Meet the 98-year-old pilot and veteran still fascinated with flying
From The Dakota Scout's partners at the Aberdeen Insider
Percy Grote spent less than two and a half years as a pilot, but that short stretch reinforced a love of flying that lasts to this day.
Grote, 98, grew up in Aberdeen and has spent most of his life in town. But from after his high school graduation in spring 1943 through November 1945, he was a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, having signed up a couple of months before he finished classes. The Air Force had yet to be established.
He never got a private pilot’s license after he was discharged, something he still laments.
“Every day,” Grote said as he sat in a recliner in his living room reminiscing earlier this week.
His fascination with flight began when he took his first ride at age 12 or 13. It was on a bench seat in the back of a Ford Trimotor. That there was no seat belt didn’t bother him a bit. The new experience was exhilarating.
Flights were $5, but Grote and his buddy struck a deal. In return for distributing promotional pamphlets along Main Street, they got a free ride.
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“I thought it was wonderful,” he said.
Grote was hooked.
He didn’t get sent overseas as a cadet, avoiding service in the war itself. Instead, Grote said he picked up his uniform in Leavenworth, Kan., and had basic training in Amarillo, Texas. He served the rest of his stint at bases in California and Arizona.
Memories of flying include some harrowing moments
Grote still has great memories of that time even though there were some moments of trepidation.
He learned how to fly in a Stearman biplane. It was a bit of baptism by fire. Cadets had to know how to handle the plane after eight hours of solo flying or that was the end of their time as a pilot.
While still in California, Grote advanced to flying an AT-6 Texan. He asked about guidelines only to learn they were unchanged for the single-engine plane that was a considerable advance.
Eight hours or bust.
Grote remembers a flight with an instructor who was showing him the lay of the land. They were 7,000 or 8,000 feet over mountains not far from San Francisco when the pilot said the engine sounded funny. As the instructor asked Grote if he was ready to jump, the engine got rougher. When the engine quit, Grote unhooked his radio and slid open the canopy. When he stood, the wind pushed him back so he couldn’t hop out.
That was for the best.
By the time Grote was standing, the pilot was yelling at him to sit back down. Since there was nothing wrong with it, the engine fired right back up, ending the instructor’s test of Grote’s mettle.
“That’s how I started in the AT-6,” he said.
Grote created models of the planes he flew during WWII era
Large, detailed models of a Stearman, an AT-6 and a P-47, the third plane Grote learned to fly in the service, hang from his apartment ceiling. He made them himself, not from a kit, and they are reminders of his love of flying.
The prompts aren’t really needed, though. Grote has plenty of stories.
One day, many of the pilots were out practicing in their AT-6 planes. They were supposed to be back to base by 5 p.m., so there was a bit of a backlog when it came to landing, Grote said. As he was making his runway approach, a plane came in just above him, only 25 or so feet away, he estimated. The other pilot couldn’t see Grote, but because the canopy was glass, he could see the other plane.
Grote pulled the flaps to slow down, allowing the other pilot to land first. He followed close behind, but he wasn’t happy.
He said he followed the other plane along the taxiway and was ready to give the pilot a piece of his mind. But as the man climbed out of the cockpit, Grote noticed he was a captain. That was a fight that wasn’t in his best interest, so Grote said he just taxied his plane back to where he was supposed to park.
“I saved two crashes that day,” he said with a chuckle.
‘I have an emergency’
There was another close call, too, when he and other pilots were taking off in formation with just a few feet of separation. As Grote got off the ground and put his wheels up, the lead pilot let off the throttle more than he was supposed to. Since Grote was a wing man, he said he didn’t have many options.
Only 15 or so feet off the ground, Grote decided the best way to avoid trouble was to lower the plane. His wheels weren’t all the way down, though, and they crashed forcefully onto the runway. Grote said he still doesn’t know how the prop didn’t strike the ground.
He got his plane back off the ground and snuck between two towers and some trees, then hopped on his radio.
“I called the towner, and I said, ‘I have an emergency.’ And they said, ‘We know, we’re watching.'”
Grote circled back around while emergency equipment was deployed. He was somehow able to land without his landing gear collapsing, which could have been a big problem since the AT-6 was full of fuel.
“I’m still here,” Grote said.
He also remembers approaching for a landing when his windshield suddenly turned black. Turns out the engine’s oil cap had come off, Grote said. But none of the oil made it inside the canopy even though it was open. He was able to land without issue.
Many enlisted during World War II
After the U.S. entered World War II, Grote said, many young men engrossed with helping win the war enlisted in the military. He said he doesn’t know if he would have been sent overseas had the war continued.
When WWII ended in September 1945, it took some time for everybody to be discharged. Grote had to wait nearly two months.
As he departed the Air Corps, Grote was given a chance to join the Reserves, but he decided to head back to Aberdeen with his wife Dorothy.
When they got back to town, Grote started working with his dad, Lester, at the Chrysler garage on Main Street. He had worked at the shop during high school, too, and after the war, was on the staff for about 20 years.
Eventually, Grote opened his own body shop. He brother joined him and they operated Grote Brothers for a couple of decades before Percy retired in 1987.
An aviation job proved too costly
Not long after getting back into town after the war, Grote went out to Aberdeen Flying Service in hopes of finding a job in the aviation industry. He explained his training and service in the military and said he was offered employment on the spot, provided he get all of the needed state and federal certifications.
It sounded great, but when Grote asked how much the certifications cost, he was told $20 an hour. Since he was only making $30 a week with no discernible savings, it just didn’t work out.
Percy and Dorothy lived together in Aberdeen for most of their time together. They moved to South Carolina near their son for four years when Dorothy was fighting dementia and couldn’t find a local nursing home that could help. She died in 2014, and Percy has lived in Aberdeen since.
Grote said his last ride in a plane was about a year and a half ago. Dr. John Bormes of Aberdeen owns a Stearman and Ward Schumacher, one of Grote’s friends, arranged a ride in the plane Grote first learned to fly.
“I was probably the oldest person he had in that airplane for a while,” Grote said.
Schumacher also helped arrange a ride for Grote in an AT-6.
Another great memory for a man who has never lost his affinity for the thrill of aviation. For Grote, there’s just something magical about flying.
“It was just like I stepped from the past to the future in the same instant,” is how he described it.
“It was a different feeling,” Grote said, “and it’s still there.”