Pietenpol: The quiet genius
Monday, July 21, 2014 4:30 PM
This column was begun back in 2004, I think, and it's a total surprise that I have never done one on Bernard Pietenpol, one of our most noted citizens. Probably the reason was because his talents generated so many articles in the newspapers, magazines, etc. that I didn't need to call attention to his creative genius.
Bernard Pietenpol, a photo by Dr. Roland Matson, about 1978.
Born in 1901 in Fillmore County, Bernard entered the era of powered flight when the Wright brothers first got off the ground in 1903. His family lived in North Dakota for several years before returning to Cherry Grove where his father operated a small general store. For about two years he worked as a mechanic in Wykoff, then built his own garage and repair shop in 1921 in Cherry Grove. Bitten by the flying bug, he began plans for his own plane, a single seat bi-plane with a Ford Model T engine. Without any training in how to fly a plane, his first flight was fairly bumpy — according to a friend "he went up 50' and came down 75'!"
Pietenpol constantly worked on improvements and by 1928 had designed a two-seat mono-plane using a four cylinder Model A engine. His friend, Orrin Hoopman, drew up the plans for the design which could be built for less than $500. About 1929 the Modern Mechanics magazine carried an article about home built airplanes that mentioned auto engines would not be suitable. Since Pietenpol had several Ford-powered planes, he and a friend decided to fly to the Cities where the magazine offices were located. The editor was so surprised and pleased, he dubbed the plane the Air Camper and urged Pietenpol to compile plans for the plane. These were published in 1932 in the Flying & Glider Manual, a publication of Modern Mechanics, and a set of plans became available for $7.50. Do you know? These plans are still sold around the world today.
In later years, when Chevrolet came out with the Corvair in the 1960s, it was considered a more efficient engine, and Pietenpol modified the plans for a Corvair engine. Over the next 30 years, Pietenpol developed improvements and also designed another plane, the Sky Scout. Thousands of enthusiasts all over the world have purchased plans and built their own planes. My husband, Gordon Dathe, worked with Pietenpol for several years, and one day there was a lengthy phone conversation with someone regarding specs. Gordy asked who was on the line, and it turned out to be a fellow in England, one of many aviators who were Pietenpol fans.
In 2005, the Spring Valley Historical Society was given a tremendous gift — an Air Camper built by a local farmer/aviator, Clifford Kumm. Kumm is himself an accomplished machinist; it took him 13 years to complete building the Air Camper, which he flew for many years off his grass airstrip at his farm south of town. The society is proud to exhibit the plane in the Ag Building at 220 West Courtland. Ask for a tour!
The county museum at Fountain has acquired planes built by Pietenpol, as well as, one of his hangars and have a well developed display. At Oshkosh, Wis., the Experimental Aircraft Assocation Museum features his original Cherry Grove hangar and his planes.
Pietenpol died in 1984, but some of the honors bestowed on him are as follows: 1) 1972 - Award for "Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Light Aircraft". 2) 1975 - Recognized as one of the "Greats of Aviation" at Oshkosh, Wis. 3) 1978 - 50th anniversary celebration at Cherry Grove with 500 visitors and 30 some planes in attendance. 4) 1982 - Recognized as "Citizen of the Year" here in Spring Valley. 5) 1985 - His hangar and planes donated to the E.A.A. Museum in Oshkosh, Wis. 6) 1991 - Listed in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. 7) 1993 - Exhibit at Fillmore County History Center. It is of note that the Pietenpol workshop and garage in Cherry Grove is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are Pietenpol associations including one at Brodhead, Wis., where aviators gather each year before the big air show at Oshkosh, Wis. His fame goes on and on, a tribute to a remarkable man who lived in our midst.
This column cannot begin to tell the Bernard Pietenpol story of quiet genius and enormous influence on the field of home-built aircraft. One book is available at the Methodist Church Museum on West Courtland, entitled "The Pietenpol Story" by Chet Peek. Other books are available at the county society, as well. We suggest you come for a visit to see Clifford Kumm's fine Air Camper, and marvel at the work that was involved. It is truly impressive.