Local pilot honored for 50 years of flying

Verlus Burkhardt

When your heart’s in the sky you need to let it fly free and high, at least according to Fairmont resident Verlus Burkhart.

Burkhart recently received the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award, presented by the Federal Aviation Administration. He shared how he got his start and what is involved in receiving the award.

“What happens with the Wright flyer award is you have to have been a pilot for 50 years,” he said. “You have to apply and have three recommendations, so I contacted some fellow pilots: Lyle Pieper, Melvin Hutchinson and Tom Kellander. Then they wrote nomination papers for me.”

After the nomination papers, pilot history and other information were put together, Burkhart was honored at a ceremony at the Buffalo, Minnesota, airport. Burkhart is one of 119 pilots in Minnesota who have received the award, and believes he is the only one in Fairmont.

“All it means is I’ve grown old flying,” he joked.

“I started out flying as a student pilot on Dec. 12, 1968,” he said. “Then I got my license on March 2, 1969. The Wright flyer award started on the day of my first solo flight, and I have been flying now for 50 years.”

“Ever since I was a high school student I was interested in aviation. I took my first ride in a Piper Tri-Pacer from a neighbor, and then when I was in college I had a part-time job so I started flying. I was working at a hotel on a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and at 11 p.m. we would always overnight the pilots and the crew from the three jets that came in from Ozark Airlines.

“So I picked up the guys that were starting a Cessna dealership there in Waterloo, Iowa. Giving those guys a ride back to the hotel, they gave me a free flight certificate and they said, ‘Here, go out to the airport and here’s free flying for you.’ So that’s how I got started, and I never quit.

“Then I changed my job, I became a night auditor at the hotel and I worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight, which gave me the afternoons to fly. So I would do my college classes in the morning from 7 until noon, and then go fly in the afternoon.”

When asked what flying means to him, Burkhart said it is a way of letting go and taking things easy.

“I find it very relaxing,” he said. “I find it less stressful than driving a car, there’s no stop signs, not patrolmen, and no speed limits. It’s also such a fast way to get places, if I need to go to Mason City it’s a half hour and Algona is 15 minutes.

“I also just do it for pleasure. I’ve flown lots of places, I’ve flown to Florida, New York and been almost coast to coast in 30 different airplanes over the years.”

When asked about different planes and what one looks for, Burkhart said the key thing is affordability.

“When I was young, I checked out in a Piper Cherokee Arrow, because I wanted to go fast,” he said. “But reality sets in and you realize that’s not affordable. The old joke in aviation is that it’s not the power but money that keeps a plane in the sky.”

Burkhart also gave some advice to those who might be interested in aviation: start young.

“The bottom line is that it just gets more expensive. Back when I got my license it cost me $400 from the day I started to the day I had the ticket in my pocket, and it may as well have been $4,000 because I didn’t have it. You have to jump in and be totally dedicated, it’s a lifestyle and you’re never done learning.”

Burkhart noted that he is a big fan of the Fairmont High School aviation program and Fairmont airport.

“I’d like to see it go on, I’d like to see kids get involved. I’m a total supporter of it.

“I also think the community needs to proactive when it comes to supporting the airport out here. We have a phenomenal facility, and everybody that flies in always makes comments about how great and wonderful this airport is.”