The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

South of the Border: "Snow planes made winter travel easier and provided seasonal recreation"

 

January 29, 2020

This photo shows Ed Mlinar beside a snow plane believed he built in the 1950's. A private pilot, Mlinar used his interest and knowledge of flying to build the snow plane. Mlinar's daughter, Lori Ramburg, said the machine is still stored in a building on the family farm north of Joplin. Mlinar, a friend of the local rural mail carrier, would deliver mail when the snow was too deep for a conventional vehicle to drive the route

Columnist's note: Alert readers may recall my request for information about snow planes in our area in a June, 2017 article in the "Journal." I got a few rumors from that appeal but if snow planes were ever used in Blaine County, they were scarce at best.

Snow planes, also called 'snow cars' or 'air-sleds,' don't fly. They are lightweight enclosed conveyances for one to four passengers powered by a rear mounted engine that drives a propeller. Most snow plane bodies sit atop a front ski and two rear skis. The spinning propeller pushes the machine across the snow. A few companies manufactured snow planes, but many were built in farm and ranch shops by mechanically-inclined tinkerers. People who built snow planes often held private pilots' licenses or had an interest in flying.

Snow planes were popular for both recreation and work, mostly in the westerns states and south central Canada during the 1950's and 1960's. They were unstable in certain situations, posed a hazard with the spinning propeller and lacked effective braking systems. The advent of modern snowmobiles ended the demand for snow planes. Now snow planes, like antique tractors or cars, are mostly of interest to hobbyists.

I wondered if snow planes were used in the Sweet Grass Hills. I asked my rancher friend Bob Thompson about snow planes. He gave me a list of "guys who worked on airplanes, flew airplanes or would know about snow planes if they were ever used up here." Sure enough, once I connected with that group of enthusiasts I learned snow planes were and still are part of the history of the area. Here's some of what I learned.

Snow planes were first commercially produced for ranch/farm work and government agencies

The first serious producer of commercial snow planes was the son of a Spy Hill, Saskatchewan auto dealer. Karl Lorch saw airplanes taking off on skis and adapted the idea of a propeller driven machine that could maneuver on the snow. In 1929, at age 19 Lorch patented the first snow plane. His machines were used by mail carriers, geologists, rural doctors, police and the Armed Forces. From the early 1930's until 1955, when Lorch stopped production, the company built and sold more than 600 snow planes.

Another pioneer in the snow plane business was Ruel Call who founded the Call Aircraft Company in Afton, Wyoming. Call adapted his airplane design to make what he called a "snow car." One of Call's innovations was a 'cradle' that allowed wheels to replace the skis on the snow car. The ability to carry both skis and wheels gave the vehicle greater flexibility to travel in changing winter conditions.

The CallAir SnowCar was popular with western sheriffs' departments, park rangers and ranchers. A farmer in our area told me "my uncle bought a new CallAir SnowCar, brought it home and right away wrecked it. He immediately went back to Wyoming and bought a new one." The CallAir machine directly incorporated many attributes of an airplane but without wings but with a push-type rear propeller. Matt Lutz, a pilot and airplane mechanic at Taylor Aviation in Fort Benton, is restoring a 1955 model CallAir SnowCar that he bought from a farmer near Big Sandy.

Trail-a-Sled was a snow plane manufacturer in Minnesota that also enjoyed some success. Trail-a-Sled snow planes were first marketed for commercial and government use. The air sled could be configured to fit a stretcher in the rear compartment and was popular with rural law enforcement and rescue groups. The company took its name from some of its early models designed to be pulled on the road by a vehicle. The front ski was replaced with a trailer hitch and wheels were added to replace the rear skis. Trail-a-Sled's last product line included a retractable canopy, like a jet fighter, and 25 of those machines were produced for Polaris. In 1963 Trail-a-Sled ceased operating.

Homemade snow planes reflect the genius and needs of their builders

I'd guess the number of homemade snow planes far surpassed the number of commercially produced machines. As early as the turn of the twentieth century inventors began looking for ways to equip vehicles to operate on snow and ice. The "mailman's special" was an early conversion kit that added front skis and rear tracks to a Ford Model T, allowing rural mail carriers to make their appointed rounds.

Ed Mlinar, a farmer and private pilot north of Joplin, built a snow plane. His daughter, Lori Ramburg, believes it was built in 1950's. Lori said, "I remember as a child riding in the snow plane. We would go to visit the neighbors, riding over the fences covered by drifts." She said riding over the fences was exciting to a child. Ed Mlinar, a friend of the local rural mail carrier, would deliver mail when the snow got too deep for a vehicle. The snow plane is still stored in a shed on the family farm. Ed's grandson, Kord, said, "I haven't looked at the machine for a long time." Lori added, "Several years ago dad sent the engine out for repairs and it never came back."

This photo shows a framework of a homemade snow plane in the lot in front of the Awesome Auto Museum in Chester. Joel Fenger, the museum's owner, said he bought the frame from the base operator at a small airport outside Great Falls. He plans to restore the snow plane.

George Henline, a Canadian rancher just north of Whitlash, brought me a copy of a 1940's magazine published by a Canadian grain growers group. The magazine included "A Design for a Snow Plane" and noted that anyone with a "good set of tools, knowledge of how to use them and a mechanical bent" could build the plane. I found the plans way above my pay grade but there they were for the taking.

Snow planes today

Snow planes are no longer being built commercially. There are some very sophisticated ones being built by individuals (I once saw one in North Dakota with heated seats and a heated steering wheel) and some are being restored, like the one Matt Lutz is rebuilding in Fort Benton. There are a few planes that hobbyists maintain for recreation and a few gatherings are still held where owners show and talk about the machines.

If you're really interested in seeing operating snow planes, maybe even taking a ride in one, there's an annual snow plane rally in Tetonia, Idaho (about 130 miles south of Bozeman). If owning a snow plane is on your bucket list, Tetonia's rally might be a good place to purchase a machine. Just a suggestion.

 
 

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