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Pioneer recalls Pheasant

By Noelle Grosse

Colour photo of eldery Mr. Willar and the bright red Pheasant airplane
Phillip Willer with the Red Pheasant - photo courtesy the Willer family

90-year-old Phillip Willer returned to his roots in Saskatchewan, and had a surprise meeting with an old friend - the Pheasant airplane he flew almost 70 years ago.

"It was quite exciting," says Willer from his home in Barrie, Ont. when he recalls seeing the Pheasant plane he flew in the early 1930s. The reunion of pilot and plane took place in June 1998 at the Moose Jaw Western Development Museum. Willer was joined by his wife, Hazel, and two of his four children. The family were on a nostalgia tour of the North Battleford area where Willer used to live, and they called the Western Development Museum to confirm a rumour that the Pheasant was in the Museum's collection. It was, and they headed to the WDM History of Transportation in Moose Jaw. The Willer family's visit also made the day for a group of students touring the Museum. Phillip Willer says he was pleased to answer questions from the students about his experiences.

The Pheasant is thought to be the oldest airplane in Saskatchewan, and it is the only plane of its kind in Canada. It was built in 1927 by the Pheasant Aircraft Company of Memphis, Missouri and purchased by Cherry Air Service of Prince Albert the following year. In the winter of 1929, the Pheasant was bought by its final owner, Marcus Cadwell, who managed the Northern Aero Company in North Battleford.

Phillip Willer was in his early 20s when he first flew the Pheasant. He had moved with his parents from Minnesota to a farm near North Battleford when he was 16, and had always been interested in learning to fly planes. After five hours of instruction in the air, Willer made his first solo flight in 1931. After that, he flew the Pheasant at fairs and sports days around the Battlefords.

"We did a lot of barnstorming'," he says. "We took up quite a
few people, and we'd charge by weight." Willer did much of his flying with Marcus Cadwell, whose daughter donated the Pheasant to the Western Development Museum. 

Willer describes himself as a showman when flying the Pheasant. "I used to do a lot of stunting. Loop de loops, and rollovers I put on quite a little show." He even gave wing-walking a try. "I used to stand on the wing and hang onto a rope," he says, laughing. "I didn't walk on the wing. That's just a made up story." After 1931, Willer left North Battleford and found work in the construction industry in Thunder Bay, Ont. He never had the chance to fly airplanes again.

"It was hard to get any flying done during the Depression," he says. He did not hold a commercial pilot's license and this prevented him from flying in later years. But Willer crisscrossed the country on land, helping build the Alaska Highway in 1945 and later, the runways of the Saskatoon airport.

The Pheasant airplane continued in the service of the Northern Aero Company until it it crash-landed in a farmer's field near Cut Knife in 1932. The under-carriage and wing-tips of the Pheasant were damaged, and there was no money to fix the plane throughout the Depression. It languished in a hangar in North Battleford until 1938, when it was finally dismantled. The Western Development Museum acquired the Pheasant in 1950 and ten years later, volunteers from 406 Squadron RCAF Auxiliary in Saskatoon began restoration work on the plane. It was completed in 1964 and the Pheasant has been on display ever since.

After the Willer family visited the WDM branch in Moose Jaw, Willer's son created a CD-ROM called "Flight of the Pheasant" that tells his father's history as a pilot and daredevil. Willer says the visit to see the Pheasant brought back many memories of those fearless days. "I had lots of nerve," he says. " Even today, I still have lots of nerve."

Black and white photo of the pheasant airplane
The Red Pheasant during its flight days - WDM Photo

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- Artifact Articles: To Fly Like a Bird

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