I received a short note from Minnesota 750/Corvair builder Dave Griggs saying that Don Pietenpol had passed from this Earth. Don was an aviator in his own right, but he has done tremendous work making his father’s (Bernard Pietenpol) designs and perspective available to new generations of experimental aircraft builders.
Don Pietenpol had a direct influence on my personal path in aviation, and I am very thankful for it. In 1989 I was just beginning 5 years at Embry-Riddle. Composite construction, computers and Reagan era defense contracting were reaching a fever pitch. Every single student I knew, every instructor and the whole program was focused on the cutting edges of military, space and defense projects. Almost every freshman could tell you which high end project he was focusing his education on; stealth , GE-90 engines, Finite Element analysis programing, and C4 systems all had legions of new converts, patron saints in the faculty and research money from administration. In this storm of high tech, I found myself fascinated with the “past.” I spent my time in the huge 3-story campus library reading about planes and men from the 1930s. I was 7 or 8 years older than most freshmen and was at a different place in life, but still I was smart enough not to say much of anything to anyone about my divergent interest from the crowd. It was a tough school, and you had to effectively work in lab and research groups to succeed. Openly telling others that you were interested in planes built of wood was tantamount to being mentally ill.
I cannot judge my peers of 1989 harshly. Although I loved the traditional aviation I devoured in my free hours, I had a nagging self doubt about its value as a path. Part of my brain told me that I was taking a small exit ramp off a highway that was going great places and the travelers would be handsomely rewarded for making it to the intended destination. I kept coming back to the idea that there probably was an engineer who quit the Apollo program in 1965 to chase a barnstorming dream and regretted it the rest of his life.
Following my heart, I quietly sent a $50 postal money order to a guy named Don Pietenpol to purchase a set of his father’s drawings. I still distinctly remember walking to my mailbox, #5601, on a Friday afternoon after classes and finding the plans tucked into the box. I didn’t wait to bicycle the 2 miles back to the house, I sat in the empty cafeteria and spread them out on a table.
With my money order I had sent a short note saying that I was interested in things my fellow students were not. It was the kind of thing that you would never include in a regular business order, but this was to Bernard’s son, and frankly, I just wanted to share my secret with someone whether they understood or not, just a safe ear, even if it was a deaf one.
Don Pietenpol was not deaf to such thoughts. With my plans came a short 120 word note, a letter that is hard to overstate the impact of. He said that even in his father’s time there were men who followed fortune into military or airline work, and his father could have done this, but willfully chose not to. He said that aviation always needed a small group of people who were going to preserve and develop flight in its purest forms, and to these people it should not matter what the crowd would do.
I have this letter carefully saved. I look at it from time to time. There are days when little is going smoothly and I cannot discern any positive effect from my efforts. Like everyone else, I indulge myself a few thoughts, wondering about other paths not taken. Then I come back to a short letter written by a 59-year-old in Minnesota to a 26-year-old College student he would never meet in person. Simply an observation that paths that make sense in your mind should be subservient to those that dwell in your heart.
Below is Donald’s obituary:
Donald Dale Pietenpol, of Rochester, Minn., passed away Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, (on his 84th birthday) of cancer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Donald was a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend; a Korean War veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force; an engineer at IBM; ham radio operator (K0DFZ); a pilot; a builder of experimental planes; aviation enthusiast; and member of the Quiet Birdmen.
He especially enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren.
Donald was born in Wykoff on Jan. 8, 1930, to Bernard and Edna (Krueger) Pietenpol. He married Olive Robinson on Oct. 31, 1959.
Donald is survived by his wife of 54 years, Olive; three children, Andrew Pietenpol (Joyce Larson), of Cottage Grove, Donna Pietenpol, of Katy, Texas, and Jennifer Pietenpol (Ian Wattenmaker), of Nashville, Tenn.; and six grandchildren, Alexander Panetti, of Katy, Texas, Brittany Panetti, of Katy, Texas, Collin Panetti, of Katy, Texas, Gavin Higgins, of Nashville, Tenn., Caroline Wattenmaker, of Waterford, Va., and Annie Wattenmaker of Waterford, Va.
Donald was preceded in death by his parents and brother, Kermit.
A memorial celebration of his life and graveside service will be planned later this spring. The family requests that memorials be directed to the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn., to support cancer research discoveries.
Just to remind people that snow doesn’t have to happen, a few photos from our airpark taken today, January 11th. It was sunny and 76 degrees in Northern Florida. Brothers Jim and Paul, both vets who donate huge amounts of time to our local military museum, drove over in two of their personal vehicles, a 1967 M-35 and a 1963 M-37. We had a bit of fun driving them around the airport.
To our friends in Minnesota, Yes, I am rubbing it in a bit about the weather. Before you know it, the flying season will migrate back up north and we will be into a new year of aviation. Make your plans now.
For us down here, another month or so of this and it will be snake season again. If you are cold right now and need a reminder of why you don’t live in the tropics, click on this link:
Above, Grace behind the wheel of the M-35. In slang terms, this is a “Deuce and a Half” because it is a 2.5 ton truck. (That is the off road rating, it carries twice that on road.) It is 10 wheel drive and sports a “Multi-fuel” straight six turbo diesel made by White. These engines burn any kind of fuel: Diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, even gasoline diluted with old motor oil.
Above, I cut a lap around the airpark in the M-37. Technically it is a “3/4 ton truck” but most people know them as a weapons carrier.
Grace and Scoob E exiting the M-37.
Above, friends hanging out. On the left, Corvair/Panther builder Paul Salter, whom many people have met at Corvair Colleges and Oshkosh. Jim’s son, Jim, Paul, and our friend Alex, whom you read about in the story: Sunday, a long day at the airport.
It is fun to live in a place where it is normal for friends to stop by with an M-37. When Paul drove over, Grace and Scoob E were relaxing at the side yard in a hammock. Grace’s attire should tell you I am not kidding about today’s weather. Down here the leaves come off the trees the first week of December, but the green buds come out by the end of February. Behind Grace is the little creek that runs past our place. To clarify for people up north, this creek is filled with something called water, which is made of a liquid form of ice and snow. -ww.
Note from Grace: “The book pictured above is one I can highly recommend, American Sniper by Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as the most lethal sniper in American military history. After the military hardware rolled out of our airpark to beat the thunderstorm rolling in, I couldn’t help but think about all the troops they’d carried into godforsaken places to ensure all of us here at home had the freedom to read what we wanted any given day. And how many troops never made it home. Or returned home broken physically or mentally.
A few years ago during my parents’ 50th anniversary cruise around the Caribbean, while my parents took the bus tour I spent the afternoon snorkeling and drinking rum punch with a lovely couple from Michigan. He told me he’d retired from the police force there, but it didn’t take a detective to figure out he was a soldier before that. I asked him where he served, and he said Vietnam. I thanked him for serving our country and he told me I was the only person ever who had thanked him for his service to our country. Then he cried. And I cried. And his wife was dumbstruck for a moment, then held him tight. She had never seen him cry. I apologized on behalf of those Americans either too oblivious, ungrateful, shy or afraid of being corny to express their gratitude. Nothing a little more rum punch couldn’t fix that afternoon, but that’s never a real solution. Too many people from the top of our government down to the lowliest civilians don’t treat veterans returning from the war on terror today much better than they did in the Vietnam era. I don’t know how to fix that other than to continue to thank our military for their service to our country, and encourage all of you to do the same.”
Here is another encouragement to get in gear and sign up for our Texas College in 50 days. Below I have links to a number of stories from our last Texas event, CC#22 two years ago. One of the links is “College tech,” a group of photos and a short film that few builders have seen.
Above, with me is Blaine Schwartz of Texas, a Zenith 750 builder. His engine ran at CC#22, and his plane in nearly finished now.
Builders who would like to get all the details on how to sign up for CC#28 can click on this link:
For those who still need a little convincing, let me say that we have 40 builders signed up already, and we are space limited at this event, so if you wait too long, you will not be happy. Kevin and Shelley, our local hosts, are already sending out information briefs to all the builders who have already signed up. These builders are prepping to have an outstanding event and a productive season. To get in on this you must act.
Click on this link: College Tech . It has lots of engine and builder photos from CC#22.
Above, Craig Anderson of South Dakota with his Weseman bearing equipped 2,850 cc Corvair in process at CC#22. His engine is now running on the front end of his restored Stits SA-7 Skycoupe. This is actually the same airframe that was our 2002-2003 company testbed shown in this link: 2,700cc-Skycoupe-2002 Photos. Craig has done an outstanding job of overhauling and upgrading the old bird, and I look forward to seeing it airborne again.