This site presents information about the life, times, and career of Ernie Buehl.
For all of his adult life, Ernie Buehl was a colorful, adventurous aviator, in a era of many colorful, adventurous aviators. Even in that group, he stood out not only for of his lifelong dedication to the development of general aviation, but also in the way that his life touched some historically important events.
Information contained in this website comes mostly from records and documentation kept by Ernie Buehl himself and now in possession of his descendants.
During his later life, Ernie made many remarkable statements about the adventures he had as a young man. Often, he made these statements in front of large audiences of highly credible people, including the likes of General Alfred L. “Abby” Wolf, a key founding member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and close friend of Ernie’s, and none of these people doubted the stories. Ernie was clearly legendary, even to those in his circle who themselves are now remembered in legends. One problem in writing Ernie’s history, though, is the documentary evidence that verifies his stories is scattered among uncounted newspaper clippings and other sources. It has never been pulled together. Another problem is that some of the stories are bigger than life. Sometimes the stories outgrew the facts, as legends often do.
In many cases, Ernie’s involvement in the great events of his day would be considered peripheral. For example, Ernie shared the adventure and all of the risks of the first transcontinental air mail flight in 1920, but at age 23, when that event happened, he was the mechanic and co-pilot and was only occasionally mentioned in the accounts of that event. Later, in 1922, we have evidence that Ernie was helping Roald Amundsen prepare for an attempt to fly over the North Pole that year. The plan was to take off from Alaska, fly over the North Pole, and land in Norway. That expedition literally never “got off the ground,” because in May 1922 their airplane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania with Amundsen and Ernie aboard. No one was injured but the plane was destroyed and Amundsen was not able to re-organize for another attempt for a couple of years. As a result, Ernie is not mentioned in any official accounts of Amundsen’s attempts to explore the North Pole.
We believe that Ernie’s life would make an excellent basis for a movie. The elements of drama are all there: a young, talented immigrant arrives in the United States and immediately embarks on a series of adventures with some of the significant personalities of his time. His efforts contribute to opening transcontinental air travel, and to opening important exploration the Canadian oil fields that now are the largest suppliers of oil to the United States. At one point, he finds himself working with one of the most accomplished world explorers to have ever lived. Later, he opens a series of airports and during World War II he trains literally thousands of pilots for the US military. At one point during World War II, Ernie even becomes the pilot for General Charles deGaulle. In another amazing twist, this German immigrant is found to be the only flight instructor in his region who will take an African American student. Through Ernie’s determined advocacy, his student becomes one of the first African Americans to ever receive the Air Transport License. This same student goes on to lead the Tuskegee Airmen, one of the most effective flying units ever formed in the world. Early in his life, Ernie is caught up in an arson investigation against his former boss, John M. Larsen. Late in his life, Ernie resists corruption and refuses to bribe public officials to allow him to keep his airport open. He remains a tireless advocate for public aviation. In the end, his funeral is honored with a military fly-over in the “missing man” formation, organized by General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
There are some advantages for understanding aviation history through looking at the life of Ernie Buehl. First among these is that it drives us to examine sources that document the early history of aviation at the time of the events. So much history that is found on the internet is little more than one site copying what was said in another site, often resulting in a gradual loss of detail, vigor, and even accuracy. By opening the story, discussing the events and personalities involved in the events he touched, we are finding a much richer, more intimate and probably more accurate, story of aviation history than we find in many contemporary sources we have seen.
A second advantage is that Ernie’s story also touches the stories of a few others whose contribution to aviation is largely lost. Google “John M. Larsen” for instance, or look for his name in Wikipedia and you will not find much. Yet Larsen was an aviator of international reputation and as much as he turned out to be a scoundrel, he was one of the more influential figures in promoting US aviation during the period just after World War I. He is someone who deserves much fuller biographical treatment.
The third major advantage is that even though most events in Ernie’s later life did not have the national or international significance that he touched in his earlier days, Ernie absorbed something important in those days that he carried forward for the rest of his life. Imagine what he would absorb, flying across the country at age 23 with Larsen and Rickenbacker as his passengers. Think about what it would mean to be a member of the Quiet Birdmen in the days when the likes of Lindbergh were members. In those early years of his career, Ernie was exposed to a perspective on general aviation and the importance of local airports that he defended until his death in 1990. Ernie carried forward with himself the ideas and values of some of the greatest pioneers of aviation. Those of us who have been touched by Ernie have touched history.