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 3 of 6)
More than 300 Pietenpols are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Perhaps dozens more Pietenpols are under construction. They have been built in Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Brazil, and small but enthusiastic groups can be found in Australia and New Zealand. Recently a Piet was spotted in Russia.
There’s no mistaking a Pietenpol Air Camper: the high parasol wing, boxy fuselage, and angular tail structures. Yet of the hundreds in existence, no two are exactly alike. Pietenpol kept making changes to the Air Camper, and he openly encouraged others to do the same. Says Don: “My dad used to say that he built the best airplane he could, and if somebody can build a better one, go ahead and do it.” (Pietenpol liked improvements, but he wasn’t much for frills. Somebody once said that if the Shakers had built airplanes, they would have looked like Pietenpols.)
The original plans, whether deliberately or not, seem to demand experimenting. “There are a number of places where the plans do not have certain dimensions, and there are other places where the dimensions are actually wrong,” says Doc Mosher, a retired corporate pilot and editor of a newsletter about the Pietenpol. “And we all find this out after a while, and then we all laugh and have a beer and say, ‘Well, that’s why it’s called experimental.’ ”
Some changes, however, have gone too far, fueling the argument over what is and what isn’t a true Pietenpol. “If it wasn’t built from the original plans, it’s not a Pietenpol,” says Don.
Not considered real Air Campers: at least one biplane model, an ultralight, and a low-wing version. One major modification occurred in the late 1950s, when Ohioan John Grega decided to modernize the design by incorporating parts from the Piper J-3 Cub, including the landing gear and tail wheel. Grega powered his tweaked airplane with a Continental A65 engine. Called the GN-1 Air Camper, it has been much copied over the years (with further modifications), although some are still reluctant to welcome it into the Pietenpol flock. Don Pietenpol is adamant when he says that Grega’s design “is in no way” a Pietenpol. Nevertheless, some pilots say it flies like one, and to the unschooled eye, it looks like one.
“It’s fun building Pietenpols,” says Ed Sampson, a retired hardware dealer in Belview, Minnesota. “It isn’t hard.” He should know: He’s built eight Air Campers, one of which he still owns, although his health now prevents him from flying it. “Bernard told me once he’d like to build one more airplane, and all it would have in it was basic controls and an on/off switch,” says Sampson. “He told me if you don’t put it on there, it doesn’t give you trouble. That was his philosophy.”
To keep weight at a desirable 600 to 800 pounds, many builders today still forgo items such as self starters (with their heavy batteries), radios, and wheel brakes. Those who couldn’t resist adding weight had to look for an engine with more power than the Ford Model A. As a result, the Air Camper has been flown with more kinds of engines—at least 30, and maybe as many as 60—than probably any other airframe in history.
Michael Cuy, an engineering technician at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, had just bought a half-interest in an Aeronca Champ when a friend gave him a ride in a Pietenpol. “I had never heard of a Piet before,” he says. “It took me by surprise. I realized how much fun and how economical it was. We didn’t have a starter, generator, electric—nothing. Just an engine and a sectional chart. I thought, Wow, I can fly wherever and whenever I want at a real reasonable price.”