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Pietenpol Air Camper History

Bernard Pietenpol was born in 1901 and his family eventually settled in the southern Minnesota community of Cherry Grove. Bernard's father's general store still stands as one of the few original stores in town. From the beginning, Bernard showed an aptitude for all things mechanical and became the town's "mechanical genius", building powered lawn mowers, tractors, and wheel chairs for needy residents, as well as a gas-powered electric generator. Like many mechanically inclined young men of his generation, Bernard built his share of motorcycles and automobiles. Also like many of his era, Bernard was intrigued by the relativity new "flying machines" that had gained notoriety and a fair amount of acceptance after WWI.


But flying was expensive (like today), even with all the war surplus Jenny and Standards on the market. The average small-town enthusiast had a hard time coming up with the cash to maintain an airplane, let alone buy one. So Bernard Pietenpol with an eighth grade education took it upon himself to build an airplane and teach himself how to fly. Bernard was convinced that airplanes could be powered by automotive engines, much cheaper and more available than the expensive "certified" aircraft engines.

With the help of his father-in-law W.J. Krueger, a wood craftsman, and two friends - Don Finke and Orrin Hoopman, Bernard Pietenpol began experimenting with various wing and fuselage designs, as well as engines to power them. There was a lot of trial and error as Bernard searched for the right combination, always keeping mind that he wanted to develop an airplane that anyone could afford, construct and enjoy without the large expense of factory-supplied special parts or complex construction methods.

Their first attempt, in 1920, was a small biplane on the front of which they bolted a Ford Model T engine - very cheap and plentiful in those days. Without much alteration, the engine could develop about 20 horsepower on its best day, and the prototype could not have been called a success. Bernard confessed later, "It would have flown if I'd had known how to fly it. Luckily I didn't." Not only did Pietenpol want an airplane that was easy to construct, it had to be reasonably easy to fly, since many of those who he envisioned flying his airplane would be, like him, novices when it came to piloting skills.

His second project was a similar biplane design using a rotary Gnome engine. This was a step up from the Model T and had a proven track record used by early birdmen like Bleriot in his English Channel crossing (and, later, women like Harriet Quimby). The Gnome generated 50 horsepower, a great improvement, but it also had its drawbacks, like a horrible screeching sound and propensity for catching fire at awkward moments. After extensive tests, Pietenpol, not pleased with the results, called the Gnome a "growler," and likely never even flew it.

He decided to try another tactic and bought plans for a Lincoln Sport Biplane from a popular magazine called Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual published by Fawcett and whose popular aviation writer, E. Weston "Westy" Farmer, was influential in covering the world of "homebuilt aircraft." By now it was the late 1920s and successful designs like Edward Heath's Parasol and O.C. Corben's Baby Ace were being built both as finished aircraft and in kit form by their companies, and plans were being sold to those confident in their abilities as craftsmen. But these designs required some complex construction skills and equipment to manufacture welds or fabricate intricate control mechanisms that were beyond the scope of the average builder. Of course, these parts could be purchased separately by mail, a practice Pietenpol eventually offered for his own designs as well. But the Heath and Corben models also mainly recommended aircraft powerplants which were less available and much more expensive (though each manufacturer did offer plans for using motorcycle engines). Unlike Pietenpol, experimental aircraft designers thought that automobile engines were simply too underpowered. Aviation was still in its infancy in America.

It was about this time that a young man named Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic Ocean inspiring a whole new awakening to the fun, adventure, and romance of aviation. Bernard Pietenpol knew that he had to find some kind of aircraft in which he could gain a bit more flying experience as he kept his dream alive of creating his own design for the "common man."

Pietenpol was not pleased with the overall performance of the Lincoln, so he traded it for a Curtiss Jenny powered by the famous OX-5 water-cooled engine. This was the airplane used by most of the barnstormers who had criss-crossed the Midwest during the decade following World War I and which most observers used as their "yardstick" for comparing the smaller homebuilt airplanes. Bernard logged some hours in the Jenny, but he later admitted that he wasn't very fond of its quirks, both in the airframe design and its temperamental underpowered V-8 engine. Meanwhile, Ed Heath's Parasol was becoming more popular, as well as the kits he sold to builders. If Heath could do it, Bernard reasoned, why couldn't he?

He sold the Jenny and went back to his first instincts, designing and building his own airplane, but, unlike Heath and Corben, designing his airframe around an automobile engine. Bernard Pietenpol sketched up his aircraft design, and with woodworking help from his father-in-law, he and Finke put their workmanship skills together while Hoopman created the post design sketches, later to be transformed into blueprints for sale.

Bernard Pietenpol's new design, dubbed "ACE," was a "parasol" type construction - a 27-foot one-piece (initially) high wing placed well above the fuselage, similar to Heath's Parasol (produced in his Chicago factory). But unlike the welded tube construction of Heath, Bernard preferred all-wood construction, so the average woodworker could construct his airplane with "usual" skills, which did not include welding. (He later offered a steel tube fuselage version of the aircraft as an option.)

Bernard Pietenpol moved his workshop into an abandoned Lutheran church in Cherry Grove, MN and worked tirelessly. Finally, on September 1st, 1927, Bernard and Don Finke successes fully flew their new design. It was powered by an aluminum 16-value Model T engine (ironically called "the Ace" conversion) developed by Horace Keane. At 30 horsepower, it was capable of getting two men into the air and safely back on the ground. It was a step in the right direction, but still Bernard believed it needed additional power.

By now Henry Ford had come out with his new car, the Model A, powered by a bigger four cylinder engine. At an estimated 40 horsepower, this engine seemed just the thing for Bernard Pietenpol's new aircraft design's needs, and having been on the market for several years, junk yards were starting to get as many of them as Model T engines.

So Bernard Pietenpol went to work converting the Ford Model A engine for his new monoplane. In May 1929 Bernard Pietenpol test flew his Air Camper with the new engine. It was a complete success - a perfect match of airframe to power plant. Conversion of the Model A engine was a bit more extensive than had been necessary for the Model T, but Bernard included extensive and clear instructions in his building manual, also offering parts for sale to those builders who did not have the skills or equipment to make the conversions such as aftermarket magnetos, shorter water pump, carburetor heat piping, and exhaust stacks. Or, a buyer could purchase a "ready-to-fly" Model A powered Air Camper for $750.

Bernard Pietenpol's big break occurred in 1930 when aviation editor "Westy" Farmer attended a fly-in at Minneapolis. In previous columns in Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual, Farmer had declared that he was not a big fan of using automotive engines in aircraft and specifically said that Ford's Model A engine was not usable at all. Pietenpol decided to make the flight in his Air Camper up to Minneapolis to prove the editor wrong. In fact he had Finke fly a second Model A powered airship to the fly-in. Once face-to-face with Farmer, Pietenpol told the crowd, "I believe that this is the safest plane for the beginner that has ever been built." He made such an impression on Farmer, and the rest of the crowd, that Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual published his Air Camper plans serialized in four 1931 issues. That really put Bernard Pietenpol, the Air Camper, and Cherry Grove on the aviation map. Letters arrived in bunches.

Bernard Pietenpol offered fatherly advice to his customers. For example: "If you realize that you are not capable of building a good ship, then do not try. Either buy a ship or have someone build it for you that can. Don't build an unsafe ship."

He also had his views about aircraft safety when it came to flying. "I do not believe in stunting, it is the cause of nearly all accidents. I believe in safe and sane flying only. My advice is, do not stunt much or take unnecessary chances."

Unlike some of his fellow homebuilt pioneers, Bernard Pietenpol actually built very few airplanes at his Minnesota airfield/worksite, perhaps only 23. Like aircraft designer Burton Rutan decades later, Bernard Pietenpol made more of a business of providing plans for his designs. During the 1930's, he sold thousands of sets of plans to eager builders all over the country as well as many overseas. Assembly kits were also available and he sold hundreds of them, along with his availability as a friendly personal "consultant" to any builder's question, no matter how small. For example: "There is no point in using a lot of nails. The strength lies in the gusset plate and gluing."

Meanwhile, Bernard Pietenpol was working on a single-seat version of his popular Air Camper. In 1933, he came out with his Sky Scout, which, at under 600 pounds, was lighter than the Air Camper, so one could use the old Model T engine that Pietenpol had originally used in his Air Camper design. Of course, the Sky Scout could really scream with the Model A engine. Orrin Hoopman not only drew all the plans for the Air Camper and Sky Scout, but also bought the first one built. With a top speed of 62 mph and cruise of 55, the new single seater could take off in about 150 feet and land in 250.

Sky Scout plans were published in the 1933 edition of Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual. Pietenpol Air Camper's and Sky Scout's drew great crowds at fly-ins. Always the enthusiastic promoter of flying for everyone, Bernard Pietenpol offered rides to the public in nearby communities on Sunday afternoons, insisting that all his pilots wear white shirts and ties. Bernard said, " I built the Sky Scout to prove to myself that I could build a ship powered with a motor which would be practical, and also prove that the Model A engine was not the only automobile motor that would fly successfully."

Bernard Pietenpol kept experimenting with new powerplants. He even beefed up the Air Camper's wing area on one model in order to handle the added weight of a V-8 engine. At 80 horsepower, the performance was better than the Model A, but the fuel consumption was also twice as high. He also tried a 60 horsepower Franklin aircraft engine, which was a fair powerplant. By then there were also aluminum cylinder heads available for the Model A which Pietenpol tried and enthusiastically recommended to customers as a relatively inexpensive upgrade. He never stopped looking for ways to improve his airplanes' performance.

As the years passed, Bernard Pietenpol taught himself how to repair televisions and radios. By 1960, Chevrolet introduced the six cylinder air-cooled Chevrolet Corvair. This would be the last engine Bernard would experiment with in powering his Air Camper. In 1966 Bernard completed his first Corvair powered Air Camper, then another in 1970 which was dubbed "the Last Original". By then, plans for Pietenpol's have been sold all over the world including Canada, England, Europe, Australia, and Africa.

As time went by, the aviation world recognized all the contributions that Bernard Pietenpol had made not just to the homebuilt aircraft industry, but to aviation in general. In 1991 (seven years after his death), Pietenpol was inducted into Minnesota's Aviation Hall of Fame, and is today nationally recognized as "The Father of the Homebuilt Aircraft".

Eventually, the two original hangars at Pietenpol's field at Cherry Grove, Minnesota, were moved to other historic preservation sites: one to the Fillmore County Historical Center in Fountain, MN and the other to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Whittman Field at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Today the Pietenpol legacy continues as Bernard Pietenpol's grandson, Andrew Pietenpol, continues to provide Pietenpol Air Camper and Sky Scout blueprints, builders manuals, aircraft kit sales, and technical support to enthusiasts who want to try their hand in building one.

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Bernard Pietenpol's dream continues, and inspires a whole new generation to dream, too.

Special Note: For a time Andrew Pietenpol flew the last Air Camper Bernard Pietenpol ever built (NX899H). Today Andrew Pietenpol has renovated the Bernard Pietenpol Cherry Grove Pietenpol Field & Workshop. Andrew continues following in the foot path of his grandfather Bernard Pietenpol building and flying Air Campers on the same 1400' airstrip. The Pietenpol Family has come full circle with Andrew Pietenpol proudly paralleling the life of his admired grandfather Bernard Pietenpol.

(Thoughts from Bernard Pietenpol's grandson Andrew Pietenpol regarding his grandfather's philosophy)

His philosophy was he wanted to design an airplane out of common parts that a common man could afford and build. You made good with what you had, and if you didn't have it, you made it, and that's essentially what he did with his airplanes.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
A Pietenpol Air Camper is a plane my grandfather Bernard H. Pietenpol designed. It is more of a memory than it is a plane for me. Bernard passed away when I was in college in 1984. Bernard gave a lot of people enjoyment! He gave a lot of rides, and people got to experience their first airplane ride through his generosity. He would many times after church on Sundays give free rides. People from all over the community would show up at his airstrip in Cherry Grove, Minnesota. Bernard would load people in and out of his Air Camper flying them up - around - and then down. He did this over and over for 60 years. Some of those people were inspired to become pilots and build their own plane. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from my father and grandfather. Life is a full circle and it's just coming back around.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol (Bernard's Son)
I grew up looking out our window looking into the yard and seeing an airplane my dad had built. I was around airplanes since I was 3 years old and thinking nothing of it.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
He'd leave a plane out in the front in case someone had to go to the hospital.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
If somebody got sick in Cherry Grove and there's 12 miles of snow, my dad would go in the shop and pour hot oil on the engine, hot Prestone in the radiator, start the engine and fly them to the doctor.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
I can't tell you how many times a person has come up to me in Fillmore County and said I got my first ride in a plane with your grandfather and it was just wonderful!

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
I've asked my father sometimes in years past, how did you know how to do this? How did you know how to build an airplane? And his answer to me was always the same. I always knew how.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
Bernard had to teach himself how to fly. No one could teach him.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
He didn't study. He didn't go to school for it. He didn't buy books for it. He just sat down with a piece of paper. All of these things are hand done, hand built. All put together and they all fit. It's just one of those phenomenal things that happen, I guess.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
I think he just got out there and made the mistakes and if he messed something up he fixed it and eventually he figured it out.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
My dad said; "I found out that if I wanted to make the nose of the airplane to go down I could stick both hands and arms out and the nose would go over. If I wanted to climb I found out I could take my helmet off and put it over the over the trailing edge of the airplane and the airplane would climb". My dad said; "I didn't know how to fly, but my airplanes did". Back in the 1930's factory built aircraft were very expensive and people had no money. Owning and flying your own airplane was totally beyond anyone's dream back in the thirties. Then came out an airplane that somebody could build themselves with parts obtained just by going down to the hardware store. That's just what we needed back in the depression years. And he actually took a piece of black walnut out of a log and whittled a propeller out of it.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
Back then (1932) the editor of Modern Mechanics magazine made a statement that an airplane couldn't fly with an automobile engine. So my dad wrote him a letter. And he says automobile engines do fly, in fact I have two of them flying right now. When the editor wrote back he says O.K., prove it. Fly em up here, I want to see em. So they flew two airplanes up there and the editor of Popular Mechanics was so impressed he said draw the plans - I'll publish it. So that started the whole series in Modern Mechanics magazine. That was the beginning of it. And the plans were seven dollars and fifty cents. I know before WWII that he had sent out over six thousand sets of plans.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
During WWII, Bernard Pietenpol ended up in the civilian pilot training program. With his knowledge of airplanes, he taught young pilots basic flight lessons and how to fix planes.

Thoughts from Donald Pietenpol
So he spent his years, the war years down there. Patriotism was a little different then. Everybody wanted a job that did something to shorten the war, to do a good job for the country. That was part of the backbone of the people in those days. It runs in the genes, I'm certain it does! My dad flew, my brother flew in WWII, I fly, my son flies. (Three generations of Flying Pietenpol pilots - sort of cool!)

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
As a kid I grew up here on Pietenpol Field spending lots of time with my grandfather Bernard Pietenpol. Together we would build airplane parts for my future Air Camper. Mostly Air Camper ribs. Today I have fond memories. Since 2004 I have been working hard on a dream I have had since 4 years of age. From age 4 on I have communicated to everyone that would listen to me including resident pocket gophers, mice, snakes, and toads that I would return to my grandfather's field and honor my grandfather Bernard Pietenpol and father Donald Pietenpol by carrying on what was started over 85 years ago. I have built on "Pietenpol Field" an airplane hangar, and a house that is of the same exact size and footprint as the original hangar and house. Happily I can say today I use "Pietenpol Field" just like Bernard and Don did building Air Campers, flying planes, and best of all doing what I do best "putz around" (I am a putzer first and foremost on all things mechanical, electrical, or computer powered). Cutting lots of airstrip grass, trapping those pesky pocket gophers is also a carryover experience that is hard work, but worth all those hours of loving labor.

Thoughts from Andrew Pietenpol
The fly-in at Brodhead, WI happens once a year. It is a bunch of Pietenpol enthusiasts! It's a great opportunity for everybody to compare notes as to how they built their airplane. Every Pietenpol here is different. Everybody puts his or her own signature on the airplane when they build it. It's a plans built airplane. And we have a saying here at Brodhead. That the people come here for the first time to see the airplanes, and they come back because of the people. It's a pretty good size gathering. You don't see these people walking around with a glum look on their face. They've got something that really gets their attention. They come from all over the country here to find out how to build a Pietenpol. If you have a genuine interest in Pietenpol Aircraft I would suggest you join the Brodhead Pietenpol Association.  The Brodhead Pietenpol Association is a "Type-Club" for owners, pilots, builders, and simply aficionados of the ubiquitous Pietenpol aircraft design. I have included a link to this fine organization.  Please feel free to visit and learn more about Pietenpol Aircraft! Please click on the following link >>> Brodhead Pietenpol Association <<<

Awards Given Bernard Pietenpol

  • 1972 > Raspet Memorial Award for - Outstanding contribution to the advancement of light aircraft design

  • 1975 > Honored for being considered one of the - Greats of Aviation (at Oshkosh, WI. ceremony)

  • 1975 > Awarded EAA trophy for - Best auto engine powered aircraft (at Oshkosh, WI. ceremony)

  • 1978 > The aviation community honored Bernard Pietenpol recognizing 50 years of designing and flying

  • 1982 > Spring Valley MN honored Bernard Pietenpol in the 4th of July parade as - Citizen of the year

  • 1990 > Inducted into Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame for - Enhancing the aviation climate in Minnesota.

  • 2007 > Documentary film "Finding Flight" by Jesse Roesler and Jen Larson - During the Great Depression, Bernard H. Pietenpol, with no more than an eighth-grade education, designed a "common man's airplane" built with hardware store parts.


Today his son and grandson carry on his legacy, and his simple design enjoys a popular following among people of all ages who share his dream of flight. Award Winning - Unbelievably Great Film!!!

Special Notes

1932 Sky Scout - Model A Ford powered - N1932A is on display at the Fillmore County Historical Museum at Fountain, MN 55935. Fountain is located next to highway 52 south of Rochester, MN. - 10th aircraft Bernard built.

The following two Air Campers are on display in the EAA museum at Whittman Field, Oshkosh, WI.

1932 Air Camper - Model A Ford powered (N12937) - 12th aircraft Bernard built.

1964 Air Camper - 1st to be powered by a Chevrolet Corvair engine (N7533U) - 22nd aircraft Bernard built.

Original Pietenpol Air Camper Specifications:

(Two seat Airplane)(below)

Wing Span 28' 2"ft.
Wing Chord 5 ft Wing Surface 140 sq ft Length 17 ft. 8 in.
Height Overall 6 ft. 6 in.
Tread 53 in.
Empty Weight 625 lb.
Engine Ford A, 65-85 Cont.,Subaru,Jabaru, other Useful Load 456 lb.(Psngr,Gas,Water Baggage).
Climb Light Load over 500 ft. first min.
Climb Full Load over 200 ft. first min.
Take-Off Speed 60-75 mph.
High Speed 90 mph.
Landing Speed 35 mph.
Fuel Capacity 10-18 gal.
Take-off Run 150 ft.
Landing Run 250 ft.
Weight of Wing, Complete 95 lbs.
Weight of Body, Complete 130 lbs.
Weight of Motor with Magneto, Complete 244 lbs.
Weight of Radiator 21 lbs. Weight of Propeller 21 lbs. Total Weight of Airplane with Water 625 lbs.
Gross Load 1080 lbs.
Load per Square Foot 7.7 lbs.

The Model A powered Air Camper shown below (color photos) N26VK was completed in 2012 by Vitalis Kapler (age 85) of Rochester, MN. In 1972, Vitalis began a business partnership / friendship with Bernard Pietenpol. Vitalis built his Air Camper with the express intent to produce an exact replica of the original. Vitalis's Air Camper weighs within an ounce of the original aircraft Bernard Pietenpol built. Andrew Pietenpol feels that Vitalis's Air Camper stands out to be one of the best examples of his grandfather's 1929 design.

Original 1928 Pietenpol Sky Scout Specifications:

(Single seat Airplane, below)


High Speed 62 mph.
Cruise Speed 55 mph.
Landing Speed 35 mph.
Take-off Run 150 ft.
Landing Run 250 ft.
Climb Light Load over 500 ft. first min.
Climb Full Load over 200ft. first min.
Wing Span 27 ft. 3 in.
Wing Chord 5 ft. Length 16 ft. 3in.
Weight 610lbs.
Useful load: 267 lbs. (Person plus gasoline)


The Pietenpol Sky Scout is a little less in length than it's bigger brother the Pietenpol Air Camper. It is a single-place airplane designed in the 1920s by Bernard Pietenpol. The Pietenpol Sky Scout is very like the Pietenpol Air Camper but with a single seat for the pilot and a unique dampening landing gear. The Pietenpol Sky Scout uses many of the same Air Camper parts.

The Pietenpol Sky Scout was designed and intended for easy inexpensive home construction and to be built from readily-available materials. Wood, fabric, a used Ford Model T or Model A engine was needed. Fewer metal parts and even less minimal welding is required than that of the Pietenpol Air Camper.

Fewer Pietenpol Sky Scouts were built in the 1920's - 40's as it was overshadowed by the two-place Pietenpol Air Camper. The same still holds true today. Bernard Pietenpol designs remain popular today! The Pietenpol Sky Scout continues to be a successful design for the same reasons homebuilders were so fascinated by the design over 85 years ago.

The Pietenpol Sky Scout still has graceful styling, still has those predictable easy flying qualities, still easy construction, and finally still an inexpensive way to fly (Extremely rugged)! The Pietenpol Sky Scout today is the ultimate one man Bush Plane!!! Good/ Great for Barnstorming! 


Please go to the "Historic Pietenpol Photo Gallery" on this website.  The collection of photos and documents represent only a small portion of my grandfathers personal photograph and document collection.  All of the photos belong to Bernard H. Pietenpol with the exception of a few newer color photos.  Most of the public including myself have never viewed these photos before. Many have been locked away for as many as 80 years.  Many are so old that all I had to work with was 5" x 7" glass plate negatives.  Using modern scanning technology I was able to create digital images of them.  Please enjoy them as much as I do!  I did the best I could. I will be continually adding more.  From the Pietenpol family to your family please enjoy! - Sincerely Andrew Pietenpol

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