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 4 of 6)
Cuy and his fellow owner sold their Aeronca, and he ordered plans from Don Pietenpol. He chose a Continental A65 engine over the Model A because the extra power would enable him to carry passengers. “I never totaled up my bills, but I’m guessing it cost about $13,000,” he says. “But if you’re a good scrounger and you get some used parts, I think you can do it for seven thousand.”
If there is such a thing as a deluxe Air Camper, Dick Navratil from Arden Hills, Minnesota, has one. He first saw a Pietenpol in the 1970s at Oshkosh. Says Navratil: “It was the most beautiful airplane I had ever seen, and I decided then and there that someday I was going to have one.” When he finally got around to building one, it took him four years and three months. Like others, he looked for a way to save money, and one was to use house paint to cover the Piet. “The Sherwin-Williams paint has UV protection in it, and the latex is flexible so it doesn’t crack,” he says. He also added brakes, a tail wheel, and a 12-volt battery, bringing the craft’s weight to nearly 700 pounds. But he began to think of ways he could build a better one.
Then he saw a Rotec radial engine. Manufactured in Australia, the model he wanted generated 110 horsepower—and a nice throaty sound. “I wanted something that nobody else has,” he says. At 810 pounds empty, Navratil’s second Piet is a heavy one, but “the power response is incredible,” says Navratil. “On both my Piets, the controls are extremely responsive, but I think the additional weight of the new one gives it more stability. I think Bernard Pietenpol would be doing this himself if he were still around.”
Despite being widely scattered and working almost entirely in isolation, Piet builders and fliers are closely bound. Matt Dralle maintains an online forum for Pietenpol builders to post problems and get solutions. The quarterly Brodhead Pietenpol Association Newsletter shares news, photographs, building tips, and advice from experts and advertises parts and fully or partially completed Piets for sale. Says editor Doc Mosher: “You can’t buy a kit, so you have to go to the lumberyard and buy the lumber, saw it up, plane it and glue it, and make your airplane. And every one is different.”
What you have after all those hours of lonely shop work is a little wood airplane that cannot be said, in the words of poet John Gillespie Magee Jr., to “have slipped the surly bonds of earth” and go “where never lark, or even eagle, flew.” The Pietenpol motto is “Low and Slow Since 1929.” Flying in Piets is a noisy experience, and the snug cockpits, with their hard wood seats, leave occupants exposed to the weather. Cruise speeds are somewhere between 70 and 80 mph, and the airplanes with the smaller engines are laborious climbers. So why build one?
“It’s just really a lot of fun,” says Navratil. “When I was flying my company’s Piper Seneca for business, I’d flip on the autopilot and take it up to 15,000 feet and never touch the controls. I’d do whatever the controller tells me to do. In the Piet, I’m most commonly hardly more than 500 feet: Down there you can smell the farms and you can putter around and wave at people on the ground.”
The place to get together with other Piet builders and owners is the airport at Brodhead, Wisconsin, in the rolling green landscape of the south-central part of the state. Every summer since 1975, the airport has been hosting an annual fly-in. It seems an appropriate meeting place for an aero club in love with a 1929 homebuilt. Its two broad turf runways are bordered by a two-lane road and fields of tall corn, with a fringe of trees on one side.
Most of the aircraft at the fly-ins are from Wisconsin and neighboring states in the Midwest. In 2007, when I was there, 21 Piets were visiting, more than average. Among them was an Air Camper from Quebec; the French-Canadian pilot had never seen another Piet until he landed at Brodhead.