Bernard Pietenpol’s shop light.

Builders:

Pictured below is the most treasured single item in my hangar:  The light which hung over BHP’s work bench, in his shop in Cherry Grove Minnesota. Yes, it’s really the one, you can see it in the old black and white photos on the family website.

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It was given to me about 10 years ago by Will Minsink, who has made an exact replica of BHP’s workshop in his hangar in Preston Minnesota. You can see pictures in this story: Cherry Grove story, “The long way home” Will knows I consider BHP to the the “Patron Saint of Homebuilding” and he gave me the light, a very gracious act.

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Every homebuilder does it: Before turning in for the night, you pause to take one last look at what you have accomplished with the evening, and then turn off the lights. It’s very easy to imagine Bernard doing this countless times over the decades, with this very light. He lived from 1901-84. Although he turned the light out one last time three and a half decades ago, his reputation as the champion of flight for the working man, his belief that aviation is not a spectator sport, remains undimmed. 

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Today is my 57th birthday.  I share the date with my neighbor Wayne. I was born exactly 30 years after him.  I have lived directly across our grass strip from him for nearly 15 years.  We have shared many great moments, and he is a first class human being, particularly on matters where it really counts. He has accomplished a lot in aviation, and he still flies his RV-7A actively. It’s not really logical, but due to our shared birthday and passion for planes, I have long had him as my personal yard stick of what I could or should accomplish in flying before I turn out my own shop light one last time.

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This birthday, we are planning on marking the occasion with a little more thought a good time. This is brought on by a very hard cancer diagnosis Wayne got a few weeks ago. He is a tough man with a stoic outlook, and he will go down fighting, but the tone and tense of our conversations are different, as we acknowledge that the number of times he will turn out the lights in his hangar is suddenly finite.

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It’s 4 am and I can’t sleep. Too many questions. Will Wayne and I share open beer on our 58th/88th birthday next year? Why do I childishly believe I will get as many days as he has? For all the good things we did in the last 365 days, why did I settle for that little? In 15 years will anyone at the airport feel the way I did about Wayne when I moved here? There are no good answers at this time of night.

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I won’t think about those questions in daylight tomorrow, I’m always optimistic in sunshine. But late at night in the coming year, they will come back. On quiet nights I sit on the front porch, sip beer and look out at the grass runway. The questions all return then, familiar, but unwelcome visitors, tolerated company, because I long ago learned that it is the treasured people who can’t stay, and the questions about what you should have done that never leave.

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Chuck Campbell, 95, departs for blue sky.

Builders,

Chuck Campbell, senior Pietenpol builder and fixture at the Barnwell Corvair Colleges, has passed from this life. In a world were many people succumb to pessimistic outlooks, Chuck would have none of it. He made really great progress on building his plane every year, and he got about 95% of it done before time caught up with him. His outlook was contagious, perhaps fueled by being a member of “the Greatest Generation”, he kept things in perspective. Things that derailed or slowed other builders half his age, we not serious issues to Chuck. In his youth, he had flown F-6F Hellcats into combat against the Empire of Japan, and maybe he understood what a really daunting challenge was.

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A few days ago, Chucks son Joel, sent the note below:

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I’m saddened to tell you that my dad developed some medical issues and is now at a Hospice House on his last “final approach”. We’re hoping that his final landing will be a soft one and know that he has many waiting for him in the “pilot’s lounge” to welcome him home.

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What is especially hard is that he wasn’t able to see his Pietenpol project completed but I know he wouldn’t have traded the build process for anything. It gave him so much joy and kept his aging mind and body young far longer than some.   Hopefully one day it will fly and he’ll surely smile down from Heaven as it lifts off. 

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If you’re so inclined, please pray for Blue Skys and Tailwinds for my dad. 

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Thank you. 

Joel

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Word came from the family yesterday that Chuck was gone.  Although I has read Joel’s note a few days before, Chucks passing felt like something small but very important, broke inside me. I spent a lot of the day thinking about a handful of men of Chucks generation, men I was very fortunate to know, all of whom I will never speak to again, my own Father among them. They carried themselves with a humility and dignity, a direct reflection of their lives built on Meaning, having stood for important ideals. I know many good young people, but we will not see men quite like this ever again, and when our first hand memories of them are gone also, the world really will have lost something irreplaceable.

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Above: 2014- Tim Hansen sent in this  photo he calls Hero’s Engine Runs. It was taken of Chuck Campbell as he donned a leather hat and scarf for the first run of his engine. It was a magnificent moment. Chuck flew F6F Hellcats in WWII. He was over 90 years old, still in great shape and enjoyed learning and building.

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Many people cheered Chuck on during his build, but he formed a special connection with Bob Dewenter and Keith Goff. Both of them earn special mention here as outstanding friends to Chuck.

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I encourage builders to share their thoughts in the comments section, I’d like to show Chuck’s family we understood what a treasure he was.

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WWjr.

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Thought for the Day: Your 2020 Aviation Ambitions.

Builders,

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Above, earlier this year, my sister speaks with the Father of her close friend. The man is nearly 100 years old. He piloted a Dauntless at the Battle of Midway. People think of Midway as a great, decisive US victory, but did you know the Navy lost 150 aircraft, most with their complete crews?  75% of the torpedo planes were shot down, every single one in Squadron Eight. Cdr. Waldron, skipper of VT-8 confessed in his diary the night before the odds of survival were not good. His men went anyway, and when the day was over, 35 of 36 of them, including Waldron, were dead.  The man in the wheelchair above, is one of the last eyewitnesses to Midway, and I’m guessing the carnage didn’t feel like a ‘victory’ the next day.

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What did Waldron and all the others who perished get for their lives? They got nothing, but they provided us the free world we have lived our whole lives in. It was provided to us by such men, 99% of them, my father included, are gone now. This is the idea I was trying to share, as a spent an hour with my father in 2015: Thought for The Day – Have we squandered the great gift?.

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Fewer and fewer people in our world have any connection with someone like the man in the wheelchair or my father. They feel little if any gratitude for the world, still with many faults, which was given to us on a silver platter. They never stop to consider the western civilization of today was far from inevitable in 1942.

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What is so great to be thankful for? OK, I’m the first person to point out everything hollow about modern consumer life, example: Welcome to the 24/7 Anxiety Machine, but that isn’t a reason to throw in the towel. Unlike many others, I do have a direct connection, my fathers memory, to the people who gave me the world I live in. All my Father asked of his children was treat others fairly and do something valid with our lives. Even though he is gone, I still measure my life by his standard.

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For anything I may bitch about, it has really been my personal mission to do something of meaning in with my days. Even if a lot of society is drifting and getting lost, I’m not in charge of their lives, just my own. I don’t offer an example to anyone,  save the example of things not to do. I personally find understanding, creating and flying light planes, and sharing this with others, an endeavor worthy of what it will, and also what it might, cost you. For 30 years, even on some hard days, I have not faltered in this belief.

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In a few weeks I will be 57, and we will all start a new year, and in a few short months another flying season will be upon us. What will you make of it? 2019 has been pretty good to me, but I’m just using it as a spring board into 2020, and there are many ambitions I have in aviation which I will advance this year. What each of us will, or will not do, will be mostly determined by ourselves, not external circumstance. For those who decide this will be their year, I look forward to playing a role in both your productive success and the good times you will share with friends.

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WEWjr.

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New Hangar Roof – The great fortune of good friends.

Builders:

Last weekend, a little army of tireless friends showed up at my place at sunrise on Friday, and set to work on a project that was a decade overdue: My hangar was skinned of it’s roof, extensive structural repairs were made, and it was completely re-roofed in modern R panels. It was a tremendous amount of work, spanning three days. I put it off for years because the commercial estimates were not affordable, and the work was beyond what an individual could do. At the end of this season, a few friends quietly said to get the materials, and we would all go after it in a single weekend.

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We had really nice weather, and the work went better than I guessed it would. I actually had slightly more help than required. The mood was fun, but several times in the process went in the house, ostensibly to make more coffee, but really I didn’t want anyone to see that I was fighting off tears.

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Through the decades of my adult life, I have suffered some very lonely times where I would have given anything to have just one of the friends I have today. For reasons that defy easy explanation, I kept many friends I should not have, and lost a handful of ones I really needed. Today in my fifties, I have a blossoming of great human beings in my life, but there are times where I still don’t believe I deserve them, and at those times it is overwhelming to be the recipient of their kindness and devotion.

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I can rationally say I’m a good friend to people, and recognize that its a two way street, but emotionally, there is a part of me that can’t brush off all the times I was capable of ignoring the emotional plight of other people. I can be roofing with friends having a great time one minute, but if I pause to really take in the outpouring   of friendship, I have a hard time not thinking about people like Mr. Carter, our emotionally scarred  neighbor, a survivor of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. I drove past him many times when he was raking leaves without saying anything.  Years later he told me that his one big hope each week had been that someone would simply stop and talk to him.  Almost no one, including me, ever did. I’d like to apologize to him for it, but he is long gone now, and I’m left with just writing this story and going inside to ‘make coffee’ when I have to.

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I don’t mean to have a somber tone, its really gratitude that I feel. If you have not met me in person, but think my stories and videos always seem to have a lot more people than engines in them, understand that I really find my work to be a story about people, not the machines. If you were to take a look and any week in 2019, you would be very surprised at the number of people who make a contribution, both large and obvious and small and critical, to making my life and work possible. Whenever someone has something nice to say to me, I never forget all the friends who actually make it not only possible, but fun and rewarding.

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Above, the new roof and support structure. My hangar was one of the first structures at our airport, its almost 40 years old, the old roof was original. Kitti Politti and I welded the 24″ deep gray steel truss in the spring, it supports the doors. The hangar is now set for another few decades of supporting good seasons in flying. In the 14 years I have been here, a great number of parts, engines and builders have passed through this hangar. I’m looking forward to a whole new era in the rebuilt hangar.

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