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Crop Duster Michael Gunvordahl Talks of his Flying Tigers Pilot Uncle
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The flying tigers

Last week we featured an interview with Sam Kleiner, author of The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots who Waged a Secret War Against Japan. The Flying Tigers were led by General Claire Chennault, who molded a bunch of misfits and characters into a successful group of flyers responsible for destroying nearly 300 enemy aircraft in Burma, Thailand and China.

A listener from Burke reached out to us after the segment to let us know that his uncle flew with the Flying Tigers and that he had some interesting stories to share. Michael Gunvordahl visits about his uncle, Ralph Gonvordahl. A pilot himself, Gunvordahl also details his career as a crop duster. You may listen to the interview in its entirety here.

Steve Zwemke: Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Steven Zwemke. Last week we featured an interview with Sam Kleiner, author of The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan. The Flying Tigers were led by General Claire Chennault, who molded a bunch of misfits and characters into a successful group of flyers responsible for destroying nearly 300 enemy aircraft in Burma, Thailand, and China. A listener from Burke reached out to us after the segment to let us know that his uncle flew with the Flying Tigers and that he had some interesting stories to share. He joins us now from Burke. Michael Gunvordahl, welcome to In the Moment.

Michael G.: Yes.

Steve Zwemke: It's good to visit with you again. Let's start out by sharing what you know about your uncle, Ralph Gunvordahl, prior to his enlisting in the military. You never had a chance to meet him. Right?

Michael G.: No. No. He was killed in November of 43, and I was born August of 43.

Steve Zwemke: Okay. What do you know from your family about Ralph as a young man before he enlisted?

Michael G.: Well, he was kind of a trickster.

Steve Zwemke: He had to be in the Flying Tigers. Right?

Michael G.: Yeah. I don't know. He was probably a pretty typical high school kid. I mean, he was big. And I thought he went to University of South Dakota. But I think he just went to Yankton College. And he left there and went to the Navy.

Steve Zwemke: Now he had a friend that he enlisted with that is known to pretty much everybody here in South Dakota. Tell me about who he enlisted with and what that experience was like on their way to enlistment.

Michael G.: Well, in his book, Joe Foss wrote, and this is a quote I think from the book. In February 1940, with $5 in my pocket, I hitchhiked to Minneapolis, Minnesota, about 300 miles away to apply for enlistment. With me was Ralph Gunvordahl from Burke, South Dakota. He was later famous as one of the Flying Tigers over Burma. Out of 28 men who applied that weekend, we were the only ones accepted. Later, we hitchhiked home through a snow storm, our eyes still dilated from drops that had been put in them. That's Joe's story. Ralph's mother, my grandmother, told it a little differently. She gave them a ride to Sioux City, let them out of the car, turned around, was stopped at a stop light a block away and looked in the rear view mirror. And two girls in a convertible picked them up, and she found out later, took them all the way to Minneapolis.

Steve Zwemke: So which one is the true story?

Michael G.: I think probably Grandmother's.

Steve Zwemke: So they were fighter pilots before they were fighter pilots. Right?

Michael G.: Oh, yeah. Go ahead.

Steve Zwemke: You had mentioned that your family still has a collection of articles from newspapers, some memorabilia from Ralph's service in the military. Can you kind of describe what is left behind?

Michael G.: We've just got pages and pages of scrapbooks and newspaper articles. I mean, there was another one that Ralph Gunvordahl, Burke, South Dakota flyer returned last week. Won't be back in the state for a while. He's in New York attending and blah, blah, blah. And it says here that he was credited with shooting down five Japanese planes in the Christmas Day raid on Rangoon. The way I understand it, though, is he only got credit for one because they had to recover the wreckage to give him credit, and the others went in the water, in the ocean.

Steve Zwemke: We should go back to Joe Foss for a minute too because you had told me over the phone that Joe Foss became, not necessarily a regular, but he would show up at the house every so often.

Michael G.: Well, he and Ralph's brother both went to Vermilion. And Joe came from a very poor family, and he was working his way through college, whatever. And to save money, he had to scrimp on eating. And he'd come home with Harold on the weekends. And my grandmother said that he'd just spend the entire weekend eating, and he'd kind of starve through the week.

Steve Zwemke: Nothing like a little home cooking.

Michael G.: Right.

Steve Zwemke: Also, your Uncle Ralph Gunvordahl was mentioned in Pappy Boyington's book. And I read that as a paperback, I think way back in grade school. And I remember some language that probably wasn't appropriate for me in fourth grade when I read it.

Michael G.: Well, Boyington was quite a character also. He and Ralph were buddies. I think they met in Pensacola. I think they were in the same squadron in the Tigers. I don't remember which one it was, and I was just trying to look it up. Somewhere I have a book that was given me by one of the Tigers. I think it was something like Memoirs of a Flying Tiger, or whatever. And it had all three of the squadrons. I think it was the Panda Bears, the Hell's Angels, and I don't remember the other one. But he and Boyington were in the same squadron. And Boyington told a story about how one time there was an air raid, and they were on the ground and went running and dove into a trench. And he went in first and landed, and Ralph came over the top and landed on him. And Ralph at six two and 220 pounds was kind of bruising, I imagine.

Steve Zwemke: And I dare guess what came out of Pappy's mouth at that time.

Michael G.: Yeah.

Steve Zwemke: Ralph, as you mentioned, unfortunately died in 1943. He was a test pilot at the time. Was it the Grumman Wildcat that he was testing?

Michael G.: That's correct, the FM-2 Wildcat. And they're not sure what happened. But when I read the accident report, I think it said in there something about his last contact was, he called them. He was at 35,000 feet pushing over for a terminal velocity dive, and that was it.

Steve Zwemke: And that was 1943. How old was Ralph at the time?

Michael G.: 24.

Steve Zwemke: 24. Wow. One of the things I wanted to ask you too was, all these pilots, and not just pilots, but crew members and anybody that was involved in the Flying Tigers, at one point they disbanded. They went their separate ways. Did Ralph immediately go to work for GM Eastern Aircraft at the time? Or did he come home for a little bit?

Michael G.: I really don't know for sure, except when it says here in this one article that he won't be back in the state for a while. He is now in New York attending to a little business. It might've been monkey business for all I know. But I believe, from talking to family and the other articles and all that he pretty much went to work for Eastern right away.

Steve Zwemke: Michael Gunvordahl is our guest. He's from Burke, South Dakota. His uncle was Ralph Gunvordahl, who was a member of the Flying Tigers and fought against Japan in World War II. Michael, we, during our discussion over the phone, got to know a little more about you and your interesting line of work, and you're also a pilot. How did you become a pilot? Was there any family? Did that get just handed down through the family? Or was it just something you were interested in on your own?

Michael G.: My mother was a stewardess for United. Way back years and years ago, even before the DC-3, the first airplane Mom flew on was the Trimotor Boeing, and that was back when United was in Cheyenne. And Mom said that I taught myself to read building model airplanes. And all I remember is, I've always just been really an aviation nut.

Steve Zwemke: Yeah, loved aircraft. Well, you and agricultural aircraft go side by side. And I want to talk to you a little bit about that because you are a crop duster. And Michael, I've got to tell you, that is an art. I don't know anybody that does not enjoy watching you guys fly low over the fields, and then those high banks. It's just fascinating to watch you. How do you learn that art?

Michael G.: Well, when I was 10 years old, I went to work for George Grubbs at the Gregory. I was flying in fields and mowing runways and anything for flying lessons. And he taught me to fly. And then one year, summer of college, he said, "Hey. It's time you started spraying." And he proceeded to teach me to spray, and that was the end of college. He didn't do too good a job of teaching though, because the first day I sprayed, the second load I took out, I crashed. I lost a brake taking off on a road, and you steer it with the brakes. And I was on a narrow road and got caught in loose gravel, and that was it. I went down into a plowed field and rolled it over on its top.

Steve Zwemke: Like I said, it's an art. It's fascinating to watch, but obviously it's dangerous. And I was just reading online this morning that a crop duster had crashed. I want to say Oklahoma. I'm not sure if that location is right. But talk about the dangers of your work.

Michael G.: Well, the biggest dangers, or one of the biggest dangers we have today are cell phone towers because they all, well, most of them have guide wires out to the side. And I lost a friend last year or the year before in Texas that I worked with in Iowa, that caught a wing tip on a guide wire of a cell tower. And then a lot of it too it, the equipment today is ... They're running these turbine airplanes that are faster than all get out. They're going across the field about 160 miles an hour, and things happen really quick when you're going that fast.

Steve Zwemke: And extremely light, too, I would imagine.

Michael G.: Well, they're not really light. Matter of fact, some of them, like the 802 Air Tractor carries 800 gallon. Well, in water, that's 6400 pounds. So you know, over three ton.

Steve Zwemke: Sure. Before we go, Michael, one thing I wanted to talk about too is, you had hit on a concern in that a lot of the crop dusters are up in age. Who's taking their places? Are there people out there learning? Are there people out there teaching new pilots?

Michael G.: There are numbers that want to learn, and I'm not really familiar with what's happening as far as new pilots starting because of the turbine airplanes. They're a half a million to a million dollars a piece. And it's almost impossible to get anybody insured in an airplane the first season they fly. And I don't know if there are people still using the old Piper Pawnees and Cessnas and breaking people in or not. But I know there's a lot of them that are ... I'm 75, and I've been spraying for over 50 years.

I've been looking for somebody that wants to learn, and I'll work with them and teach them. But the training that they get today is totally different from when I learned to fly. When I learned to fly, we were taught and had to know spins and this and that. And a lot of us learned in tailwheel airplanes, which are harder to fly on the ground, and in taking off. And all spray planes are practically tailwheel airplanes.

Steve Zwemke: I want to thank you for sharing some stories about your uncle, Ralph Gunvordahl, and visiting a little bit about your career as well. Michael Gunvordahl, from Burke, has been our guest. Nice to meet you, Michael. Take care.

Michael G.: You too.