The Pride of Cherry Grove

With little more than Bernard Pietenpol’s plans, anybody could build an airplane.

Dick Navratil, who owns two Pietenpols. (Jim Koepnick)
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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.”

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.”

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