In the annals of aviation, Max Conrad (1903-1979) figured among the greats. A contemporary of Charles A. Lindbergh (both Minnesotans) and an admirer of the Wright brothers, young Max showed an early inventive genius, tinkering in the family garage with all manner of machines.
Max Conrad…lived at the extremes of human experience. His life a chronicle of personal courage, survival against the elements, loneliness and bitter defeat, triumphs, tragedies and, most of all, the will to keep trying.
Born in 1903 to a moderately well-to-do family in Winona, Minnesota, he might easily have lived and died in that comfortable town on the upper Mississippi. Instead, in 1928, he learned to fly. A little more than a year later, his life changed dramatically. Trying to rescue a girl who was walking into a spinning propeller, he was hit himself, sustaining brain damage that affected his speech, reading and writing skills – but not his ability to fly. Clinging to that skill, he brought it to a degree of perfection that won for him six distance and endurance records….[At the time of his death in 1979] he undoubtedly logged more time in the air than any pilot in the history of aviation—more than 50,000 hours – the equivalent of almost six years, always in light planes and usually alone.
In spite of marriage & a large family, his life was essentially solitary.
In 1954 he flew solo, nonstop from New York to Paris to deliver a small plane. He was the first man to make that flight since Lindbergh. Out of this, he created a unique career ferrying more than 150 light aircraft across the Atlantic and at least 30 over the Pacific. These deliveries in turn led him to extend his abilities to incredible limits in a bid for world records. He once flew alone in a single-engine plane from Casablanca to Los Angeles staying aloft for 58 hours and 38 minutes. His life became a series of undertakings in which part of him always remained aware of the constant possibility of sudden violent death. Spurning conventional enterprises where other men have succeeded, he triumphed where most men would not even dare. (excerpt from Into the Wind – The Story of Max Conrad by Sally Buegeleisen, Random House, 1973).
“Have been very restless and dissatisfied of late with the way I’m drifting
along and not getting anyplace. For the past five months have had a
desire to get into the aviation game…”
–Max Conrad, Log Book #1, January 1928
Born on January 21, 1903 in the Mississippi lumber and grain distributing town of Winona, Minnesota, the son of a German immigrant Maximilian A. Conrad, (né Koerstein), a moderately prosperous furrier, and elementary schoolteacher Elizabeth Baier, a farm girl from the nearby town of Rochester, MN. Max was the third child of seven and first son.
The young Max was shy and introverted, interested more in teaching himself than in structured lessons. As a young man he became a proficient musician on a variety of instruments, a balladeer of tunes and organized his own band. He was also an athlete of Olympic caliber.
In 1924, Max was attracted by an airshow poster. He ambled over to watch and was smitten. He had discovered his lifelong love.
Max obtained his pilot’s license in 1928. While barnstorming in 1929, he was seriously injured when trying to save a passenger from a spinning propeller. Serious brain damage impaired his ability to speak, read, write and remember. Through sheer power of will, he gradually recovered and regained his ability to fly.
Marriage & Family
In 1931, strongly opposed by both sets of parents, Max married Betty Biesanz, daughter of Charlie and Maude Biesanz, owners and operators of the Biesanz Stone Company. Max was 27 and Betty, recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was 20.
A series of tragic events beset their early married life. While on their honeymoon, Max’s brother Art crashed in one of the Conrad Aviation planes killing himself and his four passengers. Lawsuits were begun, student departures left lessons unpaid, airplanes attached and all activity at the airport ceased.
With the aid of his father-in-law, Max obtained property outside of town for an airport and flying school and began to purchase a fleet of planes. With the help of the government’s Civilian Pilot Training (CPT), Max set up four schools outside of town and soon had more work than he could handle. The Washington bureaucracy and administrative burden became too much for him; he closed the flight training schools, moved 30+ planes (Pipers, Aeroncas, Taylorcrafts, Stinsons, and a Ryan), cramming them into his airport hangar in Winona.
One very cold winter day in 1942, a bucket of gas used for cleaning an engine was accidentally overturned by one of the students causing a flash of fire and soon the entire hangar, planes and all, went up in flames. Seeing his livelihood being destroyed before his eyes, Max had almost a sense of relief. What little insurance they had barely covered the bills. Max had to find other work in order to support Betty and their six children.
Move to Minneapolis & Honeywell
After a brief stint with Northwest Airlines under contract with the government’s Air Transport Command, Max became a bush pilot flying supplies into the north woods of Canada and as far as the Arctic Circle.
Then in 1943 he began a 10-year career with Minneapolis Honeywell Regulator Company as their Executive Pilot. The family moved from Winona to the Edina suburb of Minneapolis where two more little Conrads were born.
Move to Switzerland
World War II over, dependable home help difficult to find and expensive, Betty was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained caring for a burgeoning family as well as a 13-room home on seven acres. Max’s solution was to send his wife and eight children to Europe where they remained for the next two years in a rented chalet high in the Vaudois Alps (Les Diablerets). The U.S. dollar was doing so well, Betty was able to get a live-in Swiss maid and when they later spent nine months in Florence, Italy, she took two maids along to cook and care for the little ones! Max had some vacation time coming so he took the Queen Mary to Le Havre, France and spent Christmas of 1948 with his family in Switzerland. In September of 1949, Max’s third son and ninth child was born in Florence, Italy. In the early 50’s the family moved back to Edina, MN and then back again to Europe where the children went to boarding schools for several years. In the late 50’s they once again left Europe for California where they settled for a time in Calistoga and then for several years in San Francisco.
The marriage of Max and Betty (Biesanz) Conrad endured despite the long absences and loneliness. The family grew to 10 children and ultimately 37 grandchildren.
Betty died prematurely in Cottonwood, Arizona in 1971 of complications due to chronic asthma. Max passed away in his sleep while visiting a former flight student and friend, Ethel Meyer Finley, in Summit, NJ. The “Flying Grandfather” had come to rest. Sacred Heart Cathedral in his hometown of Winona was crowded for his funeral, videotaped and televised internationally, the event featured on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world.