The Wong Brothers and the Pietenpol

Built in Chinatown in ‘30s, piece of aviation history found in a trailer

Vancouver Sun. November 17, 2023 

The Wong brothers and the Pietenpol Sky Scout
A small, single-seat airplane — built by the hands of two teen­age brothers — touched Vancouver’s clouds more than 80 years ago. Then it went on a long, strange journey, down back roads and prairie fields.
It rebounded from owner to owner, travelled western Canadian highways in a series of trucks, spent several years in the ceiling of a sawmill, and the last quarter-century in the inky blackness of a 53-foot trailer, in a compound, on a field outside Saskatoon.
“In the airplane world, it’s an ultimate barn find,” says Campbell Harrod, an airplane restorer from Hamilton who recently purchased the Pietenpol Sky Scout — long believed to be lost — with plans to someday return it to the sky.
The Pietenpol is significant because it was built by the Wong brothers, Robert and Tommy, using mail-order instructions in their Vancouver Chinatown apartment in 1935 and 1936. The brothers later established and ran Canada’s largest flying school in Toronto, training more than 8,000 pilots and sending them into the sky.
A Vancouver Sun clipping from July 24, 1936 tells the Wongs' story.
Harrod was able to buy that long-hidden airplane because of the efforts of Don MacVicar, a Hamilton man who’s always relished a good mission. The lost machine caught his fancy after he learned of its possible existence from Harrod, while they worked on a project involving a 1956 Piper Apache, which once belonged to the Wong brothers.
The ever-tenacious MacVicar searched everywhere. Phone calls, emails, gumshoe detective work. He traced a path from Vancouver to Saskatchewan, doing all of it from his home over the span of a few years. It was an impossible task, the proverbial needle in the haystack, until the day it was exposed to the light, battered but vivid.
The original registration, CF-BAA, is emblazoned in big letters across the fuselage and on the wings. MacVicar saw the photos, sent by somebody connected to the previous owner, and he felt the chill.
“It was the shock of the century,” says MacVicar. “A container, under the snow, in Saskatchewan. What a story,” says Evelyn Wong, Robert’s daughter.
Harrod, for his part, has a marathon restoration in front of him. He still can’t fully believe the plane was found. It’s a little winged miracle; a thing to savour.
Harrod bought the airplane sight-unseen, save for the photos sent his way. The unmistakable CF-BAA shouted its existence in all-caps. Harrod travelled to Saskatoon in September and began the moving process.
“I’ve restored antique airplanes my whole life,” he says. “My whole life is about searching and going into barns. American Pickers, what they do, I do it for airplanes and airplane parts. This is the greatest find I’ve ever done in my career, in 40-plus years, from a historical point of view.
“This airplane is a missing link. It’s a lost Holy Grail. Everybody felt it was gone, including me — long gone. And it turns out it’s there. It survived. And the whole Wong family is involved in this, all over the world. We report to them every little detail of what happens, and they’re very much involved and interested in what’s happening with the airplane.”
The Wong brothers built most of that airplane in their Chinatown apartment, with help from family. Their mother worked with friends to sew the fabric for the wooden frame.
Evelyn Wong, who currently lives in Singapore, got emotional recently when talking about what it was like to see that same fabric, exposed to the air after all these years, in a freshly taken photograph.
“The fabric is still there,” she remarked. “It says CF-BAA ...”
A few tears fall, then she continues.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed right now,” she added, “just to know that it was our grandmother (who helped to sew the fabric). We never thought of our grandmother as a young person. We never thought of our dad and uncle as teenagers.” But teens they were — Robert, 17 when the plane was ready to fly, and Tommy, 14.
When Evelyn saw those photos, she thought about the story of that plane — built in a home, taking up big space. “Widgets and nuts and bolts and guy-wires,” as MacVicar put it last year, along with fabric and wood and cockpit and wings.
She thought of the day the airplane was taken from the family’s Chinatown home to the Boeing Aircraft factory, the fuss and bother there must have been as the machine made its way onto the street and readied for transport. Once at the factory, helpful men provided advice and guidance as the boys attached the wings, installed the Model A engine, and bolted on the propeller.
The Wong’s talked to The Vancouver Sun, which saw a good story in those teen boys and their home­built airplane.
“A year ago,” reported the paper on July 24, 1936, “neither boy had any experience with planes, outside of a few models Robert had built. Then they decided to build a real one. Except for the instruments on the homemade panel and the rubber tires, every bit of the plane has been made and assembled in a room in their home.”
The plane flew. It crashed in August 1936, after a test flight by pilot Leonard Foggin — land­ing on a single wing tip, spinning, and tilting onto its nose. Foggin was unhurt.
The fault was pinned on a defective strut, though The Sun reported that “thorough workmanship” protected Foggin from serious injury. Otherwise, Foggin said, the plane hit 1,500 feet and 85 miles per hour smoothly and without difficulty.
The boys repaired the plane, flew it, and later sold it — launching a string of movements and transactions which, decades later, sparked a protracted search. MacVicar learned that CF-BAA spent time in a sawmill loft, that a museum had been interested in acquiring it, that a man wanted to display it in a restaurant, but it never worked out.
Around 1986, Robert Wong — who died in 1987 — wrote some recollections, including the first four registered owners of the craft: himself, a couple of men in B.C., then Canora, Sask. machinist Steve Danylchuk. MacVicar followed its likely Saskatchewan stops — places like Canora, Kinistino, Prince Albert, Yorkton, La Ronge, Saskatoon ...
A tip led them, finally, to people who knew where it was. “The genealogy is a spirograph,” says a laughing MacVicar, a one­time competitive power lifter who is an inductee into the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame and was Hamilton’s citizen of the year in 2006.
A long-lost Pietenpol Sky Scout airplane built in Vancouver in the 1930s by brothers
Robert and Tommy Wong was recently found near Saskatoon after a lengthy search.
“I really wanted it for the family,” he adds. “People say I’m tenacious, a dog-on-a-bone type thing. I just kept finding stuff. Most people would have given up the first week, but I just kept thinking of different ideas — where would it go next? What would you do here? I have no governor on my ideas. I shoot them all out, and I don’t mind getting negative returns because I go after the next one. When I contacted the family and they started telling me about their dad, and the aunts, and the grandmother making the fabric — I was so fascinated by that. It was the Depression. I looked up the lumber yards and the scrap yards they had back in that era. They went down and bought this engine for $200, which was a huge amount of money. And it became a passion. If it’s out there, I thought I could find it. I didn’t think anybody would throw it away.”
Harrod says the airplane is restorable. He’s working on another project, and when that’s finished in a year or two, he’ll turn his attention to the Pietenpol.
Harrod has done the inventory. He says the engine and radiator are missing, as is the propeller. Two elevators and a rudder are also missing, and the plane has a damaged horizontal stabilizer. A man in Arkansas, who heard about the airplane and was inspired by its tale, has offered to send the correct elevators, rudder and horizontal stabilizer up to Harrod free of charge.
The tires are gone, but Harrod has those in stock. The original ignition switch and radiator temperature gauge are still on the plane. The other instruments are missing, but Harrod has period replacements ready to go.
He notes that Pietenpol airplane kits came with wing struts that were made by the Heath Company — three-piece laminated metal, four of them, and the Wongs’ machine still has them all.
“Those are virtually impossible, in this day and age, to find because they’re not manufactured anymore,” Harrod said. “This airplane has them. Even if the airplane was scrap, I would have bought it for those struts alone.”
Other challenges remain. The airplane’s log book and propeller were lent out many years ago, and MacVicar is looking for them — that book, in particular. It would have a record of the Wong brothers’ many formative flights. He thinks it might be in Saskatchewan’s Birch Hills area, and would be an important addition to the plane’s story. “I’m assuming someone has the propeller on the wall, in their office or whatever, on display, and the book is in a drawer somewhere,” MacVicar said.
The Pietenpol’s registration, CF-BAA, is currently on another airplane because the Wongs’ first flyer was presumed to be missing, permanently. Harrod says the letters were reissued to an airplane owned by Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, and he wants to see if he can get them released back to him. That registration, he says, is the airplane’s “birth certificate” and a vital part of its restoration.
No matter what happens with those matters, Harrod plans to get the airplane restored and ready for flight, just like in 1936 when it was loved and doted on by two proud brothers.
Evelyn Wong said her family is very grateful for the work done by MacVicar and Harrod. She’s very much looking forward to making her way back to Canada, to see CF-BAA up close.
Right now, she has the photos. Running her eyes over the Pietenpol’s contours and those five letters on a canvas covering gives her joy. “I feel the air,” she says. “I could imagine I was standing there. I could imagine my father and my uncle, how they would have felt to see it (all these years later). The wings are still intact. It’s amazing.”
This air­plane is a missing link. It’s a lost Holy Grail. Everybody felt it was gone, including me — long gone. And it turns out it’s there. It survived.
The Museum has in its collection a Pietenpol Air Camper. It is the slightly larger 2-seat version of the Sky Scout the Wong brothers built. See more at;