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Some 58 years later, Harwood pilot rebuilds first plane he ever flew

Leslie Ellingson, who's flown for more than half a century, found the airplane he learned how to fly in and rebuilt it.

Leslie Ellingson, 75, reunited with the first airplane he flew as a teenager after 58 years.jpg
Leslie Ellingson, 75, reunited with the first airplane he secretly flew as a teenager after 58 years.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum
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HARWOOD, N.D. — Before Leslie Ellingson graduated high school, he and his brother would sneak out of the house on their South Dakota farm. The siblings weren't off looking for a party, but instead learning how to fly airplanes.

The 75-year-old can't remember a day in his life that he didn't want to fly.

His first flight was in a red and white single engine 90 horsepower Piper PA-18 Super Cub some 58 years ago and he hasn't forgotten about it.

After keeping track of the flying machine over the years, Ellingson in 2020 decided to buy it, or what remained of it, and reconstructed the entire aircraft with his son, also a pilot.

Leslie Ellingson as a teenager in South Dakota next to the first airplane he rode in.jpg
Leslie Ellingson as a teenager in South Dakota next to the first airplane he rode in.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

When he finished, the memories came flooding back.

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“I felt like I was 17 years old again. I am 75 years old and if you can find something that makes you feel like you’re 17, don’t part with it,” Ellingson said.

Despite the years spent in the sky, Ellingson’s journey to becoming a pilot wasn’t easy.

As a young child, he lost his right eye to an accident with a jackknife, which made obtaining a license challenging.

As a teenager, his parents, which he described as old fashioned, wanted him to farm.

Instead, Ellingson and his brother would drive 35 miles for pilot lessons.

Money was short, and an airplane rented for $9 an hour with the instructor charging $3 an hour, a price that could easily add up to $100 a day.

On the farm, Ellingson made $1 an hour, which meant he had to work a 12-hour day just to earn a 1-hour flight lesson.

Leslie Ellingson, 18, with the first plane he learned how to fly.JPG
Leslie Ellingson, when he was 18, with the first plane he learned how to fly. More than half a century later he found the aircraft, rebuilt it, and is flying it again.
Special to The Forum

“Flying is all I’ve ever wanted to do, but my parents wouldn’t have it," Ellingson said. "We (with his brother) would sneak away and take pilot lessons."

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Ellingson even forged his own parents' signatures when he took his first pilot test. They didn't find out until years later after he bought his first airplane for $1,900.

“My dad pounded his fist on the table, the dishes went flying," he said. "They thought it was dangerous, and it can be."

His parents disinherited him, he said. “They didn’t want to talk to me."

They eventually came to visit years later in Minnesota and were coaxed into an airplane Ellingson purchased.

During takeoff, his father refused to open up his eyes. When he did finally look, he said he'd never seen anything so beautiful, Ellingson recalled. “We landed and he said he could see now why I liked to do this."

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellingson, who now lives in Harwood, traveled to Minot and bought the first aircraft he piloted for about $30,000.

It had been involved in an accident, and the previous owner kept it in storage. All that remained of the airplane was a skeleton, the original instrument panel and the engine, which had been taken apart.

Leslie Ellingson showing pictures of the airplane he first flew after he and his son rebuilt it.jpg
Leslie Ellingson showing pictures of the airplane he first flew after he and his son rebuilt it.
C.S. Hagen/the Forum

After more than two years working on the machine, which for Ellingson included knee replacement surgery and two bouts of COVID-19, he flew the airplane for the first time in 58 years.

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The airplane, which is now in top working order, is worth more $180,000.

For Ellingson, rebuilding aircraft, helicopters, even tractors is more than a hobby; the machines have been part of his lifelong dream to fly.

“I tell young people that an old guy told me once when I was a little kid that 90% of the people in the United States hate their jobs. And 90% of those people hate their bosses," Ellingson said. "But if you find something you love to do, you will never have to work."

After airplane mechanic school, Ellingson started a new business in Roseau, Minnesota, repairing airplanes, crop spraying, and becoming a flight instructor.

Leslie Ellingson, and his wife Dee, in March 2022 after she was presented with an award recognizing her support of her spouse from the FAA. _She is half of this,_ Ellingson said of his wife.jpg
Leslie Ellingson, and his wife Dee, in March 2022 after she was presented with an award recognizing her support of her spouse from the FAA.
Special to The Forum

He relocated to Fargo in 1989 and became an aviation safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). From his home in Harwood, he continued rebuilding airplanes and helicopters with his son, Joel.

He retired in 2008, but never strayed far from airplanes, helicopters, gliders or balloons.

In April, Ellingson was recognized by the FAA for 50 years of exemplary aviation experience and was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. He also won the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award, which is named after the first aircraft mechanic who assisted the Wright brothers in building the first airplane engine.

Related Topics: FARGO
C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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