before an untimely accident destroyed the craft during preparation for an attempt to break the world’s non-refueled endurance record. Fortunately, at the time of the crash, Bellanca was already working on an improved version, of the WB-1 designated the WB-2.
During 1926, the WB-2 won two efficiency trophies at the National Air Races in Philadelphia. Wright considered putting the aircraft into production, but decided against it to avoid alienating other aircraft companies that were potential customers for their engines. Disappointed by Wright’s decision, Bellanca left the company and joined with a young businessman named Charles Levine to form the Columbia Aircraft Company. Wright sold the WB-2 and all drawings and production rights to the new company. The WB-2 went on to a long and fruitful flying career starting with establishing a new world’s non-refueled endurance record of 51 hours, 11 minutes, and 59 seconds in April of 1927.
In the latter half of 1926, Charles Lindbergh wanted to buy the WB-2, now named the ‘Columbia’, for his proposed flight from New York to Paris. He was rebuffed by Levine who also had designs on the flight and the $25,000 prize money. Lindbergh then went to Ryan for his “Spirit of St. Louis”. Meanwhile Levine, in choosing the crew, managed to promise two seats to three people. So while the Columbia was grounded by a court order brought by the third party, Lindbergh took off on his successful flight to Paris.
Eventually, the ‘Columbia’ was cleared of litigation and took off on its successful transatlantic flight on June 4, 1927. In the cockpit were Clarence Chamberlin, one of the pilots of the endurance record and Charles Levine, who became the first transatlantic passenger. The plan was to fly all the way to Berlin, and Chamberlin had vowed to fly until they ran out of fuel. Forty-three hours later, they landed in Eisleben, Germany, the first of two successful Atlantic crossings for Bellanca’s most famous aircraft.
Disappointed because the ‘Columbia’ was not the first aircraft to accomplish the New York to Paris flight, Bellanca severed all relations with Levine, and started his own company, the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of America, and rented facilities on Staten Island, NY. The new Bellanca model was designated the CH, and was basically a commercial version of the WB-2. The new company also had two other models that were built for special orders, the Bellanca Model J and the Model K.