Why fly solo when you can bring along a passenger? That’s probably what Bernard Pietenpol was thinking when he designed and built the Air Camper, a two-seat monoplane.
Pietenpol lived a simple life in rural Minnesota. When he wasn’t working in his television repair shop in Cherry Grove, he almost always had an airplane under construction: wood airframe, fabric covering, and an engine lifted from an automobile. And when the airplane was finished, it was put to use flying low and slow over acres of farmland. Pietenpol’s two sons, Kermit and Don, and his six grandchildren all grew up seeing their world from above. For the Pietenpol family, airplanes weren’t really a mode of transportation—a way to get from one point to another. Flying was a pleasure all its own, and getting aloft in an open-cockpit airplane was the best way to enjoy a long summer day. Generations of Pietenpol homebuilders agree.
Pictured above: Don often sat alongside his father, who resorted to strapping his son in with a men’s belt because the no-frills Air Campers had no safety harnesses.
In 1910, Bernard Pietenpol was a nine-year-old schoolboy in Jamestown, North Dakota. A decade later, he opened an auto repair shop in a barn in Cherry Grove, Minnesota.
Pietenpol built what would be the precursor to his Air Camper design in 1927, an airplane he called “the Ace” (it was powered by a 16 Value Ace engine). Two years later, though, Pietenpol gave the Ace a new powerplant, a Ford Model A engine (this configuration is seen in the photograph).
In 1929, Pietenpol constructed the first Air Camper, aircraft #626, a high-wing monoplane painted blue and powered by a Ford Model A engine. Pietenpol considered #626 his first successful airplane design.
With the Air Camper, Pietenpol finally had an airplane that was easy to build and easy to fly, and he found it perfect for touching down on farmers’ fields.
Don Finke (in back seat) flies a friend in a 1930 Air Camper, the sixth aircraft that Pietenpol built. Pietenpol taught Finke how to fly the Air Camper—in one day.
Modern Mechanics and Inventions helped popularize the Air Camper by publishing a set of plans in its 1932 Flying and Glider Manual.
Pietenpol’s son Don (at age three, standing next to a Sky Scout) learned to fly before he got his driver’s license. He eventually became a pilot with the U.S. Air Force.
Pietenpol and son Don built an airplane hangar in Cherry Grove, Minnesota, in the 1940s. In 1986, the hangar was moved to Wisconsin, where it is on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s facility in Oshkosh (above). Pietenpol and Don also constructed a second hangar, which is now part of the Fillmore County Museum in Minnesota.
Just like any other homebuilder, Pietenpol continued to modify his airplanes in the hope of improving them. In 1964, he abandoned the traditional Ford Model A engine for the more powerful 60-hp engine of the Chevrolet Corvair. Pietenpol ended up with a little hot rod of an Air Camper, which he painted cream and red.
During an interview with a newspaper reporter in Fillmore County, Minnesota, in 1974, Pietenpol displayed the Air Camper blueprints, which can still be purchased at www.pressenter.com/~apietenp.