Mustangs in the Great Plains

Flying across two-thirds of the U.S. in an old airplane can seem like crossing the Great Plains in a wagon train if the weather goes bad. It’s forever from home. However, the country can just as easily shrink to the size of the local park after landing in a strange place and meeting someone who feels like a good friend.

In July, my husband Tom and I flew our 1948 Cessna 170 from Truckee, Calif., (near Reno, Nev.) to Oshkosh for EAA’s annual AirVenture, an awesome gathering of 700,000 people and 10,000 airplanes. A trip to Wisconsin and back is always an adventure, mainly because we fly a 57-year-old airplane, exactly my age, which means it’s slow and, well, old.

After camping with other vintage aircraft owners for a week in Oshkosh, we departed for home with our second stop in Fergus Falls, Minn. We chose FFM because we had met Denny and Sharon Fuhrman over a picnic table at the Tall Pines Cafe on the field in Oshkosh. Denny flies many different airplanes, including a 180hp Citabria. He also manages the Fergus Falls Airport and kindly offered his FBO to change oil in the Cessna 170 on our return flight.

After Tom had done a run-up to check for oil leaks, we joined the Fuhrmans for great dinner at Mabel Murphy’s restaurant and spent our first night in over a week in a real bedroom with a real bathroom. The next morning, clouds still prevailed, but the weather briefer suggested a southwest route to avoid the approaching front. Within 15 minutes and 21 miles, we were back on the ground at the small airport in Wahpeton, No. Dak., on the Minnesota border.

After tying down, a slight man with tousle of graying hair under an orange cap approached us from a large hangar nearby. We told him we had come from Oshkosh and would be watching the weather, maybe grabbing a bite to eat. His name was Gerry Beck, and he invited us to his hangar after we’d checked the weather.

Within a half an hour of paging through computer weather maps and forecasts in the pilot’s lounge, we determined our fate was to be on the ground for at least a few hours. We had landed in Wahpeton in the past to visit Tom’s aunt and uncle who had lived there for 40 years. Both of us have relatives in southeast North Dakota, so spending some time in this peaceful farm country isn’t hard.

We walked over to the hangar to find Gerry, his wife Cindy, and a handful of technicians working on airplanes. Like so many hangars at small airports across the country, there were surprises inside. Gerry showed us his P-51 A-model Mustang that he’s building from the original plans and his restoration of the famous P-51 Red Tail Mustang, flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, which was damaged in a crash last year.

He took us to his second hangar where a 1930s-era Howard DGA and B-25 were waiting to be restored, overshadowing a Citabria and his favorite transportation airplane, an RV-4. Gerry told us, with passion in his voice, how he learned to tool parts for the Mustangs by teaching high school industrial arts and about the dozens of P-51s and beautiful F4U Corsair he repaired or restored over the years.

We went to lunch, Gerry, Cindy, Tom and I. We learned that they had moved their century-old Victorian house from Abercrombie, No. Dak., 20 miles away, to a site near the Wahpeton airport. Cindy told us about her custom woodworking business called Cinder Whit that replicates classic porch and staircase woodturnings using computer-driven machines developed and patented by Gerry.

When the weather looked unflyable for the rest of the afternoon, we called for a rental car. Cindy insisted that we cancel the delivery and join her and Gerry at their lake home for the evening. They eagerly finished up the day’s work as Tom and I gathered a few things from our airplane to take along. After a one-hour drive east, creating a 25-mile net loss in our day’s travel westward, we arrived at Battle Lake. A cooling swim was followed by a casual barbecue with their neighbors from down the street and more talk about airplanes.

The next morning, we moved our airplane out of the hangar after learning that a thunderstorm had dropped three inches of rain at the airport during the night. The Cessna 170 was dry and ready to fly. We said our goodbyes and preflighted the plane. Just as we were about to climb inside, Cindy came out of her office waving wildly. ‘A P-51 is about to arrive,’ she said.

We watched as their friend Hank Reichert made a low pass, thrilling us with that unmistakable Mustang roar, pulled up steeply, then returned to land and taxi up to the hangar. A retired physician, Dr. Reichert was obviously pleased to be flying ‘Gerry’s first masterpiece.’ He had hopped over from Bismarck to attend a board meeting of a group of business people, including Cindy Beck, promoting the use of corn-based ethanol fuel.

Tom and I had thought of Wahpeton only as a place where our relatives lived, aged and died. We have viewed North Dakota as a state where things are slow to change and reluctant to grow. We will see it differently now— a ‘goin’ place’ where people make old Mustangs look like new, create newel posts that look old, and think of corn as fuel instead of food.

We had unexpectedly landed in a small town, eager to get on our way, disappointed that bad weather was keeping us on the ground. In a short time, we went from a feeling that home was a half a world away to, yet again, being welcomed into aviation’s ‘brotherhood.’ During the next two days of flying west, we had time to think about our amazing luck at finding a silver lining in that lowering cloud.