It’s possible you’ve never heard of the legendary pilot, Ann Dearing Holtgren Pellegreno. But you should have. In 2019, Ann received the FAA’s Wright Brothers’ Master Pilot Award for a lifetime of aviation achievements. Swell, but who hasn’t? Me, for one and for good reason. The FAA, my favorite former employer I love to disparage, doesn’t give out this award just for attending Oshkosh in a shiny airplane without landing gear up.
Ann learned to fly in 1960. Since then, she’s flown all around the world. Literally. In 1967 Ann, with a crew of three, successfully completed Amelia Earhart’s incomplete 1937 circumnavigation of the planet. Ann was the first to fly a 1937 twin-engine Lockheed 10 Electra on the Earhart Trail. She dropped a wreath on Howland Island, exactly 30 years after Earhart reportedly vanished there. Ann landed back in Oakland, California where her trip began, and her newfound fame had just begun. Her book, World Flight, The Earhart Trail, should be mandatory reading for any pilot who ventures out of sight of land.
I met Ann in 1984 but didn’t know it. My wife, Kathy, and I had recently moved to Iowa from California, and I was exploring the squarish state alone in my Aeronca 7AC Champ. It was early fall when I wandered into north-central Iowa, where the countryside is flat. Five hundred feet below, in a rectangular sea of corn, was an old farmhouse with a nearby barn. Plus, what appeared to be a grass runway, and wherever there’s a runway there’s free lunch for pilots in old airplanes.
Farm runways are common, and in Iowa, “If you build it, they will come.” Kevin Costner starred in a movie about an Iowa farmer who mows down his corn to build a grass runway in hopes of attracting pilots but instead, silly ghosts appeared and played baseball all day, thus ruining his airfield of dreams. I have the movie on VHS.
Back to 1984 (in a non-Orwellian way)
FARs state if you spot what appears to be a useable grass runway, then it’s mandatory to land there. I circled, worked the throttle a few times like a teenager on his first motorcycle, until a figure appeared from the barn, looked up and waved me in. Or that’s how I interpreted the gesture. After bouncing the landing in the viciously calm wind, I taxied to where he pointed, and barely had I killed the engine when one of the friendliest pilots I’ve ever met, introduced himself, “Don Pellegreno! I was working on the Fairchild; I’ll show you later. C’mon in, we’re about to have lunch.”
I followed him to the farmhouse back door. Only undertakers and presidential hopefuls use front doors in rural Iowa. Inside the mudroom, I removed my shoes as his wife called from the kitchen, “We’re having grilled cheese; I don’t make special orders. You can wash your hands there,” and she pointed to a small door. Don smiled as I entered a washroom the size of a vertical coffin, and the door clicked shut behind me. The undertaker option loomed.
Five minutes since I’d landed at this isolated airfield, I was shoeless inside a closet with no escape from what I feared were cultists who lured unsuspecting pilots to their dooms with promises of grilled cheese. I like grilled cheese, so I washed my hands and accepted my fate, which turned out to be far more than lunch.
Hands rubbed dry on my jeans, I cautiously exited the washroom as Don’s wife waved me into the kitchen, where three plates were set on a trestle table, cluttered with aviation magazines. A German Shepherd sitting in the corner eyed me the way East Berlin border guard dogs do in 1950s spy movies. Ann slipped grilled cheese sandwiches onto the plates, and Don returned with a photo album.
“That’s the Fairchild,” he said. “One of a kind Navy XNQ; I’ll show you later,” then flipped through pictures of this post-WWII trainer that Fairchild had built in a bid to replace the North American AT-6/SNJ trainers of World War II fame. It lost, and now Don, a college professor, pilot, A&P mechanic, and jazz musician was well into the restoration project. I munched grilled cheese and listened, while Ann sat across the table, quietly eating.
Being a 1980s liberated guy, I decided to bring “the wife” into the conversation by asking, “Do you fly?” She smiled, sipped iced tea, and replied, “Yes.” Nothing else. Suspicious, but there was no time for follow-up as Don said, “C’mon, I’ll show you the Fairchild,” and out the door I followed, pulling on my sneakers as I hopped across the grass toward the barn. Ann said she’d clear the dishes, and I’d thanked her over my shoulder.
Aeromantics dream of finding old airplanes inside barns. On this day, I found three: a J-3 Cub, a Bonanza—both airworthy—and the Fairchild XNQ under restoration. I spent the next two hours listening to Don explain more than I could digest, so when I was in the Champ heading home, I felt overwhelmed. Flying old airplanes around rural America is magical, and the people you meet off the airways are gems. Don and Ann were off the charts. I mulled storyline possibilities of old airplanes inside barns, and that night sketched the opening chapter to my first novel, Inside The Barn, later retitled, Bootleg Skies.
Now for the I’ve Got a Secret reveal. Days later, while talking to Les Gaskill, who’d landed his Cub at my home field, I mentioned the remarkable Don Pellegreno. Les squinted and asked, “Do you know who Ann is?” I didn’t other than “the wife” who’d grilled cheese while the menfolk talked airplanes, but I sensed an embarrassing “Uh-oh” moment.
Ann Pellegreno—commercial pilot, SEL and MEL, flight instructor—not only completed Amelia Earhart’s trip around the world in a 1930s airplane and wrote World Flight, but she also produced a three-volume history of Iowa aviation called, Iowa Takes To The Air. Her detailed research is top drawer, her writing style clear and engaging. According to her bio in the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, Ann was the “first woman to serve as Commissioner for both the Iowa Aeronautics Commission and the Iowa Department of Transportation, and the first woman in the nation to serve as a commissioner in a state department of transportation.”
With profound humility, I returned to the Pellegreno Aerodrome. Don was teaching at the university, and Ann was taking a break from … I don’t know, maybe, translating Beowulf into Mandarin. She brushed off my apology for not knowing who she was and asked, “Are you a writer?” I was but unpublished. Ann introduced me to an editor who published my first article in General Aviation News. I forget the topic, but it led to a long friendship with the Pellegrenos and a career putting words to flight.
The Pellegrenos later moved to Texas, as all Iowan’s must, so I only saw them each Labor Day at the Antique Airplane Association Reunion in Blakesburg, Iowa.
Ann? Oh yeah, she flies, far above any preconceived notions visitors might harbor about flight, celebrity, or grilled cheese. And today, she’s still writing. Her new book, The Sky and I, is a personal memoir of Ann’s learning to fly, admittedly by “a very slow-learning student.”
(Photo caption info: Ann and Don Pellegreno, Fairchild XNQ-1, Oshkosh 1992)