One last flight

Photo: Julia Schrenkler

There is no news value in what you’re about to read. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was elevating a personal story to the rarefied air of a NewsCut topic. But it provides some background for why posting will be light here today and also closes the book on a chapter of NewsCut that occasionally surfaced here: the time I built my own airplane in my garage.

I wanted to be an airline pilot when I grew up, but the medical requirements back then were far stricter than today. I needed a fall-back career. Radio was my fallback career. Radio is fun. Flying is way better.

Once I learned to fly, however, it was obvious I’d never be able to afford an airplane and renting one was prohibitively expensive. It turned out, however, that the Twin Cities area is one of the nation’s hotbeds for the homebuilding of aircraft.

I delivered the St. Paul Pioneer Press every day from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m, for 10 years while working at MPR to raise some of the funds to get me going on the project, which eventually took 11 years to complete in fits and starts.

When people — mostly kids (mine and others’) — pitched in to help, they signed their name and left messages. The plane is a flying scrapbook of autographs, hidden away in the plane’s innards.

My father-in-law was pretty well disabled by Parkinson’s when he mustered up enough energy in 2007 to sign.


He died almost two years later to the day. The signature is still there.

I flunked shop in high school and a guy tends to carry that sort of thing around well into middle age, I found.

So it was special when I watched a test pilot fly off with her on her first flight, preferring instead to stand with my wife and watch it go (photo above).

Living life while we can is a matter of expanding our comfort zones. I learned that from Daniel Alvarez, who paddled from the Northwest Angle to Key West and back (and is now hiking from the top of Europe to the bottom). He told me if you’re not nervous about something, you’re not going far enough.

He was referring to a dream I had to fly the plane solo across the country, to my hometown in Massachusetts,where the plane would meet half of the couple for whom it was registered: N614EF, the wedding date and initials of my parents in 1942.

I made that journey while a few of you old-time readers watched.

Dream fulfilled.

My mother, who turns 95 next month, is too old now to be able to get into the plane — the one regret I have. So I sat her on a bench at my hometown airport and flew a high speed, low pass, wagging its wings in salute, then taxied back by her, blowing kisses to the woman who revealed to me once that she wanted to be like Amelia Earhart and fly the world. Instead, she raised five kids.


My dad died while I was still building the thing. On the rare occasions when we chatted on the phone, he’d always conclude the conversation by saying, “you be careful in that thing” and in the last few years every time he said it, he said it more softly. You have to understand the language of the Greatest Generation male to get the whole message.

But I was careful in that thing when I checked off another dream: flying the approach to Cleveland’s amazing Burke Lakefront Airport to watch a baseball game there with my youngest son.



My wife isn’t much of a flier, but she’d take the occasional short hop if there was something at the end of the flight worth seeing: the beach along Lake Superior next to Duluth’s Sky Harbor Airport, Madeline Island’s Fourth of July parade, a Trampled by Turtles concert at the Vetter Stone Amphitheater in Mankato, or a Brian Setzer concert in Redwood Falls (who knew we’d be stranded at midnight in Redwood Falls because all the motel rooms were booked by people fighting the bird flu epidemic?).

But for any pilot, the ultimate thrill is flying into Oshkosh for the ginormous AirVenture show, when Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world.


I took the plane to various airport days around Minnesota. My excuse was a plate full of questionable pancakes, but the real reason was to let kids sit in an airplane, make airplane noises, and maybe get inspired to learn to fly someday, a vanishing dream.


In Fairmont this year, a young man wanted a ride. He got a ride. Kids, and a lot of adults, don’t really understand how close, connected, and dependent on each other we all are until the world is viewed from a different perspective. Nothing explains that like seeing your grandmother’s house from the air.


Each kid who got a ride left with a story to tell at school. They didn’t just fly in a plane; they flew a plane.

Women have been told for decades that they couldn’t fly. It’s for men. So girls always go to the head of the passenger line.


I didn’t get to do everything I wanted. My plan to follow a Lindbergh/Wright Brothers trail, from Little Falls, Minn., to Kitty Hawk, N.C., never got off the ground and probably won’t. But I sure can’t complain.

Some medical issues returned a few months ago, making it unlikely the Federal Aviation Administration will extend my medical waiver, which allowed me back in the air after being grounded a few years ago. So I sold the airplane early last month to a nice gentleman from Grand Rapids, Mich. I think he’ll take good care of it.

After trying for more than a month, there seems to be a weather opening to get it to its new home in Grand Rapids today. The weather is OK here, and the low clouds and lake-effect snow around South Bend, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., are expected to lift enough to allow me to sneak in around some squalls, I think. We’ll know when we get there. And I think I can stand the cold for a few hours. We’ll see. I admit to being a little nervous about it, but maybe I’m just not going far enough.

You can watch my progress (or lack of it: I’ll turn around if the weather fails me) here.

In the meantime, talk among yourselves. Discuss the dreams you fulfilled, and the ones you might still get to.

The weather and Southwest Airlines willing, I’ll be back here writing on Friday morning.

[Update 7:33 pm]. Over Muscoda, Wis. Temperature: -17.

Postscript: The Last Flight (Letters From Flyover Country)