By Tom Dennis on Sep 21, 2015 at 5:00 a.m.
If you read David McCullough’s new book, “The Wright Brothers,” and you marveled at its tale of the bike mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who changed the course of history, maybe you closed the book feeling depressed.
After all, America in 2015 is a lot different than America in 1903. Back then, the country was alive with creativity; Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and other giants, including Orville and Wilbur Wright, all did their most notable work within the span of a generation.
A perfect storm of circumstances brought that about, historians agree. But could such circumstances happen again?
Are you kidding? They’ve been happening ever since. And for evidence, head on over to the Alerus Center today. There you’ll find the result of a North Dakota creation story—a story that, like the Wrights’ on a smaller scale, starts with youthful tinkering and grows into a multi-million dollar aviation enterprise that alters history and changes lives.
The Alerus event is the spectacular Unmanned Aviation Systems Summit and Expo. And the creation story is that of John Odegard, who was recognized last week as this year’s recipient of the North Dakota Roughrider Award.
Odegard, of course, was the founder of and driving force behind the School of Aerospace Sciences at UND. And the school’s unmatched reputation is a big reason why Grand Forks now is a national UAS hub, one that hosts key conferences such as this week’s Summit and Expo.
In one of his last interviews before his death in 1998, Odegard told the Herald how he got interested in aviation.
It started with a World War II fighter ace named Charles “Buzz” Gunn, who lived two doors down from Odegard in Minot. As a teen-ager, Odegard “would pedal his bicycle to the airport anytime he could, just to get a glimpse of Buzz taking off or landing his plane,” the Herald reported.
“Soon, he became what’s known in the aviation business as a hangar rat. He hooked up with Bart Sjogard, who had a small flight business—mainly crop spraying.
“‘Bart and I hit it off,’ Odegard said. ‘So, what happened is he would have me working around the place all the week. The second I would get out of school, I’d pedal as fast as I could to the airport. And here I am – I’m sweeping the floors. I’m cleaning the airplanes. I’m raking the tumbleweeds that always blow across the prairies.'”
Odegard’s reward: a once-a-week, 20-minute flying lesson from Siogard.
“‘I don’t think he was even an instructor,’ Odegard recalled. ‘But I was flying. There was a stick here, and that thing moved, and when it moved, the airplane banked, and that was fantastic!'”
Bigger flight services and more advanced aircraft followed—”Holy buckets, I had instruments!”, Odegard recalled about the first time he flew a Cessna 172.
Then came college and a job at UND, and the rest is aviation history.
So when you gaze at the UAS displays at the Alerus Center today, or listen to North Dakota’s congressional delegation talk about the industry or appreciate its multi-billion dollar importance to the state, think about a Minot teen pedaling to the airport for the privilege of sweeping out a hangar. Orville and Wilbur would be proud.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald