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Sharing a passion for flight

Josh Brownell with Gypsy Air Tours flies his 1930 Waco Taperwing biplane over th

Passengers climbing down from an open-cockpit ride in a biplane at the American Barnstormers Tour in Brainerd shared a similar reaction — “what a rush.”

Windblown, they were able to feel the pull of the freedom of the skies that helped propel the country to flight.

Aircraft from the 1920s and 1930s, complete with pilots and volunteers in period costume, are on display through Tuesday at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, along with the biplane rides.

Sunday began the first day of the tour. Costumed pilots, red, white and blue bunting, food booths with burgers and brats cooking on a grill and the Cuyuna Range Community Band all combined to create a festival atmosphere. And that was all before reaching colorful biplanes, vintage cars and a display of airport equipment along with State Patrol and North Memorial Aircare helicopters.

For Jerry Engelbrecht, rural Brainerd, flying was as much a part of his rural Minnesota upbringing as learning to drive a tractor and a truck. He flew in Vietnam and later for the Department of Natural Resources. He once took a float plane to the Arctic Ocean for a television shoot.

“I still do a little flying — from sitting on my father’s lap to now, just flying for enjoyment,” Engelbrecht said.

He said the fascination with planes comes from a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s a sense of freedom you get when you fly above the ground,” Engelbrecht said. “A different perspective. You are always refreshed when you get back on the ground. Freedom — it’s a nice feeling.”

That fascination with flight and a sense of shared camaraderie was evident Sunday as people who just like looking at planes shared the tarmac with experienced pilots and plane builders.

Howard Pihlaja, a former military and Northwest Airlines pilot, served as a volunteer. Engelbrecht and Pihlaja said they were both too young and too old for the open-seat era in its heyday and now with vintage fly-ins.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Pihlaja said. “It brings back the original nostalgia, the romance of air flying. It isn’t often to see the airplanes of this vintage. This is a fantastic opportunity, not only for this airport but for the community in general.”

California-based Eric Presten, pilot, plane builder and author of “Vintage Flyers” guidebooks, said being part of the tour is a fun way to share the passion for planes with others. Presten used to fly in Alaska and more recently has worked with planes in movies, flying with Hilary Swank and Richard Gere in 2009’s “Amelia” and put together planes and served as an instructor for the 2006 movie “Flyboys.”

Visitors looking at Presten’s replica of a Bleriot Monoplane, which tops out at 45 mph and stalls at 23 mph, viewed the exposed fuselage in front of the tail and jokingly asked if he ran out of money. The plane, based on an early pioneer era airplane, looked as though the Wright brothers would have been comfortable with it. It’s not a plane that does well with wind of any kind, Presten said.

Presten was quick to engage people in conversation as they passed his monoplane.

“It’s fascinating the people you meet on this tour,” he said. For a pilot who travels a lot, a memorable conversation for Presten came in Kansas when he met a man in his 80s who had only been out of the county where he was raised just once when he drove to Wichita.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Presten said. “That’s the best part — the people.”

The tours, which are free to the public to attend, make it a family friendly and affordable event, Presten said, while the biplane flights give people a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in an open-cockpit.

Al Leonard, Baxter, learned how to fly and took his solo flight after seven days when he was 17 and on leave from the Navy. He rebuilt wrecks and owned 26 different planes in his 60 years of flying.

“I like them all,” he said, paging through Presten’s book of vintage aircraft. The attraction of flying? “It’s peaceful,” he said.

Colette Christiansen and her husband Dave, Pillager, don’t fly much, but said curiosity brought them to see the biplanes, vintage craft and air-ambulance helicopter.

“This is awesome, great day, great weather,” Colette Christiansen said. “I’m glad we came out. It’s good all the way around.”

“I think everyone wants to fly,” said Jim Whiting, retired banker, pilot and photographer. Whiting had a photo area set up in front of a 1946 Fairchild complete with flight helmet and silk scarf and a print station back in a hanger where the photos were printed, matted and displayed in a vintage look in the airport terminal.

Open-air trams transported people from a parking area to the plane display by the hangars. A flat tire on one of the trams appeared to be the hiccup of the day.

Gary Lust, Iowa City, pilot of a 1929 Travel aircraft, used to be a wildlife research pilot in the northern Rockies. His open-cockpit plane has a cruise speed of 95 mph. “I’ve been interested in airplanes as long as I can remember,” Lust said. The fly-ins, he said, are a good excuse to go flying. Pilots often have an attraction for other fast modes of transportation, in motorcycles and cars.

“Go fast and make noise,” Lust said. “As I tell my grandson — anything to make the trees blur.”

For his wife, Sharon, the American Barnstormers Tour, offers a chance for vintage aircraft enthusiasts to share stories and help each other.

“We share the same interest, keeping these antiques flying,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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