Cherry Grove story, Part 2.


Below is another piece I wrote about Cherry Grove and the spirit of homebuilding just after Oshkosh 2008. It was in our Oshkosh coverage that year. In the photo with me is Pietenpol builder Dave Mensink, one of the brothers pictured in the previous Cherry Grove story.

Here is the important part of the story I left out, something I was reluctant to say a the time because I was concerned about what potential customers reading it might think, something I have moved beyond now ( I still care what builders think but not ‘potential’ customers); Oshkosh 2002 was the worst week I have ever had in aviation. It was the first airshow I had been to since my Pietenpol crash 12 months before. On the surface, I had every reason to be down while heading to the show. I was broke from medical bills; my body was a mess and would never be the same; my AME said I would not get a medical for two years (It turned out to be five); my plane was burned to a cinder. But inside I felt very good; I had cheated a very close brush with death; Grace was with me; We had many friends and we were headed to Oshkosh. I felt I had some insight to what was important when other things were stripped away. In an odd way, I felt a little blessed.

When we were at the show, all of this evaporated. More than 50% of our customers said they were quitting Corvairs; Few people listened to what I had to say; I found out that 90% of what I had done in the previous 12 years had been throughly slandered on the internet in the previous year, almost without retort; The only person willing to accept a single magazine article from me was Mick Myal. I thought I was returning to my temple with an important revelation learned from a year in the wilderness. Instead I found that our church was really a giant commercial enterprise and most of the people I thought of as fellow airmen were really consumers shopping for material distractions. After my last forum, which was attended by 1/10th the number of people who had been there in 2000, I actually went out to the parking lot, sat in the truck and wept.

Grace in her wisdom decided we needed to go to a more fundamental aviation place. She had briefly met Dave and he had casually invited us over to Cherry Grove. We drove there, essentially going back in time to a very different era in experimental aviation. The silence of the three of us being the only people in Cherry Grove that day was an absolute contrast to the crowds and mindless noise of Oshkosh the day before. Standing there, I had a very powerful moment of awareness that the fundamental elements of aviation, the timeless things, its real value, was right there on the surface at Cherry Grove, and that it was folly to expect to find them in a parade of consumerism like Oshkosh. I knelt down and put the soil from Bernard’s airstrip in the coffee can because I wanted to take some of the magic of the day with me. It worked, I drove away with a pound of dirt and a lifetime of understanding.-ww


“The man in the photo with me is Dave Mensink from Preston,Minnesota. He built a fantastically beautiful Corvair powered Pietenpol several years ago. He invited Grace and I to make a house call after Oshkosh 2002 to inspect it. His home is just a few miles from Cherry Grove, the tiny town Bernard Pietenpol called home most of his life. Dave took the time to bring us all the way out to the original flying field and shared his memories of being a small child around Bernie’s airstrip. It was a surreal, quiet day. We stood on the field and didn’t talk much for a long time. We had just come from the crowds at Oshkosh, and the contrast couldn’t have been more dramatic. Standing there, I honestly felt that there was a timeless truth in flying that you could discover if you spent enough time in Cherry Grove. I have never had this sensation on the ground anywhere else. We took a little coffee can of soil, which has since lived on top of our refrigerator. Once every great while, when I am having one of those days where you question the value of your path in life, I take the can down and look inside.

If you look at their lives close enough, all of the greats offer something to guide us in pursuit of the timeless truth of flying. Pietenpol teaches that we are more likely to find it in the simplest of planes; Lindbergh knew that you started your search inside yourself; Gann said that we will not see the truth directly, but you can watch it at work in the actions of airmen; and Wittman showed that if you flew fast enough, for long enough, you just might catch it. These men, and many others, spent the better part of their lives looking for this very illusive ghost. Some of them paid a high price, but you get the impression they all thought it was worth it.

While it is possible that someone who rents a 172 or even a person who reads Fate is the Hunter has some access, I honestly think that the homebuilder who dreams, plans, builds and eventually flys his own plane is infinitely more likely to experience the timeless truth of man’s quest for flight. All of the aviators who had some insight to guide you found it while they were in action, in the arena. If you inherently feel that you want to build a plane, you feel just like Pietenpol did. When you’re building it, you will find out how determined you are and what kind of perseverance you have. Lindbergh evaluated these qualities in himself every day. As you finish and prepare to fly, you will find others of enormous qualities and flaws, and you will learn to sort them and their counsel, as Gann always did. And when you fly your plane, and come to trust it because it is your creation, and you cut no corners, you will never want to stop, the way Wittman never did.” -ww-(2008)

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