In The Presence Of Greatness With No Presence Of Mind

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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)

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Good morning.
    Really nice article. Maybe I read about Ann Pellegreno a while back, it seems so, but it’s an amazing story anyway.
    My Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award seems to be missing a few things: A round the world trip, tail wheel endorsement, back yard airport …..probably a few other items. Well, my first lessons were in a Cub!
    Thanks
    David Grimm

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for one of the best articles I’ve read on AVWeb! Wonderful story as I had never heard of Anne. The best part is getting to the end of your story to hear she is still alive. As soon as I started reading, I assumed she had just died or something, which is usually the case when these sort of amazing articles come out. Like many, I have never heard of her. It will now be my mission in life to meet her. Not sure how I’m going to make that happen, but I am going to try. Thanks again for a fantastic piece of writing!

    • She’s on my reading list!

      Two others of writing merit are Ernest K. Gann (Fate Is The Hunter, Island In The Sky) and Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Wind, Sand and Stars, Night Flight, and The Little Prince). And the Misters Berge and Bertorelli.

  3. Thanks for sharing that Paul. Great story. Reminds me of so many amazing folks from the world of aviation that have paraded through my life. Also awaiting nomination for the Wright Brothers’ Master Pilot Award. Otherwise qualified but, truth is, it honestly doesn’t mater. All I need is the aviation peeps that I know or have met.

  4. Thanks for another superb story, Paul. Great to find out Ann is still writing. I remember Ann’s world flight as written up by herself in Sport Aviation soon after her return. As a kid, I thought everybody involved with EAA – style aviation knew who everybody else was and what they had done. I learned it’s hard to keep up. I also learned about those friendships practiced once a year at various aviation events.

  5. Ann Pellegreno answered my fan letter in the mid to late 80s (I still have it) when I was belatedly trying to raise a sponsor to duplicate the Earhart flight. What red blooded male pilot wouldn’t fall head over heels for her?

  6. Paul, so glad you paid tribute to the Pellegrenos! Very entertaining writing!
    Yes, a number of us women pilots know of Ann’s daring round-the-world trip, duplicating and completing AE’s last adventure. I look forward to getting a copy of “The Sky and I”. If anyone else is interested, a great way to introduce students to aviation, is to purchase and donate a book to a school library.

  7. Having been around the Pellegrenos a few times your description is most accurate. Ann is very modest and very passionate. Will never forget a Saturday afternoon spent with her at an antique fly in in Ranger, Texas or lunch at a Ladies Love Tail Draggers fly-in. She is a class act.

  8. Last year I bought my wife a delightful book by Gene Nora Jensen. The title was “Flight of the Three Musketeers”

    It was a funny but eye opening account of being a woman pilot in the early 1960’s. I would highly recommend it.

  9. Great story, Paul. And a perfect example of the rule I formulated from too many “Do you know who that was?” queries after a casual conversation with yet another aviation hoi polloi.

    At the close of my second Oshkosh, I was patiently waiting on a bench outside of the on-field FSS, waiting for the line shorten so I could get in and get a departure briefing. A pleasant older lady sat down on the other end and starting chatting, asking me about myself, my airplane, and just being friendly. A few minutes later, her husband came out of the FSS with his briefing, and she said, “Ray, come over here and meet Chip.” I stood up and shook his hand, “Ray Stitts, nice to meet you, son.”

    The “Oshkosh Rule” is, “Everyone you meet at Oshkosh is bigger than you think.”

  10. The “Oshkosh Rule” definitely applies to Ann! You can frequently find her at Oshkosh on the porch of the Red Barn during AirVenture. Thank you, Paul, for this wonderful and factual article about one of the true pioneers among women in aviation — and a genuinely nice lady, too!

  11. What a great article. I’m going to get Mrs. Pellegreno’s book and give to my 18 year old granddaughter who recently soloed and will be entering the Aviation program at Middle Tennessee State University in the fall. She wants to be a commercial pilot and I think she’ll be greatly inspired by a woman of many accomplishments.