Max Conrad is one of aviation’s indelible characters, and this year marks 30 years since his death at the age of 76. He was the father of 10 children, an accomplished musician, and a winner of the Harmon Trophy, but his mark in the aviation world was that of a manic long-distance record-setter: He once flew nonstop from Capetown, South Africa, to St. Petersburg, Florida, covering almost 7,900 miles in 58 hours. Most of his flying career was spent in the cockpit of light airplanes made by Piper Aircraft, and he had a warm relationship with company founder William Piper. In fact, it was Piper’s indulgence of Conrad’s grand schemes that got him into the business of flying seemingly impossible distances.
But when Conrad first learned to fly in Indiana, almost nothing went right. At one point, according to his biography, Sally Buegeleisen’s Into the Wind: The Story of Max Conrad, he decided that he could train himself better than any instructor could and never took another lesson. But his first few hours in the air led to one crash after another. The string of bad luck culminated in 1929, while Conrad was taking some youngsters aloft. After the flight, a young girl inexplicably climbed down off the wing and into the propeller. Conrad desperately tried to pull her away, but the girl was killed, and a propeller blade struck Conrad in the head, fracturing his skull.
He survived, but the damage to his brain was severe. He had difficulty reading, remembering, and even speaking. After a long convalescence, he returned to charter work and flight instruction. On Armistice Day of 1940, he flew a Piper Cub into the teeth of a sudden vicious Minnesota winter storm and located lost hunters. By 1942, he was operating five schools across Minnesota, each with its own fleet of aircraft. When he decided he simply couldn’t manage the load, he moved all the aircraft to his headquarters in Winona. There, they were crammed tail to nose when some spilled gasoline caught fire and burned everything to the ground.
For once, Conrad saw the message in misfortune; he quit the flight school business for good. He flew as a bush pilot in Canada and then as chief pilot for Minneapolis Honeywell. But his long absences strained his marriage, and his wife Betty and their sizeable brood moved to Switzerland. She loved it, but Conrad missed his family and had a long chat with William Piper about an idea he had to put Piper airplanes on the map: He would fly a single-engine Piper Pacer across the Atlantic solo—and, in the bargain, get to see his family.
William Piper went for it, and now Conrad had to figure out how to get enough fuel and oil into the little airplane to extend its range. He pulled out the back seats and added extra gas tanks, a fairly easy modification. But for ultra-long legs the oil would have to be replaced. Knowing the rate at which the engine consumed oil, and inspired by the memory of the old gasoline heater on his father’s farm, he contrived a system using air pressure to add engine oil to the crankcase in flight.
After completing the 1950 flight successfully, he upped the ante by flying to Paris nonstop and later delivered airplanes overseas, which turned out to be quite lucrative. But his longest flights were made in a Piper Twin Comanche, which he modified to carry 3,000 pounds of fuel. On takeoff, the airplane weighed almost twice its certified gross weight. He continued ferrying airplanes and setting distance records for many years, and always, when asked for his autograph, he signed it “Let’s Fly! Max Conrad.”