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Car engines take flight: the Pietenpol Air Camper

Wikimedia Commons
A home-built Pietenpol Air Camper (UK registration G-BUCO) at Kemble Airfield, Gloucestershire, England.

When Bernard Pietenpol started to build airplanes in his Cherry Grove workshop, he’d never actually piloted one. He only learned to fly once he had built his first plane. Nevertheless, Pietenpol’s popular designs for lightweight, easy-to-construct airplanes made him the “father of the homebuilt aircraft movement.”

Pietenpol was born in Spring Valley in 1901. When he was nineteen, he moved to Cherry Grove. There he quickly established a mechanical workshop and garage, and began planning to build his first plane. His original design was a biplane, a two-winged aircraft, which first flew in 1923. Although Pietenpol had no advanced training, his keen observations and mechanical skills allowed him to develop and refine his aircraft designs.

The readily available Model T Ford engines he used in his first planes lacked the power Pietenpol needed. That all changed when Ford released their more powerful Model A engine in 1928. Although there were no spare engines from the newly released cars, Pietenpol bought parts from a local Ford dealer and built the Model A engine himself. He developed the design for a two-seat monoplane powered by the Model A engine that he called the Air Camper.

The Pietenpol Air Camper was a revolution in the homebuilt aircraft world. It was a sturdy and lightweight plane, with a twenty-nine-foot wingspan and a sixty-five-mile-per-hour cruising speed. More importantly, though, Pietenpol designed the Air Camper using materials readily available to ordinary people. Anyone who wanted to build one could buy the necessary equipment at any hardware store or lumberyard. The Air Camper was also fairly inexpensive. The total cost of the materials was only about $500. Though Pietenpol had begun building planes as a challenge, his designs were about to swoop onto the national stage.

Just after Pietenpol finished his Air Camper, Modern Mechanics and Inventions magazine published an editorial stating that automobile engines could not be used to create working airplanes. Pietenpol wrote to the editors, arguing that he had created just such a plane. When challenged to prove it, he and fellow pilot Donald Finke flew two Air Campers from Cherry Grove to Minneapolis as a demonstration. The magazine’s editor was so impressed that the next issues prominently featured Pietenpol’s Air Camper, the airplane with an automobile engine.

As interest in his designs increased, Pietenpol’s friend and neighbor, Orin Hoopman, helped him draft plans for the construction of the plane. They began selling sets of plans for Pietenpol’s airplanes. After the success of the Air Camper, many people wrote to Pietenpol asking whether they could use the readily available Model T engines. Though Air Campers could not use the engine, in 1933 Pietenpol developed a lighter, one-seat version of the Air Camper that could. He called it the Sky Scout. Both designs were wildly popular, inspiring generations of homebuilders to create and pilot their own Pietenpol planes.

Though he did not receive a formal pilot’s license until 1941, Pietenpol trained civilian pilots in the years before World War II. After the war, he remained in Cherry Grove, where he sold and repaired radios and televisions to support himself and his family. He also kept designing and building planes in his workshop and flying them at his own airstrip, Pietenpol Field. In his aviating career he logged over six thousand hours of flying time and test-piloted almost every aircraft that he designed.

Bernard Pietenpol’s Air Camper and Sky Scout made him a legend in the aviation community. His Cherry Grove workshop and garage were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The original hanger from Pietenpol Field was moved to Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After his death, Pietenpol was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame as one of the pioneers of flight in Minnesota.

In the early twenty-first century, there are Pietenpol clubs throughout the United States and around the world, with members dedicated to building and flying Pietenpol designs. Broadhead, Wisconsin is home to a yearly Pietenpol fly-in where builders, owners, and pilots gather to share their love of all things Pietenpol.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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