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.