The Pride of Cherry Grove
With little more than Bernard Pietenpol's plans, anybody could build an airplane.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
(Page 2 of 6)
The fourth aircraft that Pietenpol built was a single-place, high-wing monoplane. Chet Peek, an engineer, pilot, restorer of antique airplanes, and aviation historian, whose book The Pietenpol Story is the definitive history of Pietenpol’s career, surmises that Pietenpol’s design was inspired by the Heath Parasol, a small kitplane that was popular at the time.
By May 1929, Pietenpol had completed a second version of his high-wing monoplane, adding another cockpit. This time he had the power he wanted: In late 1927, the Model A Ford, with its 40-horsepower engine, had arrived. Pietenpol replaced the engine’s heavy battery, distributor, and generator with a magneto, and the exhaust manifold with short, straight stacks. He mounted the engine backward, attaching the prop to the forward-facing flywheel, and the radiator aft, where it stuck up prominently just ahead of the front cockpit.
When the aviation editor of Modern Mechanics and Inventions wrote in 1929 that it was not likely that an automobile engine could be adapted for flight, Pietenpol and a friend, Don Finke, flew two of the new “two-place” machines up to Minneapolis on April 14, 1930, to prove him wrong. The editor, Westy Farmer, was won over, and the magazine printed drawings and photographs that publicized the new airplane.
The magazine dubbed the aircraft the “Air Camper,” and the name stuck. A few years later, Pietenpol introduced the single-place Sky Scout, but the Air Camper has remained the overwhelming favorite of builders. Modern Mechanics published a set of Air Camper plans in 1932 in its annual Flying and Glider Manual.
Back in Cherry Grove, an 18-year-old friend of Pietenpol’s, Orrin Hoopman, drafted a second set of plans for the Air Camper in 1934. Pietenpol began selling them—along with instructions on how to convert the Model A engine—for $7.50 a set. Today, builders can order the very same plans for $100 from Pietenpol’s son Don, who says there continues to be a slow but steady demand. Additionally, the store in the Experimental Aircraft Association’s museum at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sells a reprint of the 1932 Flying and Glider Manual for $6.95.
Bernard Pietenpol spent the rest of his life in Cherry Grove. With the onset of World War II, the demand for Pietenpol kits and plans plummeted. Says Don: “After the war, we ran the shop for a couple of years and almost starved.” His father gave up trying to make money on his aircraft designs and opened a television and radio repair shop. He continued building his own airplanes until 1970, and flew until he was 80. Pietenpol builders continued to make pilgrimages to Cherry Grove to seek his counsel.
Pietenpol died in 1984, at the age of 83. Today, his garage workshop is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The hangar he built in Cherry Grove has been dismantled and reconstructed next to the EAA’s museum, which has two of his Air Campers in its collection.
Pietenpol’s legacy is an elegant little aircraft that anyone with diligence and modest skills can build with ordinary tools and readily available materials. In fact, that’s the only way you can get one, unless you buy one from someone who has already done the work. For more than 80 years, people have been constructing Piets in barns, hangars, garages, basements, workshops, and living rooms—anywhere they could find space to lay out a jig for the fuselage framework and hang a one-piece wing. (Pietenpol built his first airplanes in an abandoned Lutheran church.)