A 1936 news clipping revealed my grandfather’s incredible, death-defying past12/14/2019
In the 1930s, my grandfather, Ole “Obb” Seim, soared across the country in a biplane, part of an acrobatic flying circus known as The Hell Divers — he’d loop, spin, stall and “power dive” to the wild cheers of fans below.
The barnstorming troupe’s ranks were filled with daring pilots (who staged aerial dogfights, zipping their planes through hay lofts by only a whisker), gutsy women (who fearlessly wing-walked, dancing between the clouds with no harnesses or parachutes), daredevils in “bat-wing suits” (who leaped out of a plane 10,000 feet above the ground) and one brave canine aviator — a Boston terrier named Fritz.
During the Great Depression, joining a death-defying flying circus was considered a glamorous (if shockingly dangerous) profession — for men, women and pups alike. A visit from The Hell Divers was a rare bright spot for hard-on-their-luck rural towns, battered by everything from dust bowls to famine.
In one such Minnesota town, a young farm girl named Marie slipped away from her chores and into her best Sunday dress, slyly painted her lips cherry red and scraped together five dimes to buy a ride in Obb Seim’s biplane. They soared over cornfields and fell in love in the firmament. They married and took their honeymoon flight on June 23, 1937, in an open-cockpit Waco biplane to Bloomington, Iowa (just another stop for the flying circus) — and the rest is family history.
Or at least, that’s how my dad always told me the story of how his parents met. But I remained skeptical. It all sounded too wild, too swashbuckling a fairy tale to be true.
That is until earlier this year, when (after some shameless Googling of my last name), I stumbled across an article from the Aug. 11, 1936, Brainerd Dispatch. It proved that every detail of my father’s lofty tale (from the bat wings to the dog) was indeed entirely true.
Reading the article sparked my imagination and an idea that has grown into a 1930s-style audio adventure series — “The Flying Flamingo Sisters” — which debuted last week on Audible. But I’d only begun to scratch the surface of my grandfather’s role as an aviation pioneer. After more digging, I learned that Obb (the son of Norwegian immigrants who spent their first American winter riding out blizzards in a cave) was born on a tiny Minnesota farm in 1903 — exactly one month before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight in Kitty Hawk, NC.
Obb would make his own first flight two decades later — taking lessons in a Curtiss “Jenny” and becoming the 8,576th American to receive a pilot’s license. (Anything under 10,000 gets you serious street cred in aviation circles.)
“I learned to fly a wire-winged plane in a cow pasture in Jackson, [Minn.],” he told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in 1968. “I would do just about anything to do with getting in the air. I just couldn’t leave it alone.”
In his lifetime, he logged 50 years worth of flight time, ferrying wing-walkers, mail, rescue supplies and passengers. But his proudest accomplishment was as one of the nation’s first military flight instructors. By 1939, he’d left his flying circus days behind to teach budding aviators in the Civilian Pilot Training Program — a precursor to the Air Force. He was soon plucked for a position at Randolph Field in Texas, where he trained WWII “flyboys” and earned the rank of lieutenant in the Army Air Forces.
After the war, he and my grandmother settled in Nebraska, where Obb piloted charters to the West Coast, ran airmail throughout the Midwest and continued to teach flying in his beloved yellow Piper Super Cub.
His final flight was in March 1977, when the National Guard asked him to help rescue Sandhills ranchers stranded in a late spring blizzard. He would die peacefully at home that October at 73, just a few weeks before I was born.
“I never hurt myself or anyone else. I guess I was lucky,” he once recalled to my dad. That death-defying luck — and that gravity-defying date in the clouds back in 1936 — resulted in three children and seven grandchildren, including me: once a feet-firmly-in-the-ground skeptic, now a soaring believer.
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