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Published April 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

Pilot has the ‘Wright’ stuff

Buffalo, ND - Bill Grieve flew himself to classes as a high school junior. He took his future wife on a plane ride to size up how compatible they were. He found reprieve from dairy farm work in loops and nosedives.

By: Mila Koumpilova, INFORUM

Buffalo, ND - Bill Grieve flew himself to classes as a high school junior. He took his future wife on a plane ride to size up how compatible they were. He found reprieve from dairy farm work in loops and nosedives.

And, for 27 years, the Buffalo native has made a living spraying crops with his Cessna Agwagon.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently granted Grieve a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, named after the pair of self-taught Midwestern engineers credited with the invention of the airplane. The award celebrates 50 years of safe flying. Grieve’s been flying for 62.

On the eve of his 79th birthday, Grieve, who still puts in 10-hour days above the fields in summer, has no plans to slow down.

“It’s just a good view of the world every time you go out,” Grieve says. “It’s always a little different.”

Grieve got his pilot’s license at 16, just after getting his driver’s license. His father, Elmer, took him on flying lessons above their farm just outside Buffalo. Occasionally, Grieve took the 1946 Taylor Craft to school in Buffalo, landing by the train tracks on the edge of town.

He wasn’t trying to impress his classmates. “I just usually never drive anyplace I can fly,” he says.

Grieve flew his future wife, Beverly, to the farm to make sure she liked flying. It turned out she was an agreeable passenger, and he married her two years later.

For 30-some years, flying was mostly a hobby for Grieve, a dairy and later cattle farmer.

His son, Jack, remembers taking his first “lessons” on his dad’s lap as a 6-year-old. He also got a taste of his father’s knack for airborne stunts. He says his dad is a level-headed, church-going guy who might strike those unfamiliar with his skill and experience as a daredevil in the air. But, says Jack, “I’d rather go out with him than with anybody else.”

As Grieve himself likes to say, “There’s old pilots, and there’s bold pilots, but there’s no old bold pilots.”

Grieve had considered spraying crops for a living, but he had to agree with his wife that was too dangerous an occupation for a man raising six children. “You’re playing chicken with telephone poles and trees at 120 miles an hour,” Grieve explains.

But 27 years ago, he finally got a commercial pilot’s license and bought his Agwagon. These days, he still sprays about 20 farms in the area. Sometimes, farmers summon him as far out as Spiritwood, 50 miles away.

“We’re kind of a dying breed,” he says of crop sprayers, who face steep upfront costs for their airplanes and insurance. “Not a lot of young people are getting into it.”

He tries to pass on his passion for flying to the youngsters he takes on plane rides as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program.

Grieve plans to keep going. Ten years ago, he got five cardiac bypasses; he’s had to take a stress test each year to maintain his license.

Little throws him off in the air. Three years ago, Grieve was flying over a sunflower farm north of Valley City when he blew a piston and his motor died. Though he knew he only had seconds in the air, he calmly steered the plane to a nearby field.

“You don’t have time to get scared,” said Grieve, adding, “I just have to make one safe turn at a time.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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