By Jerome Behm
I cannot remember a time in my life when the sky did not beckon me. Neither can I remember a time when I was not mesmerized by the science of pinwheels, wind mills, fans, weather vanes, windsocks, and propellers. Just the sight of any of these things has always held my interest and imagination captive. Airplanes held even more fascination for me growing up, as I would eagerly watch them until they disappeared from my view.
I distinctly remember at about three years old, I asked my dad why birds did this – and then I stretched out my arms to imitate their effortless gliding through the air. I imagine my dad was quite tired of my endless questions and he simply answered, “Because they see airplanes doing that.” At the time I was completely satisfied by that answer, while looking back it today it makes me chuckle.
As a child, I promised myself I would someday be a pilot. I didn’t know how I would accomplish this goal, but I knew I would do it. I was never a stranger to hard work and determination, and have always lived my life on challenges. My dad used to say that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this case it applied to my dreams of aviation too.
I did not tell anyone about my lofty dreams and goals, as I did not want to hear anyone say that I couldn’t do it or that I wasn’t smart enough. This dream remained a very guarded secret I kept hidden for many, many years. I never even told my parents about it, but I am sure they knew aviation fascinated me.
While studying the Diesel Maintenance program at the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) after high school, I wandered down to the Wahpeton Airport one day. There I found two men in the wood quonset, where one was spraying lacquer on the wings of a Piper J-3 Cub as the other fellow watched. The man spraying lacquer was Edwin Littke of Littke Aircraft Service, a man of few words. The other man was Ralph Moes, the self-designated airport manager who happily answered all of my many questions. I told these fellows that I would like to get a job working at the airport.
Edwin Littke finally spoke and said to me, “Well, I don’t think this is a very good deal. First of all, I can see that you are young and you probably don’t have any experience with aircraft maintenance. You should have a mentor to work with in that case. Secondly, I am a teacher at the NDSCS and I wouldn’t be here during the week to be able to work with you. It just doesn’t look like a good deal to me”. I had everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose, so I quickly responded, “Well, this looks like a very good deal to me. I am a NDSCS student and wouldn’t be able to be here during school hours everyday, but I would be able to work after school and on weekends. Besides, I am willing to work for nothing in order to learn a little bit about flying!” Ed Littke stopped spraying lacquer immediately, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I can always use some help like that!” Without hesitation, I picked up a broom and started sweeping his shop.
Today, when people ask me how I started flying I always tell them it was with a broom in my hands. I worked approximately 40 hours per week as a student, but it was a glorious time in my life and I was always in seventh heaven while working in that airport maintenance shop. It was while working for Edwin Littke that the late Gerald Beck of Tri-State Aviation at Wahpeton also received the modest start of his aviation career. Gerry and I were the best of friends and had great respect for one another.
I worked for Ed both years I was in school in Wahpeton, with my salary being only what I learned on the job. All of the businessmen and local Wahpeton pilots at the airport knew me as the “kid who worked for Littke and who wanted to fly”. The moral support in that atmosphere was immeasurable, and I received lots of rides and encouragement. Ed gave me dual flight time in John Wicklein’s Super Cub, though he wasn’t a flight instructor, and taught me so much about airplanes and flying.
On March 17, 1967, I made my first solo flight in a Piper J-3 Cub with Orvin Sanden from Wyndmere as my flight instructor. I slowly progressed, and with financial help from a couple of the local guys I was able to pay for a ground school course, held at the Fergus Falls Airport. I didn’t have transportation of my own to make the bi-weekly trip to Fergus Falls, MN, so Bryce Smith of Smith Motors, Inc. and his wife Murl offered me the opportunity to ride with them in the evenings for the duration of the training course. Bryce had been a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II and his wife and son Buzzy were also taking the ground school course. He was a prominent car dealer in Wahpeton and owned a new Mooney Executive 21. In all of those trips to Fergus Falls, I never rode in anything less than a brand new Oldsmobile or Cadillac.
In my second year in Wahpeton, Ed bought a run-down 1946 Aeronca 7CCM Champ and we rebuilt it during the school year. By April, it was airworthy and I was building flight time in the early mornings and in the evenings after school. By this time, Mel Wefel from Wefel Flying Service was back at the airport and was doing flight instruction and aerial spraying. Mel had two new Piper Cherokee 140’s and helped me prepare for my private pilot check ride, which I received from Joe Devorak at Fergus Falls, MN, on April 5, 1969. I was 21 years old and made a deal that same day to buy a 1939 Piper J-3 Cub Sport. I owned an airplane before I ever owned a car, which is certainly not a statement that a lot of people can make.
The U.S. Army intervened and I sold the J-3 before entering active duty. Aviation was still my main interest and I was able to find Army training which qualified me as a crew chief and door gunner on the “Charlie” model Hueys. I had always wanted to be an army aviator, for which I needed to become a commissioned officer, so I applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was accepted. I started with 39 prospective officer candidates in my class, of which there were only 13 of us remaining at graduation. I was 26 years old when I became a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant, and was proud that I’d proved to myself I had what it took to be a leader of men.
After my time as an Army Aviator, I returned to the farm in North Dakota and continued to add ratings and build my experience – from county weed control to even flying for a movie documentary! All of these flights have been very rewarding and have allowed me the opportunity to use my skills in General Aviation (GA) to support the needs of agriculture and the local community. I have always made it my strictest duty to promote aviation safety in all areas and to favorably promote GA in as many ways as I possibly can. Whenever I have the opportunity to take someone along as my passenger, I want them to have a very favorable and safe experience. My hope is he or she will want to fly again and will tell others what a fun and memorable experience it was.
My Piper PA-12-150, “Mom’s Worry”, is still in the hangar on the farm and I fly it as often as possible. It underwent an extensive rebuild in 2010 and 2011, and is like a new airplane now but with many more modifications and changes than it had when it rolled off Piper’s assembly line in 1947. I often tell people that if I had lived my life without learning to fly, I would have lived my life in vain. It is always a joy to see the smiles on my passengers faces as they experience the exhilaration of flight.
As I look back on my 50 plus years of flying, I still think about being so reserved that I wouldn’t tell anyone during my formal schooling years of my dream to fly. That peer pressure vanished shortly after high school and I realized that if I didn’t accomplish my goals, I was the only one to be held accountable for the failure to do so. I came to understand that I was the only individual who could stand in my way. It was then that I assumed an assertive posture and attitude and used all of my talents and abilities to fulfill my dreams and goals. My involvement in aviation and learning to fly has been the most personally gratifying thing I have ever done with my life, and it has opened doors of opportunity and added joys that I never would have experienced otherwise.