|Jim Rhoades flies his rare Bellanca Aries just as anyone else would fly a personal transportation airplane. (photo by Randy Dufault)
By Randy Dufault
July 31, 2013 - Struggling with waning sales of its wood-winged Viking series of airplanes, in the late 1970s Bellanca Aircraft was looking for a new design that might pique the interest of prospective buyers. As it turned out Marvin Greenwood, an aircraft designer without a factory, had, at least what should have been, a competitive design ready to go.
Greenwood, a designer known for the twin-tail, egg-shaped Anderson-Greenwood AG-14 airplane from the early 1950s, had a plan for an all-metal, six-place, T-tail, retractable single in the same class as Bonanza and Mooney products of the era.
A partnership deal was struck, and the Bellanca AT-250 Aries was born, with a 250-hp Lycoming IO-540-B4C5.
Ultimately Bellanca built only four of the craft at its Alexandria, Minnesota, factory. One - possibly the only flying example - is here at EAA Oshkosh 2013.
"I had a partner that had a Bellanca with a triple tail," Jim Rhoades of Pleasanton, California, and an original owner of the Aries said when asked about how he came to acquiring the craft.
"Bellanca people are funny," he said. "We were looking to buy an airplane in a partnership. He wanted to stay with a Bellanca, and I wanted to go with a Bonanza."
Ultimately a deal was struck that fit within the partnership budget, and in 1981 the rare, but brand new, airplane settled into a life of personal transportation.
Rhoades indicated the airframe now has 2,400 hours on it, and other than normal maintenance and an engine change forced by a crack in the crankcase, the plane has been problem-free.
Early on there was a bit of trepidation regarding the tail configuration.
"We were worried since the [Piper] Lance had problems with the T-tail ... it has not been an issue at all," he said. "It has really been a good plane. We don't have any complaints."
This is the Aries' third trip to AirVenture. On its first visit in 1992, Rhoades met Cleo Bickford, the original Greenwood and Bellanca test pilot.
"He was very helpful and managed to keep some parts around," Rhoades said. "I had a door handle that had a crack in it, and he went back up to his barn and found one for me and sent it to me."
Very early in the type's history two of the other three Aries examples ended up with aviation museums. An attorney in the Chicago, Illinois, area had been actively flying the other.
Bickford did retrieve one of the museum craft, and although he has since passed away, his family still has the airframe.
Family vacations are a prime mission for the Aries. From his base in California Rhoades often visits Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and a favorite lake northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia.
"We love it," Rhoades said. "We file flight plans for 200 mph, and the rate of climb is just terrific. I hardly ever go gross weight so I climb out at 1,250 to 2,000 fpm."
The plane's 76 gallons of usable fuel capacity give it roughly 1,000 miles of range.
Several times over the years Rhoades had considered parting ways with the rare bird.
"I thought about selling it because we are in construction in California, and it's not too healthy there," he said. "But whenever we came [to AirVenture] - the other two trips - we just fell in love with it again."