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Wittman, Klapmeier Brothers Inducted Into the National Aviation Hall of Fame
By Jim Cunningham, EAA 594611/Vintage 721107
October 7, 2014 - The National Aviation Hall of Fame welcomed its Class of 2014 on Saturday, October 4, as air racing and homebuilt aircraft legend Sylvester “Steve” J. Wittman, and founders of Cirrus Aircraft Alan and Dale Klapmeier, joined three other inductees enshrined in Dayton, Ohio.
A longtime EAAer and member of the EAA Board of Directors, Wittman was a world champion air race pilot and aircraft designer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He also served as manager of the Oshkosh airport from 1931-1969, and upon his retirement in 1969, the airport was rededicated in his name. He died in 1995 at age 91.
Wittman was an early member (EAA 34), joining in its founding year, and served many roles within the organization over the course of nearly 40 years. Bill Brennand, lifetime Oshkosh resident, air race pilot, and founder of Brennand Airport (79C) in nearby Neenah, Wisconsin, presented the award to Wittman’s grand-nephew, Chris Anderson.
Brennand grew up on a farm that is now the south end of Wittman Regional Airport and watched Steve conduct low-level test flights of his race planes, never dreaming that he would one day not only work for Wittman but also become a champion air race pilot himself. Brennand recalled a flight with Wittman in 1949 over Tennessee, each in his own midget race plane, when Wittman, flying Little Bonzo suddenly veered off and landed in a small field.
The airplanes were NORDO (no radios), so Brennand landed next to him only to find Wittman unconscious from fumes – a rifle bullet penetrated the plane’s fuel tank resulting in a massive fuel leak. Wittman had literally been shot down! Repairs were made and the two returned to Oshkosh the following day. Little Bonzo is on display in the EAA AirVenture Museum Racing Gallery, and if visitors look closely they will see a small Confederate flag sticker covering the bullet hole just under the left wing.
Alan and Dale Klapmeier founded Cirrus Design in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and produced a kit plane made of composite materials. Years later the two took their experience from that venture and formed the Cirrus Aircraft Corporation in Duluth, Minnesota, a company that quickly rose to become a major general aviation manufacturer of innovative personal airplanes. Alan later left to form the Kestrel Aircraft Company and is a member of the EAA Board of Directors. Dale remains with Cirrus as CEO.
Both men cited their involvement with EAA as essential to their success. Dale thanked Paul and Tom Poberezny for creating “an organization that allowed us to foster a dream.” Paul is also a member of the Hall, enshrined in 1999.
Others inducted this year included the late Bertrand “Bert” B. Acosta, one of America’s first test pilots; retired Brig. Gen. James A. McDivitt, USAF, astronaut, command pilot for Gemini 4 and Apollo 9; and Emily Howell Warner, first female captain of a scheduled, jet-equipped U.S. airline.