The father of homebuilt aircraft spotlighted at Voyager Village
BURNETT COUNTY – When you grow up around airplanes, you might not realize that it isn’t a typical everyday thing, but for Bernard Pietenpol’s family in the small town of Cherry Grove, Minn., it was. Situated 70 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, the small unincorporated town hadn’t grown much since the days when Pietenpol started tinkering around and fixing things.
His granddaughter, Linda Pietenpol-Kelley, now lives in Chisago City, Minn., and ventured north to Voyager Village where the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1537 and the Voyager Village Airport hosted a public speaking engagement where aviation history was enthusiastically discussed.
Pietenpol, born in 1901, is considered to be the father of homebuilt aircraft. At 23 years old he completed his first airship with a Ford Model T engine and a pair of motorcycle wheels for landing. His uncle would joke that it would go up 50 feet and back down 75 feet, but Pietenpol figured if he could walk away from a landing it was a good one.
Even though he lacked formal education beyond the eighth grade, he was well-read and self-taught. Pietenpol was also not from a wealthy family and he wanted to develop an airplane that anyone could afford and construct with everyday items from a hardware store and without fancy tools or construction methods. It also needed to be easy to fly since he didn’t have any piloting skills.
By 1929, he was offering kits or ready-to-fly Model A-powered Air Campers for $750. Even Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual had published his Air Camper plans serialized in four 1931 issues. That put Bernard Pietenpol, the Air Camper and Cherry Grove on the aviation map.
A promoter of flying for everyone, Pietenpol offered rides to the public in nearby communities on Sunday afternoons.
“Considering only 57 lived in Cherry Grove, it might have had the densest flying population of the time,” commented family friend Bernis Finke.
As the years passed, Chevrolet introduced the six-cylinder, air-cooled Corvair. The engine would be the last automobile engine Pietenpol would experiment with in powering his Air Camper. In 1966, he completed his first Corvair-powered Air Camper, then another in 1970 which was dubbed “the last original.”
Pietenpol-Kelley has written two books on the life and history of Bernard Pietenpol and his airplanes: “Bernard Pietenpol: Mementos and Memories” and “B.H. Pietenpol’s Scrapbook” and an article, “Flying With Grandpa Bernie,” for the EAA. Others who also contributed to Saturday’s discussion were Bernis Hoopman Finke and her husband, John. Bernis is the daughter of Orrin Hoopman and John is Don Finke’s nephew. Hoopman and Finke were well-known friends of Bernard Pietenpol. The pair helped with the wing, fuselage and engine design.