Pietenpol provided ‘airfare for the common man’

Pietenpol provided ‘airfare for the common man’

That’s what happened, though, in the 1920s, when Bernard Pietenpol started building homemade aircraft in his Cherry Grove workshop. His inexpensive, lightweight, easy-to-fly and easy-to-build planes made flight accessible to regular people like himself.

Those homemade Pietenpol planes have become a worldwide fascination. Annual fly-ins of Pietenpol enthusiasts are held, and his name and achievements are honored at the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis., and the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. Pietenpol planes, built from the original blueprints now sold by his family’s website, fly in numerous countries around the world.

It’s quite a legacy for a small-town mechanic who didn’t even know how to pilot a plane when he built his first one. But he did know how to build stuff, and he correctly surmised that an automobile engine could power a lightweight flying ship. Before long, Pietenpol, working out of his Cherry Grove workshop, was modifying a Ford Model A motor for use in his homemade planes.

At a time when the Great Depression made it impossible for all but a few people to afford an actual factory-built plane, Pietenpol’s designs gave every weekend tinkerer an opportunity to build a flying machine in his own garage. It was airfare for the common man.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Some experts, though, weren’t convinced. Modern Mechanics magazine in 1930 expressed doubt that Pietenpol’s homemade planes could really fly powered simply by an automobile motor. Pietenpol and his friend Donald Finke promptly flew two of the planes to Minneapolis to demonstrate that, yes indeed, his models handled quite nicely when powered by Model A motors.

The resulting publicity helped make Pietenpol’s two-seat plane, dubbed the Air Camper, a sensation. Soon, Pietenpol’s Cherry Grove workshop was swamped with inquiries from prospective aviators.

To meet the demand, Pietenpol had a Cherry Grove neighbor, Orin Hoopman, draw construction plans for the Air Camper. Pietenpol then sold copies of the plans for $7.50 each. Armed with those blueprints and a few hundred dollars in parts and materials, a reasonably adept amateur could construct his own airplane.

Pietenpol also designed a light, one-seat plane, the Sky Scout, that was powered by a Model T engine. Like the Air Camper, it was popular with amateur builders and pilots.

Through it all, Pietenpol stayed in Cherry Grove. He gave flying lessons (after finally obtaining his own pilot’s license), and continued to tinker with airplane designs. In 1982, his workshop and garage in Cherry Grove were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two years later, Pietenpol died at the age of 83.

Later, the two original airplane hangars at Pietenpol’s airfield west of Cherry Grover were moved to new locations. One is at the Fillmore County History Society museum in Fountain. The other is at the EAA in Oshkosh.

Much, it seems, has moved away from small towns like Cherry Grove in recent decades. But Cherry Grove hasn’t forgotten Pietenpol.

On June 4, a mural depicting the achievements of Pietenpol, the local mechanic who launched a flying revolution from an unpaved airstrip just west of town, was unveiled. The mural, financed by Bernis and John Finke, is painted on the north side of the Cherry Grove Community Center.

Prominently featured is one of Pietenpol’s jaunty, homemade Air Campers in mid-flight, heading from Cherry Grove to the world.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.