In Wisconsin, a great American airplane tinkerer dies

Paul Poberezny’s 75-year passion for planes began when his high school history teacher gave him a battered glider to restore.

Poberezny convinced his parents to let him use the garage as his first airplane shop and completed the glider’s repairs in the spring of 1937 … He finished the glider repairs and fifteen-year-old Paul became a pilot.

“I don’t know if Mr. Tangney ever realized it or not,” said Poberezny, “but his gift contributed a great deal to my lack of enthusiasm for schoolwork –and for my absence on a great number of days!”

That’s from Poberezny’s National Aviation Hall of Fame biography. Poberezny, 91, died of cancer Thursday in Oshkosh, Wis. He left behind a rich aviation history that might be easy for most of us to miss: He founded the Experimental Aircraft Association and spent a 30 year military career as a pilot, test pilot and combat veteran.

Aviation is typically the purview of NewsCut’s Bob Collins. But he’s at the State Fair today and asked me to take a shot at featuring Poberezny.

It was easy. I know nothing about aviation. But I absolutely love stories of the Great American Tinkerer — people who can fix and build stuff. They don’t necessarily have an Ivy League education or come from big money. They seem, incredibly, to build their own tools. They’re willing to fail.

Poberezny fits the bill.

While still a teenager, Poberezny recorded his first solo flight and also his first engine failure and forced landing. Hard to teach that.

Still a teen in 1940, he was offered a half-ownership of an American Eagle, a biplane, for $250, the Hall of Fame notes:

Years later, Paul found out that his dad had taken out a bank loan for the $125 that Paul had asked to borrow. At that time, Peter Poberezny was making $19 a week that supported himself, his wife and three children. Paul was a nineteen-year-old senior in high school and the only student with an airplane.

I can only hope I’m that kind of dad.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s obituary on Poberezny has more about his life and awards and credits him with starting the Experimental Aircraft Association in his garage.

That’s how I’ll  remember him — a guy in a garage with parents who supported him, trying to make something he loved into something better, not realizing that what he was building would last.