How a Minnesota man won an airplane

The mission was clear: Quickly get to know a Litchfield, MN., resident I’d never met before, figure out a way to get into the passenger seat of his airplane on one particular Sunday when he might not be interested in flying and coordinate an air rendezvous with a refurbished 1963 Debonair airplane at which time Steve Lagergren, 43, would be told he had won the airplane.

The request came from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the largest association of general aviation pilots, of which Lagergren and I are both members.

Every year the AOPA rescues a down-on-its-luck airplane and extensively overhauls it over the course of a year and then awards it to one of its members. Lagergren was one of a million entrants for the prize.

But we didn’t want a run-of-the-mill surprise; we wanted to do something different. We wanted him to find out while he was flying his small airplane.

I didn’t really have an idea how to pull off an air-to-air surprise, but then I found that Lagergren built his own airplane — an RV-7, the same model I built.

Then I enlisted these people in the ruse — a small group of Twin Cities pilots who had built similar airplanes.

Bob Collins/MPR News

Out of the blue, I called Lagergren and told him our group throws a dart at a map of Minnesota each week, visits the airport and treats the people we find there to lunch. Lagergren, an engineer at Hutchinson Technology, warmed to the idea quickly and even suggested a short hop over to Winsted, Minnesota, home of an active parachuting squadron.

“Yahtzee!” I thought. While we’re at Winsted, the giveaway elves could swoop into his home airport in Litchfield.

But how to get into his passenger seat, from where I could shoot video and capture the moment of his surprise?

I told him that I’m not comfortable with landing an airplane on a grass strip (which I’m not) and since Winsted is a grass runway, I could fly with him instead.

The co-conspirators launched out of South St. Paul’s Fleming Field on Sunday morning at 10, about an hour after the AOPA crowd landed from an early morning flight from Frederick, Maryland, to Anoka, where they would wait for me to tell them we’d left the airport in Litchfield to fly over to Winsted and watch parachutists jump out of perfectly fine airplanes. Then they’d swoop in and transform the small airport into a real air show.

When our crew of six small planes landed at Litchfield, it was clear Lagergren was still puzzled by our appearance. “How did you get my name?” he said. An expert liar, I told him we merely checked the FAA aviation database to see if there are homebuilt-airplanes on the airports we visit.

Then he noted that there was no parachute jumping at Winsted today because of the weather, but mentioned he had a friend in Hutchinson who has built six homebuilt airplanes over the years. He intended to fly over to Litchfield, which would not have been helpful for the goal of getting Lagergren in the air.

With the battle plan already not surviving its first contact with the enemy, we piled in the planes — I in the passenger seat of Lagergren’s plane — and headed to Hutchinson instead.

Once we were off the ground, we sent a signal to Anoka to let everyone know to move in to Litchfield, and AOPA president Mark Baker, a Minnesota native, called Lagergren’s wife, so that the whole family could be at the airport for the moment of our return.

In Hutchinson, I took Lagergren’s friend, Jim Weckman, aside and told him what we were up to, and enlisted yet another co-conspirator, which worked out well because he had an airplane project in Winsted, and I’d previously arranged with the pilot of the airplane to be given away to rendezvous between Winsted and Litchfield. He would circle the field in Winsted and meet up with us when we departed. That plan would only work if we actually were in Winsted.

We again jumped in our planes and headed to Winsted, ostensibly to see this gentleman’s restoration project. This might work, yet.

We visited a beautiful restoration of an old Waco…

Bob Collins/MPR News

… then departed Winsted. I could see the giveaway-airplane circling well off in the distance. But we had a problem. Lagergren’s plane was outracing the Debonair. And, besides, it’s very hard to spot — let alone fly alongside — another airplane.

Even if everything worked out perfectly, we faced two more hurdles. First, Lagergren is an engineer. Second, Lagergren is a Minnesotan. The odds of a big reaction were against us. We needn’t have fretted, however.

Photo: AOPA

Here’s the entire video from the moment at which Tom Horne, piloting the Debonair, asks Lagergren to slow down, with Lagergren believing that the person who was calling him was one of our South St. Paul co-conspirators. It gave me the opportunity to quickly come up with even more lies.

The AOPA website picks up the story from there.

“I’m Mark Baker from AOPA and I’m here to present you with your new airplane,” he said on the multicom frequency, 122.9 MHz.

“Yeah, that’s a good one,” Lagergren replied, dismissing the statement as a joke.

“It’s also true.”

There was a long pause before Lagergren keyed the microphone again.

“Unbelievable—I love that airplane!” he said as reality sunk in. I’ve got to calm down a little bit to land. Oh my gosh.”

“It was a total surprise,” said Lagergren, 43. “There were a few things going on that seemed unusual in retrospect, but I never suspected this.”

The Lagergren family—wife Dawn and daughters Nora, 12, and Holly, 10—was listening to the exchange on the radio base station at the Litchfield airport, and the girls giggled as they heard their dad figure out the secret they had learned that morning. (Baker had called Dawn Lagergren at 9:35 a.m. to tell her the good news and invite her and her daughters to be at the airport when the airplane was awarded. They also brought about a dozen friends to see the handover.)

“It was a total surprise,” said Lagergren, 43. “There were a few things going on that seemed unusual in retrospect, but I never suspected this.”

AOPA

Once on the ground, Lagergren was reunited with his family, got the keys to a new airplane and enjoyed an airshow put together by AOPA.

Then he went for a ride in an airplane.

AOPA Bob Collins/MPR News
  • BJ

    Yep, ‘oh my gosh’ about 20 times.

    • joetron2030

      Ha! Yeah, that and “Holy cow!” MN-style excitement. 😀

  • Veronica

    I watched this video late last night after you posted it and went to look at the webpage for the project, which was fascinating, BUT…..

    I wanted to see a picture of the interior of the plane once it was totally finished.

  • joetron2030

    What a great story!

  • Dave Hirschman

    Your coordination of that ruse was nothing short of masterful! Thanks to you and your fellow pilots for going to such lengths on behalf of a kindred spirit. The Lagergren family will never forget your kindness, generosity, and skillful subterfuge.

  • Inella

    Excellent work Bob!

  • Jack

    Hey Bob
    As long as you have the whole airplane give away down, want to go for a ride in our RV-9A? Marmy would like an Aviat Huskey if you are taking orders. But seriously…an amazing story. You played it perfectly!