Project honors friendship
SABIN, Minn. - The steel airplane frame sitting in his farm shop is all Chuck Krabbenhoft has left of his best friend.
Three days before his death, legendary air show pilot Jimmy Franklin visited Krabbenhoft's rural Sabin farm to see the progress his friend was making on the plane they designed together.
"And he was just excited as can be about that," Krabbenhoft recalled.
But on July 10, 2005, Franklin and fellow pilot Bobby Younkin died when their planes collided during an air show in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Krabbenhoft said he's since run into a lot of hurdles in trying to finish the biplane, a three-fourths-size version of a UPF-7 Waco. But he's determined to see it take off.
"I want to get it done in Jimmy's memory," he said.
The 61-year-old has been building things since he was a small boy tooling around in his dad's shop on the family farm a mile north of Sabin.
As he got older, he went from building go-karts to working on hotrods and restoring cars.
He worked as a welder at a tractor plant in Fargo, but left the business in 1983 to farm with his father until his death in 1997.
Krabbenhoft eventually stopped farming and now owns Hydrolawn, a commercial lawn care business. His son still operates the family business, Krabbenhoft Seed and Supply.
While farming was in his blood, "airplanes were always my first love," Krabbenhoft said.
He took flying lessons in the '70s, and a friend talked him into getting his private pilot's license in 1992.
Krabbenhoft bought a 1947 Stinson airplane, but his appetite for horsepower soon landed him in a Citabria ("airbatic" spelled backward).
A few days before the 2002 Fargo AirSho, he ran into Franklin, whom he'd met several years earlier. Franklin needed a tow bar for his airplane, so Krabbenhoft offered him a deal.
"I said, 'I'll build you a tow bar, but I get to hang around with you guys this weekend at the air show,' " Krabbenhoft said.
Franklin visited the farm a few times while Krabbenhoft worked on the bar.
"We just became good friends after that," he said.
Krabbenhoft remembers sitting in a bar in southern Minnesota with Franklin about a year later, sketching the biplane's design.
"We were doing barroom blueprints on napkins," he said.
Krabbenhoft drove down to Missouri that winter and spent a few days with Franklin hashing out the details. An engineer friend drew up the blueprints, and Krabbenhoft went to work on the plane in 2004.
He had the frame mostly built when he got the call on a Sunday that Franklin had died in a crash.
"I kind of really went to work on it after that," he said.
And he's still working on it. He's also building a biplane for a friend and airline pilot who lives in Texas, as well as a wooden box for a 1920s-era fire truck for the Casselton (N.D.) Fire Department.
"I always tell people, 'If you can draw a picture of it, I can build it,' " he said.
Pictures of Franklin and Younkin adorn the walls of Krabbenhoft's office next to shelves of model airplanes. Franklin signed one of the pictures in 2003: "Chuck you build 'em & I'll fly 'em!"
Krabbenhoft now welds only as a hobby, and he doesn't fly anymore. Heart surgery in 2000 has kept him grounded from aerobatic flying, and while he's technically eligible to fly as a sport pilot, he said he doesn't see the point.
"That's kind of like going from a Corvette to a Volkswagen," he said. "It isn't any fun."
But there is one airplane he still hopes to pilot in honor of his lost friend.
"I want to get this thing done," he said. "I want to fly it."