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Finding Grandpa’s Plane

Maggie Nett, EAA 1165001, Digital Marketing Coordinator

  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Arlene and William 'Bill' Nett, Maggie's grandparents, stand next to N20251 in St. Peter, Wisconsin.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Bill Nett's house in St. Peter, Wisconsin circa 1980. The hangar was built into a walk-out basement on the back side of the house.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Maggie's siblings and cousins stand next to N20251 circa 1992. Bill often gave rides to his many grandchildren.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    N20251 at its new home in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Maggie and Howard in flight.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Maggie and Howard stand next to her grandpa's old plane after her flight in it.
  • Finding Grandpa’s Plane
    Maggie taking one last picture with her grandpa's old plane.

September 15, 2016 - I wish I could tell my five-year-old self to not be afraid, to enjoy the opportunity. But what did I know? I was 5 and afraid of being up so high in the sky. My grandpa, William “Bill” Nett, EAA 269130, owned N20251, a 1972 Cessna Skyhawk, from 1977 to 2013, and as a young child I never appreciated what that meant.

My aviation story starts with that airplane.

In the late ’70s my grandpa learned to fly, purchased the 172, turned some land he owned into a runway, and built a hangar on its north end. After a few years, he decided to build a new hangar closer to home — in the walk-out basement of the new house he was building on the south end of the runway. With access to the runway and the plane in the basement, flying anytime he wanted was a breeze.

It wasn’t long before my grandpa had three of his sons flying too, including my dad. With my grandpa’s offer to pay for gas and an instructor, my dad soloed by the age of 19.

My parents built their first house down the block and right across the street from the runway. I lived in that house until I was 8 years old, so I watched my grandpa, dad, and uncles take off and land many times during my young years.

I don’t specifically remember my first flight, but I do remember sitting in the backseat, reaching to peer out the window, and not liking what I was seeing. I guess I was afraid of flying from the get-go. The combination of height and speed was not something I enjoyed and I made it very clear to my parents that I did not want to go again.

After that, I didn’t pay much attention to my grandpa’s plane. After a few years we moved to a new house, and my grandpa moved permanently to his cottage in Wautoma, Wisconsin. He brought N20251 with him and hangared it at the Wautoma Municipal Airport. The year we moved was the last year I saw that airplane fly.

As the years went by and my grandpa got older, my dad and one uncle who stayed current knew they didn’t want their dad flying anymore. They stopped flying all together in the hopes of enticing him to sell the plane.  That was circa 2004. In 2013 Grandpa finally gave the okay to sell, and a buyer was found.

I am now 24 and have worked at EAA since February 2015. At my desk is a picture of my dad and uncle standing next to N20251 on the day it was sold. My dad gave it to me and said I could pin it up to show that I had an aviation story of my own. It was such a dad thing to do, but that picture got me thinking: Where was the airplane now? Who bought it? Would or could I ever see it again?

I asked a few co-workers how I could go about finding an airplane, but my search was futile.

Months went by without another thought, and it wasn’t until spring 2016 that I searched the internet for the N-number on a whim and found exactly what I was looking for. N20251 was owned by H.J. Aviation from Wisconsin Rapids—not too far away from Oshkosh!

I put on my investigation hat and within 15 minutes I had learned that H.J. Aviation owner Howard Joling was not only an active EAA member, but also the president of Chapter 706 in Wisconsin Rapids. I was beyond excited to finally learn where the airplane had gone. But did he still have it and was it still flying?

In early May Howard, EAA 607431, and I connected on the phone. He said he still owns N20251, it is still flying, and that making a visit to see it would be no problem.

I reached out to my co-worker, Hal Bryan, EAA Lifetime 638979, who I knew would appreciate the story, and help me on my quest to see my grandpa’s plane once again. Hal was more than willing to help me out and even offered to fly me to Wisconsin Rapids, but our summer schedules never worked out.

Then, a few weeks ago, as my dad and I were rummaging through my grandpa’s basement we came across his flight briefcase, and inside was the original owner’s manual to the very plane I wanted to go see. Who better to return the manual than me?  The very next day I contacted Howard again and set up a time to go visit.

A few days later, Hal and I landed at Alexander Field South Wood County Airport and my aviation story came full circle.

Howard offered to take me for a flight, even putting me in the left seat. It was an amazing experience. This airplane may not have meant much to me as a young girl, but it meant something to me now, and I finally understood what I missed out on as a child. The smell of the cockpit and the sound of Howard communicating “20251” over the radio brought so much joy to the experience. You can bet I had a huge grin on my face as we took off. 

My grandma, who spent hundreds of hours being my grandpa’s right-seat companion, passed away in 2001, but I will be able to share this story with the rest of my family and, of course, my grandpa. Although he has dementia now, I know he will remember his airplane and all the joy it brought to my family. And I know I’ll never forget it either.

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