Honest to Piet! It's an Air Camper

Bernard Harold Pietenpol (1901 – 1984)

“[In 1929 Modern Mechanics] wrote an article that a Model A Ford auto engine couldn’t be flown! I wrote them back and said that was a bunch of baloney . . . they can fly . . .”
— Bernard Harold Pietenpol, Interview 1976

Early in 1929, Bernard Pietenpol was a happy man. He had what few people, rich or poor, attain in life. He lived in a small southeastern Minnesota town he loved and did not intend to leave, and he possessed the mechanical skills to support his family during the hardships of the Great Depression. Best of all, Pietenpol had a hobby which made his heart soar. Using surplus automobile and aircraft parts, he managed to build an airplane which he flew every Sunday afternoon. A simple man, he had a simple name for his airplane. He called it “The Two-Place.” It wasn’t his first airplane but it was the one which would thereafter make him famous as the “father of homebuilt aircraft.” It wasn’t called “The Two-Place” for very long. And his “hobby” became a business.

The challenge
Not far away in Minneapolis, the editor of Modern Mechanics and Inventions magazine, Westy Farmer, encouraged his readers to buy manuals for homebuilt aircraft like the Heath Parasol. Infused with a passion for aviation, and a flare for the dramatic, he penned an editorial on powerplants, flatly stating, “No auto engine can be converted to flight. They are too heavy.” Bernard Harold Pietenpol knew better and soon proved it to Farmer — and the world.

Born on Feb. 19, 1901 near Cherry Grove, MN, Pietenpol was the son of a Dutch émigré farmer. He lived most of his life in the agrarian community, but Pietenpol was better at repairing a tractor than using one in the fields. Like so many rural children during those years he attended grammar school but probably didn’t finish high school. Between 1901 and 1918, America had begun to exchange horse-drawn vehicles and equipment for mechanical marvels like the Model T Ford, motorcycles, trucks, and tractors. And the “Golden Age” of aviation had arrived. Small town Cherry Grove had a grocery store owned by Pietenpol’s parents, a lumber mill and a blacksmith shop, but was not yet on the electrical power grid, relying on individual generators.

In 1920 Pietenpol married his partner for life, Edna. The enterprising young Pietenpol became an automobile mechanic, converting his parent’s barn into a garage where he serviced Fords and farm equipment, and became the town “handyman.” Anything with an engine came to Pietenpol for repair. His family describes him as a “self-taught engineer,” machinist, and inventor who designed everything from radios to wheelchairs.

His neighbor and life-long friend Orrin Hoopman recalled that once an automobile was pulled up to the garage by a team of horses “Bernard would get them [cars] going no matter what shape they were in,” and the owner soon drove it home.

When the first barnstormers buzzed the dairy barns, cornfields, and cherry orchards of southern Minnesota, it lit a fire within the hearts and souls of three neighborhood boys: Bernard Pietenpol, Donald Finke, and Orrin Hoopman.

It was an era of meager subsistence and great sacrifice, yet these three men found spare parts, built or machined what they could not buy, and for almost 10 years experimented with ineffective motorcycle, aircraft, and automobile engines for their homebuilt airplane. During this time, Pietenpol had flown a Curtiss Jenny and other airplanes, which he did not like, and became a good pilot. His first successful design in 1928 used a four-cylinder, 30-hp ACE engine, which was a conversion of a Model T engine.

“If the Shakers had built airplanes, they would have built them like Pietenpol. The sparse design features a church-pew style seat with no seatbelt.”
— Rochester Post Bulletin, Nov. 19, 1990

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