Vintage plane with glamourous past now calls Sarnia home

Pilot John Shelley takes his 1941 Widgeon for a test flight in May, before bringing it north and changing its registration numbers. Submitted Photo

Troy Shantz

An airplane from the Second World War used to hunt submarines and once owned by a famed big band leader has found a new home in Sarnia.

The 1941 twin-engine Grumman G-44 Widgeon seaplane was purchased earlier this year in Florida by Sarnia pilot and businessman John Shelley.

Pilot and businessman John Shelley.
Troy Shantz

“It went through two or three owners,” said Shelley, 60, noting his Widgeon once belonged to American singer, actor and bandleader Vaughn Monroe, who has two stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Grumman built 276 of the aircraft, most of them for anti-submarine use by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force.

Their production serial numbers started at 1200 and Shelley’s aircraft is numbered 1208. Experts he’s spoken to say it could very well be the oldest plane of it’s kind still flying today.

Shelley bought the aircraft from the estate of industrialist James A. Baird, of Akron, Ohio.

“When I went down they weren’t too receptive to a Canadian fellow buying it,” Shelley said.

But he convinced the owners he would maintain its heritage, including a decal on the tail that commemorates one of Vaughn Monroe’s hit songs, ‘Ghost Rider in the Sky.’

Among other things, Monroe also wrote the theme for ‘Rawhide’ and the song ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.’

“After we got talking quite a bit and we went for a couple of flights they realized it was going to a good home,” Shelley said with a smile. “They kind of warmed up to me.”

The Widgeon is the sixth plane Shelley has owned, and his second seaplane. It seats five and has a 40-foot wingspan, a pair of 260 horsepower engines and a 150-gallon fuel tank that keeps it airborne up to five hours.

Before he bought the seaplane it underwent a lengthy, 18-year restoration that cost well over $1 million.

“Most of the entire body of the plane, fuselage, has all new skin, all re-riveted,” he said.

He was drawn to it because of fond memories he has as a child of travelling with his family to the Caribbean, where similar planes were used to shuttle visitors from island to island.

The owner of Shelley Machine & Marine completed his pilot’s license in 2003, but the new plane required him to obtain twin-engine certification.

Grumman enthusiasts say flying the Widgeon is like “grabbing a tiger by the tail.”

“This is like a flying tank.” said Shelley.