Captain Merle Clawson's pre-flight briefing for the vintage Bellanca is to the point and finishes with one crucial instruction.

''Last person in, close the door. It closes really easy - it's just a door, nothing fancy, it's a 1929 model,'' says the aloha shirt-wearing veteran flyer, one of the few to command the antique plane, which helped launch Hawaiian Airlines.

Clawson has been flying the aircraft, painted in distinctive Sante Fe red, for the past five years.

He says it's back-to-basics flying. The tail dragger was developed as a long range heavy hauler and is known as a ''tractor trailer'' of the air.


''It's harder to fly than a modern airplane - it's got heavy controls, it's a beast on the ground in any kind of wind - it's a stick and rudder plane, not a push button plane.''

For airline staff, their families and invited guests who get to enjoy a 45-minute flight in the plane, the cabin is basic but the flying's a pleasure. There are tiny, freshly restored seats for up to five passengers, the windows are huge and the view from 500m to 800m up is incredible.

You fly over Waikiki — where there were just two hotels when the Bellanca began flying — to the dramatic windward side of Oahu.

Flying back, we thread our way through the Ko'olau mountain range, passing lookouts where we see a hiker's amazed face and then above the Poli Highway back towards Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye Airport.

Flying over Pearl Harbour, we see the outline of the sunken battleship Arizona beneath the sea and at a nearby Air Force base there are three stealth bombers parked.

We're moving at low speed and feel suspended above Oahu.

''We're the slowest thing on the airport, there's no doubt about it. I see cars passing us as we go down the freeway in a strong headwind,'' says Clawson.

The plane cruises at 130km/h to 140km/h.

Captain Merle Clawson pilots the Bellanca on final approach to Honolulu. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Captain Merle Clawson pilots the Bellanca on final approach to Honolulu. Photo / Brett Phibbs

''Birds pass us sometimes but we're doing this for fun — it's not like we've got to get the bread to Molokai,'' he says.

The Bellanca was used by Hawaiian Airlines' predecessor, Inter Island Airways, for just three years but returned in 2009 after helping launch another airline and crashing into a lake in British Columbia.

After Hawaiian bought it back, the aircraft underwent extensive restoration.

The plane's fuselage is made of steel tubing, wing frames are original spruce and there's mahogany trim in the interior. The skin is now nylon ironed on to the frame. Originally it would have been Irish silk or canvas.

When laden the 1.8 tonne plane is hard to keep on the ground once it's rolling down the runway, says Clawson. It lifts off at about 100km/h and chugs through about 75 litres of fuel an hour at cruising speed.

He says if pilots haven't flown stick and rudder planes before, they can't fly the Bellanca.

''In a big crosswind it's really tricky, the tail always wants to go into the wind - so if you have a 40 to 50 degree crosswind, you have to come in and make the nose go straight and touch down on one wheel and then the other and then you have to keep it straight,'' he says.

''We get a lot of guys who want to fly this airplane, I don't blame them.''

Clawson, who turns 70 in December, grew up near Pittsburgh but when he reached Hawaii in 1968 to serve in the Navy as a submariner, he knew he wasn't going back.

''I paddled out at Waikiki and sitting there in 82 degree (27C) water and looking at everything I fell in love with it and never went back.''

He says the Bellanca has been the highlight of his 45-year flying career that included other airlines in Hawaii and Europe.

''When I was an airline pilot it was hard to push the buttons just going to Maui. This for me is really flying. When I see the smile on peoples' faces when they get off this aeroplane it doesn't matter who they are or where they're from, they tell me it's the coolest thing they've ever done,'' he says.

Aerial views from the Bellanca of Waikiki, Diamond Head, and Pearl Harbour. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Aerial views from the Bellanca of Waikiki, Diamond Head, and Pearl Harbour. Photo / Brett Phibbs