One of the more interesting and entertaining stories of early aviation in Manitoba comes from Steinbach, where brothers-in-law Frank Sawatzky and William Wiebe started building their own Pietenpol Air Camper in January, 1932, and watched it fly successfully just over three months later.
Sawatzky saw his first airplane in 1920 at age 16 and was smitten. At the time, he and his family were living in Altona when a barnstormer landed at nearby Gretna and spent several days flying paying passengers around the area. On one landing, the pilot damaged his plane when it nicked the top of a parked car just before touching down. The pilot and aircraft were grounded for several days waiting for replacement parts from Winnipeg. Sawatzky seized the opportunity and went to watch the repairs. From then on Sawatzky collected every book and magazine on aviation he could afford and was determined to become a pilot. In fact, Sawatzky somehow managed to complete five hours of instruction; where he took these flying lessons and how he paid for them is not recorded anywhere.
At some point Sawatzky moved to Steinbach and courted Anne Friesen, the daughter of J.R. Friesen, a dealer in cars and farm machinery. Their courtship did not get off to a good start; Sawatzky said that at one point his future father-in-law forbade him from coming to the house, with the result that the couple continued their courtship elsewhere. Eventually the couple overcame Friesen’s concerns sufficiently to earn his blessing; Frank and Anne were married January 10, 1932.
Friesen’s other daughter, Marie, was married to Bill Wiebe, who was known as a mechanical wizard. Sawatzky convinced brother-in-law Bill that they had the combined skills to build their own airplane.
It is not entirely clear whether Sawatzky and Wiebe persuaded their father-in-law to bankroll their project or whether J.R. Friesen offered to fund the enterprise; in any case the elder Friesen was a willing partner. His decision to fund his sons-in-law was in keeping with his innovative spirit – he was the first person in Steinbach to buy an automobile (1912) and opened one of the first Ford rural dealerships in Canada (1914). His interest in new vehicles earned the disapproving notice of some Mennonite elders and, according to one report, led to a schism within the church.
Friesen sensed a potential business opportunity in the airplane building project of his sons-in-law. This was confirmed by Sawatzky in a July 22, 1986, Winnipeg Free Press article in which he provided this account of how he and Wiebe persuaded their mutual father-in-law to bankroll their project: “Look at the advantage you have. Here’s an airplane that is powered with a Model A car engine. If you could tell your customers that this engine will also fly an airplane, you’re going to be ahead of your competitors.”
Friesen was persuaded. In addition to the publicity value arising from the use of a Ford engine in the airplane he also envisaged an airplane building and sales venture headed by his sons-in-law.
Sawatzky (now aged 27) and Wiebe began building their airplane about a week after Frank’s marriage to Anne. They used a machine shop their father-in-law owned and was renting to another mechanic on Steinbach’s Main Street. One drawback to their location was that it was much too easy for the curious to drop in to “monitor” the project. In order to meet their self-imposed spring completion deadline, Sawatzky and Wiebe were forced to lock the doors and paper the windows to shut out curious eyes, a move that only fueled rumours but also enhanced the mystical aura surrounding their project.
Townspeople considered the Sawatzky and Wiebe project foolish and predicted failure. At one point Wiebe was visited by his Mennonite pastor who, Bible in hand, asked what scripture passages to read at his funeral, an event the pastor genuinely expected; years later this same pastor asked Wiebe for an airplane ride. In Steinbach where devout Mennonites spoke German, another minister described the Sawatzky/Wiebe project as “fluchzeug,” using the German word for “curse” instead of the German word for airplane, “flugzeug.”
Where did they get their building plans? According to W.J. Friesen, a younger son of J.R. Friesen and therefore another brother-in-law to Sawatzky and Wiebe, the plans were published in Modern Mechanics Flying and Gliding. A website maintained by the Pietenpol family says that the magazine had a slightly different name, Modern Mechanics and Inventions Flying Manual, and that it serialized the Air Camper plans in four 1931 issues.
Sawatzky and Wiebe started their project only to discover that the illustrations in the magazine were abbreviated and not meant to be used for building a “real” airplane. In spite of the fact that the drawings were so small that they needed a magnifying glass, they were able to determine the basic dimensions of fuselage and wings and also draw up a list of materials.
With their natural flair for anything mechanical, Sawatzky and Wiebe fabricated everything in their shop. The limitations arising from the magazine’s incomplete plans were partly made up by their imaginative and intuitive interpretation of the information that was there and with trips to Stevenson Field in Winnipeg where they discussed their problems with “real” mechanics.
Sawatzky and Wiebe incorporated the following into their Pietenpol: an airspeed indicator fashioned from a coil spring and a piece of tin; a tachometer built by modifying an automobile speedometer; an engine from a Model A Ford that was given a power upgrade by fitting it with a high compression aluminum head; a radiator from a Fordson tractor; and wheels from
There were items that neither Sawatzky nor Wiebe could build; for example, the Irish linen to cover the fuselage and wings, and acetone. The metal propeller was purchased from Bernard Pietenpol in Minnesota, the designer of the Air Camper; this purchase is the only known contact between Pietenpol and the Steinbach builders.
In total, Sawatzky and Wiebe spent $375 to build their Pietenpol Air Camper.
Getting off the ground
By April, 1932, the Pietenpol Air Camper was ready for inspection and two Department of Transport inspectors were, according to one account, “persuaded” to make the trip to Steinbach. The inspectors were not entirely supportive; one inspector wanted to reject the license application without completing the inspection, the other argued that they should do the inspection. In any case, the inspectors listed about 30 changes that would be required for certification. Many of these changes had the effect of making the Pietenpol heavier.
The Carillon News, a newspaper that is still published in Steinbach, published an article on the Pietenpol project in June 7, 1957. Wiebe is quoted as saying “At that time the government was trying to discourage the makers of homebuilt airplanes. They [the inspectors] wanted to make it so heavy it wouldn’t fly. But we just souped up the motor some more so it would fly anyhow.”
In the end, only one of the inspectors signed the certificate of registration, which included a diagonally typed notation across its centre reading: “registered but not passed as airworthy.” Why the Pietenpol was registered but not declared airworthy is not explained anywhere. Nevertheless, Sawatzky and Wiebe took this as sufficient official blessing to plan the inaugural flight. The certificate of registration for CF-ASP was dated April 22, 1932. Its maiden flight was planned for May, 2, 1932, nine days later.
But W.J. Friesen says that Sawatzky and Wiebe attempted a secret test flight of their own. To avoid problems with crowd control as well as embarrassment in case the Air Camper refused to lift off, they snuck out at suppertime hoping that the townspeople would be too busy eating to notice. By the time they finished towing their Pietenpol down Main Street to a somewhat stony pasture on the eastern edge of Steinbach, onlookers were already on hand to witness the flight.
W.J. Friesen in his account wrote that with Wiebe’s concurrence and “with more hubris than prudence” Sawatzky decided he would be the first person to fly the Pietenpol. He still didn’t have a pilot’s license.
Their flight plan failed. According to Friesen the airplane “struck a rock on takeoff and now lay motionless with its nose to the ground and tail in the air… Later inspection revealed surprisingly little damage to the fuselage, but the propeller was bent beyond repair.” The airplane was loaded on a truck and taken back to its hangar.
Unable to afford a new metal propeller, Sawatzky and Wiebe promptly decided to make their own replacement. They were helped by the local high school principal, who happened to be a graduate engineer and who provided them with the necessary profile. Using laminated birch and mahogany planks, they ended up with a finished propeller that with its two-toned wood grain hue was more in character with the rest of the Pietenpol than the original. This replacement was completed by May 2.
Sawatzky and Wiebe now prudently recognized that the inaugural flight of CF-ASP required a real pilot.
Who was the first pilot? All published accounts say it was Frank Brown. The 1986 Free Press article described him as “a First World War pilot who hadn’t flown in 14 years” but who was eager to take the plane aloft. The June 7, 1957, article in the Carillon News also described Brown as a salesman for the Goodrich Rubber Company. Another account says he was a director of the Winnipeg Light Aeroplane Club.
On May 2, Steinbach businesses closed their doors, farmers abandoned their chores, and the schools went into an extended “recess” so the community could witness the flight of Pietenpol CF-ASP. The airfield this time would still be a pasture, but one better suited to their endeavour.
The pilot, however, did not show up as scheduled.
While they waited, Wiebe and Sawatzky gave their airplane a final inspection. Hours passed before someone finally made a long-distance telephone call to Brown’s home in Winnipeg; his wife said he had gone “into the country” without saying where.
Brown finally arrived. The 1986 Free Press article quotes Sawatzky on the pilot’s arrival: “He looked the thing over and got in. He was a tall, slim man and he didn’t fit into the cockpit very well. His head was almost to the wing. So he buckled himself in, taxied around the field, jumped it off a bit, and taxied back again and then said: ‘I think the thing will fly.’” Brown also expressed some concern about the telephone wires at the end of his runway.
When it became clear that the big moment was close at hand, “the fields of people were as silent as hay,” as attention focussed on the Pietenpol as it rolled, accelerated, and finally soared over the telephone lines with about 18 feet to spare. One account of the flight said spectators then watched the airplane “gracefully bank, dive, and climb above their heads.”
Brown circled the town and on landing said “it lands like a bag of potatoes!” Brown completed two more circuits over the town, reaching an altitude of 500 feet and an airspeed of 75 mph.
According to the 1986 Free Press article, Sawatzky and Wiebe were enormously pleased with their achievement. So was the town, as evidenced by a story in another local paper, the Steinbach Post, which referred to the airplane as
In another profile on Sawatzky and Wiebe that was written by Mavis Reimer in the December, 1984, edition of the Mennonite Mirror, no mention is made of the secretive first-flight mishap. Her article instead says that after the Pietenpol’s May 2 inaugural flight, “Frank Sawatzky decided it was time to learn to fly. He paid for a two-hour session in a Gypsy Moth… Although 12 hours was usually considered a minimum requirement for a maiden solo flight, Frank was convinced after just two hours that he would be able to manage his Pietenpol.”
Sawatzky got his flying license in July, 1932, about two months after its first successful flight. Steinbach again turned out to watch the Pietenpol soar over the town, only to see Sawatzky’s takeoff run end ingloriously – the flying machine tripped on a cow path in the pasture he was using as his airfield and was upended on its nose. In contrast to Brown’s May 2 exhibition, which was a “glorious vindication of Frank’s and Bill’s audacity and tenacity” this was “quite a disgrace.”
Reimer says that the purchased metal propeller was damaged beyond use and says that Sawatzky and Wiebe set out to make a replacement. Her account of how they did this differs from the W.J. Friesen version. She writes the “two men had heard from other airmen that propellers had a notoriously short lifespan and had taken the precaution of drawing a profile;” no reference is made to assistance from the local school principal.
CF-ASP was one of the airplanes included in the 1932 Manitoba Goodwill Air Tour. The Pietenpol did not complete the 12-day tour, possibly as a result of a propeller change. The following year, CF-ASP joined another Manitoba Goodwill Air Tour that began in Steinbach. Even though it was supposed to be illegal to carry paying passengers, CF-ASP’s owners got around this limitation by selling packages of chewing gum in exchange for a “free” flight.
There is no official record in the Canadian civil aircraft record to say when CF-ASP was withdrawn from service. But Frank Sawatzky in an undated speech said that “after flying it until about 1936, we dismantled it because of glue failure due to being stored in the open. Spud Skelton of Carman, Manitoba, bought the fuselage in 1939, while the wing was burned up when Mr. Friesen’s garage was destroyed by fire in 1940.”
Bill Wiebe also earned his pilot’s license, but the date is unknown.
Sawatzky and Wiebe built two other airplanes: a Corben Junior Ace, that was registered as CF-AVP in 1934 and withdrawn from use in 1941; and another Pietenpol Air Camper that was registered as CF-AMV in 1934; this airplane burned in a Winnipeg fire in 1958.
The Pietenpol project never did evolve into a business opportunity for J.R. Friesen, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. After the successful flight of CF-ASP, Friesen circulated advertisements about the Pietenpol that concluded with the line, “We build this plane or any part thereof.”
In the late 1930s, Sawatzky and Wiebe turned their attention to snowplanes. Having heard that airplane engines and propellers could power ski-equipped vehicles they were determined to build their own. They built 13 snowplanes that proved their worth in the Steinbach region rescuing rural residents from typical winter perils in areas where roads were not routinely cleared in winter.
Frank Sawatzky moved to Winnipeg where, in 1953, he established the construction firm, F.W. Sawatzky Ltd., a firm that has since evolved into the FWS Group. He died in 1999.
Bill Wiebe established a sign-painting business and also operated a mink and fox farm in the Steinbach area; he retired to Winnipeg.
Acknowledgement of sources
Three photographs came from the Mennonite Village Museum in Steinbach and a fourth from the museum’s own archives.
We’re Flying, written by W.J. Friesen, is an undated memoir of the Pietenpol project and the two Steinbach builders, Frank Sawatzky and Bill Wiebe, who were also his brothers-in-law; a copy is in the museum library. Also in the library is an undated copy of a speech on homebuilt airplanes by Frank Swatzky; the occasion for the speech is also not noted in the manuscript but it is reasonable to assume that it was an event sponsored by the museum.
Additional sources were: Mennonite Mirror, December, 1984; the Carillon, June 7, 1957, and September 13, 1972; the book, Reflections on our Heritage: A History of Steinbach and the R.M. of Hanover, published in 1971; and The Winnipeg Free Press, July 22, 1986.
This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2016 edition of Altitude.