by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2017 issue
Bill Brennand, 92, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, circled his last earthly pylon on March 14, 2017. Bill was a legend in air racing during its golden years, and won the national air races several times in the 1940s flying Steve Wittman’s “Buster” to fame. Buster is currently displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. He also raced planes built by Curtis Pitts.
I am writing this article because Bill was my first flight instructor, and he soloed me in a Champ in 1965 while I was a sophomore in high school. When I first met Bill as a teenager, he was living in a house that he was born in and which happened to be the same house as my great-grandmother had been born in. The house was built by my great great-grandparents in the 1870s after they settled as immigrants.
Bill was a neighbor to his brother, George Brennand, who lived on Oregon Street Road at the intersection with Ripple Road. Turning west from Oregon Street Road onto Ripple Road was a private airport known as Brennand Airport. Bill started a flight school and an aircraft sales business out of this grass strip, and there were more than a dozen aircraft based there with a shop and a Quonset storage hangar. As an early teenage boy, I would ride my bicycle the three miles to watch the activity at Brennand Airport as I felt less intimidated there than at the municipal airport in Oshkosh, which was only a few blocks from my house.
I got my first airplane ride with Steve Wittman himself in a Cessna 172, and knew then that I was destined to learn to fly.
Being a bit on the shy side, I felt intimidated talking to the pilots, but one day I asked a pilot at the airport about flying lessons. The pilot’s name was Byron Fredrickson, who was a lifelong friend and business associate of Bill Brennand. Byron took me into the office and introduced me to Bill where I found out it took 40 hours of flight time to get a private pilot certificate, and the airplane cost $6 an hour including fuel, and plus $6 an hour for instruction in a Champ. I lived on the poor side of the tracks and that was a lot of money back then. When I mentioned my desire to learn to fly at the dinner table, my mother said, “you crazy kid…where do you think we will get that kind of money; we barely have enough money for food.”
On my next trip to the Brennand Airport, Bill asked me when I planned on starting flying lessons. My response was, “I can’t do it because I can’t afford it.” Bill then offered me a part-time job to offset the cost of flying lessons. He paid me $1.20 per hour, so 10 hours of work got me one hour of dual instruction. I also worked as a stock boy at a store in downtown Oshkosh where I made $1.10 per hour, and that money went to the family for food. I changed a lot of oil, washed a lot of airplanes, and assisted Jack Wojohn, the mechanic, with dope and fabric work.
Bill was a soft-spoken man, but when he said something, you listened. One of his favorite expressions was the use of the word “we.” He would often say, “Today, we will need to wash the airplane, clean the belly and get it gassed up.” The word “WE” meant “YOU,” or in my case “ME.” After a lot of hard work and eight hours and 20 minutes of flight time, working to perfect takeoffs and landings, Bill told me to stop the airplane so he could get out. “Take it around by yourself for three takeoffs and landings. You will notice that it will get off the ground quicker, climb faster and float more on landing.” He then walked away, leaving the plane all to myself to do my first solo. A momentous experience all aviators never forget.
As a high school senior, I got my pilot certificate, and no one in my family knew I was learning to fly until I passed my flight test. In the late 1960s, the county decided to expand the north/south runway at the Oshkosh airport and purchased Brennand Airport. The airport moved to Neenah where it still operates today with the Brennand name.
I could write a book on my friendship with Bill Brennand, but for now, I will share a few of my most memorable experiences.
Bill was giving me a check out in a late model Skyhawk, and we were doing some takeoffs and landings at Winnebago County Airport. There was airline traffic operating out of the airport at the time, and jet service had recently been inaugurated at the airport. In those days, the term “wake turbulence” had not yet been coined; rather, it was called prop-wash or jet-wash.
We had just taken off behind a jet airliner, and the Skyhawk started rolling hard to the left. I had almost full right aileron when Bill calmly said, “it’s my airplane” as he took the controls, and we did a complete roll to the left about 100 feet off the ground.
Another memorable moment came when I was practicing for a flour-bombing contest in Fond du Lac and one of the local instructors, Otis Bittorf, challenged me to drop a flour bomb with the target being the center of the ramp. Not thinking, I got in my Aeronca Defender with bombardier, Steve Adams. There was no flour around, so we made the bomb out of a bag of sand, gravel and rocks. We missed the center of the ramp, but hit a Stinson parked near the ramp. Upon landing, Bill was looking at the damage to the Stinson. He never said a word, but shook his head. The next trip to the airport, I found that the tie-down ropes on my airplane were replaced with a heavy log chain and a padlock. I never made the flour-bombing contest, but learned a lesson to think before doing something stupid.
I saw Bill at the EAA seaplane base last summer; the base is named in Bill’s honor as he once owned it and I was the kid who cut the grass there.
Bill published a book and made a DVD with some of his movies and memories. His book is entitled “Bill Brennand – Air Racing and Other Adventures” by Jim Cunningham. To purchase a copy, mail check or money order to Airship International Press, P.O. Box 1543, Bloomington, Illinois 61702-1543, or call 309-827-8039: $28.95 softbound or $33.95 hardcover.
So long, my friend!