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Flashback Friday: Pioneering Winona pilot walked away from crash landing on ice cap 55 years ago

March 15, 2019 10:07 AM

For most of us, the ordeal Max Conrad went through 55 years ago this week would have marked more than enough adventure for a lifetime.

But for the pioneering pilot from Winona it was just ... well, another Tuesday in a remarkable lifetime.

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On March 17, 1964, Conrad was ferrying an Italian aircraft across the Atlantic when he was forced to crash-land the single-engine plane on a Greenland ice cap, according to a story in the following day's Minneapolis Tribune. He then had to make his way across the glacier to its edge, where he was rescued by a boat after being spotted from the air.

Yet he came through the experience none the worse for wear.

"I remember him telling me that he stepped out of the plane and his legs sunk down in the snow until it was up to his hips," his daughter Jane Conrad Kosco recalled.

"He said he had two suitcases with him. And he took one in each hand and used them to hold onto and slide along the top of the snow. That way he could get himself going. He eventually made it to the edge. I guess he was just blessed."

In all, Conrad - who in later years was nicknamed the "Flying Grandfather" - was said to have spent 50,000 hours in the air before dying in his sleep at age 76 in 1979. He completed nearly 200 flights across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, including the first trip from New York to Paris in a light plane since fellow Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh - a feat he accomplished in 1954.

His obituary in the New York Times highlights a 1961 trip in which he established a record for flying around the world in a light plane. His path - covered in a twin-engined Piper Aztec - began and ended in Miami, lasting eight days, 18 hours and 49 minutes.

"I think he just had a passion for flying," said Dr. George Bolon, who long served as the director of the aviation program at Winona State University and met Conrad.

"It was what drove him."

Conrad was also quick to pass along what he had learned.

In 1961, he received a citation from Gen. Curtis LeMay for training 3,000 Air Force pilots.

And he taught others too. In the early 1950s, he launched what he called the "Winona Experiment." 

According to a 2016 article in the Winona Daily News, a group of 60 Winona teenagers began the process of building an airplane under his direction in July 1953.

Manufacturers donated components and other equipment, and another company planned to film a television documentary. The project ended up never being completed, but Conrad embarked on a flying tour of all 48 state capitals later in 1953 to promote it.

"Promoting flying was very important to him," said Conrad Kosco, one of his 10 children.

"I think, especially toward the end of his life, he began to get discouraged that there wasn't the same excitement about flying that he had when he was younger. It had gotten more common and the skies had gotten so crowded."

His daughter remembers a flight she made with her father from Minnesota to Arizona in 1960.

"When I first moved to Phoenix as a young bride, he flew me out there in a plane without any radios," she said. "He flew by water towers and other landmarks. He was very familiar with the landscape all over the country.

"I remember we got into this soupy fog and we couldn't see a thing. We were near El Paso, and I could tell even he was nervous because he was gripping the controls so tightly his knuckles got white. But he decided to climb out of it. And we climbed and climbed and climbed until our ears were ringing. But we finally got clear of it.

"The airport in El Paso was actually closed because of the fog when we landed. I remember a guy coming out and saying 'Max, what are you doing here? The airport is closed.' But we landed there anyway."

As a young man in 1929, Conrad survived being hit by a propeller during an incident in Frontenac in which a woman was killed. Conrad was trying to save the woman, who had jumped out of the plane toward the spinning propeller, when he was struck. The injuries nearly killed him.

But he survived. And he would later be credited for his rescue work from the air during the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard - during which he spent part of one day and most of the next guiding rescue boats and throwing out supplies.

The airport in Winona was named in his honor in 1961, earning him a congratulatory telegram from President John F. Kennedy.

"He really could do anything," his daughter said. "He could fix anything - plumbing, electrical, you name it. He could fix a car. He was once a world-class high jumper. And he wrote his own music.

"He had a genius IQ. I really believe that."

And Conrad Kosco said her father never worried about the danger involved in his endeavors.

"He knew his stuff," she said. "He was never reckless. He meticulously researched all of his flights. Everything was planned out. There were risks, of course. But he was confident in what he was doing."

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Frank Rajkowski

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