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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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.

The Pietenpol, with its short range and slow speed, is not a comfortable airplane for long-distance flights. In 1993, though, M.T. “Sparky” Sparks and his stepson Scott Liefeld stuffed their gear into the front cockpits of two Air Campers and took off from Gillespie Field in San Diego, California, for Brodhead. It was a 15-day journey, during which they stopped for fuel 46 times.

More people drive to Brodhead than fly. The land around the airfield is open to campers, and the scene has the feel of a country fair. There is Doc Mosher and wife Dee at the table, ready to sign you in and give you a handout outlining the day’s forums, which are hosted by Pietenpol experts. Mosher and his wife also remind you to get tickets for Saturday night’s traditional grilled pork chop dinner. Soft drinks from the cooler are 75 cents, paid for on the honor system. People mill around the parked airplanes, talk to the owners, and admire the exquisite handiwork that can go into a Pietenpol.

Hang around the airplanes long enough and somebody will offer to take you for a ride. Pete Smith, from Lake City, Michigan, asked me if I wanted to go, and I accepted immediately. Getting into the front cockpit isn’t easy: You have to squirm between the struts and wires without whacking your head. It takes precise instructions from the pilot every step of the way.

After a quick liftoff and gentle climbout, we level off at 500 to 600 feet and cruise above farmland at a leisurely 75 mph. The Piet feels stable and predictable. The visibility is spectacular, especially since you can look over the side of the fuselage almost straight down. I observe things that I never seem to notice while flying in other airplanes: birds, people and cars on the ground, and swirling patterns made by breeze-swept corn tassels.

When I was a kid, I sometimes got invited to go for a ride in a Ford roadster with the top down. My flight in the Piet reminds me of those rides—that feeling of gleeful release.

Reminders of Pietenpol History are plentiful. You can still find people who knew and worked with Bernard Pietenpol, and some of the airplanes he built still exist. His earliest surviving Air Camper, N12937, first flew on April 20, 1933. It survived five owners, two serious crashes, several restorations, and several thousand flying hours. Today it is displayed at the EAA museum.

Don Pietenpol lived the history. As far as he can remember, airplanes were always around. When he was three, he took his first ride in an Air Camper, which had no seatbelts. “My dad took the belt off his pants and strapped me in the front cockpit,” he recalls. Bernard taught him to fly when he was nine, and he got his pilot’s license at 16. Don was a U.S. Air Force pilot before working as an engineer at IBM in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, where he still lives.

Bill Knight, who lives in Brodhead, owns the last Air Camper Pietenpol ever built. It was finished in 1969. Still flyable, it is powered by a Chevy Corvair engine. When Pietenpol’s grandson put it up for sale, Knight bought it because, he says, he didn’t want it to go to a museum. “I thought it should be available where people could see how Bernie himself built an airplane,” says Knight, who frequently shows off his Air Camper at vintage-airplane fly-ins around the country.

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