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Brothers enshrined in hall of fame

Alan Klapmeier

The Klapmeier brothers — founders of Cirrus Design and beyond — have joined the ranks of the Wright brothers and Maj. Richard I. Bong.

Alan Klapmeier, chief executive officer of Kestrel Aircraft and cofounder of Cirrus Design in Duluth, shared a national honor with his brother Dale — enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Founded in 1962 as an Ohio nonprofit in Dayton — the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright and the birthplace of flight — the hall of fame was chartered nationally by an act of Congress in 1964. It is dedicated to honoring individuals who have contributed to the nation’s aviation achievement.

“They dreamed the dreams. They harnessed the technologies. They served their country and their fellow man. And they created a world where the sky was no longer the limit,” according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s website. “… but it also embraces another key role – spotlighting our air and space pioneers as ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”

The Wright Brothers were the hall’s first inductees in 1962. Others include astronauts, pilots who performed firsts and served their country, and designers and engineers who advanced aviation.

Poplar native and America’s Ace of Aces, Bong, has been enshrined since 1986. Bong earned the honor for a record 40 enemy aircraft downed in World War II, a record that still stands today.

Now the honor has come back to the Twin Ports through the contributions of the Klapmeier brothers to general aviation.

The second and third sons of Larry and Carol Klapmeier joined forces to start Cirrus Design. After Alan Klapmeier left the company where his brother Dale still works, he took the lead in a new aviation company, Kestrel Aircraft, which is in the process of certifying a new composite single-prop turbo jet with production to get underway in Superior.

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” Alan Klapmeier said. “As a little kid, my mother would bring me to the airport because then I wouldn’t be screaming and crying, and she could actually read a book.”

Whether it was building plastic models, watching airplane movies or reading airplane books, it’s an interest the elder Klapmeier said made him decide he was going to start an airplane company while he was still in high school. During his junior year, Alan joined the Civil Air Patrol where flying lessons were economical and after high school he got his pilot’s license.

In 1979, while a senior at Ripon College where he earned degrees in physics and economics, Alan began designing what became the Cirrus VK-30, a five-seat, composite piston-pusher prop craft with conventional wings and tail, which became the first kit aircraft featured on the cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology in January 1990.

With their sights set on FAA certification, Cirrus left Wisconsin for Duluth to focus on a different design, the SR20 with transformative technologies including the Cirrus airframe parachute system, which revolutionized the small aircraft industry and saved more than 90 lives.

“The Klapmeier Brothers spirit of exploration has gone on to transform and grow the general aviation industry, making it more safe, competitive and innovative,” according to the script used during the Oct. 4 enshrinement dinner.

“This whole, giant history of aviation, it’s a very, very, very, very, very — I don’t know how many verys I’ve said, but double it — funny feeling to be told you’re being inducted into this thing,” Alan Klapmeier said. His brother was unavailable for comment. “Your picture’s up there on the wall with the rest of these guys. It just doesn’t feel right … there’s a feeling they somehow made a mistake.”

After all the brothers leading two Twin Ports aircraft manufacturing companies join the ranks of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, men who walked on the moon, the Wright Brothers who first reached for the sky in 1903, Charles Lindbergh who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and Poplar’s own Medal of Honor war hero.

While the Klapmeier brothers were recognized for their vision, the honor is not theirs alone.

“At the hall of fame event … I would use the word ‘we’ a lot,” Alan Klapmeier said. “By ‘we,’ I didn’t mean Dale and I. By ‘we,’ it meant all of the people it took to get it done. Obviously, from very early stage, it’s a lot of people. No one person could do it, and no one person should ever get credit.”