The only thing worse than having a propeller come apart in flight, is to have it come apart at low altitude. That is the situation that air race pilot Bill Brennand faced when his prop shed about 10 inches of a blade while he was flying a qualifying session at the Cleveland National Air Races in 1947. He quickly shut off the engine and searched for a landing spot. The only viable one was someplace he wasn’t supposed to go—over the grandstand. He quickly banked over and made a downwind touchdown in a small space with no brakes. “The rules said we had to have brakes on the airplanes, but it didn’t say that they had to work,” Brennand says.
Brennand was born in 1924 and grew up on a farm that is now the south end of Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh. As a boy he watched legendary air racer Steve Wittman roar overhead at a couple of hundred feet doing test flights on his race aircraft. Later, in spite of having no money, Brennand started taking flying lessons. “If you really want something, you’ll find a way to get it,” he says. He worked for Wittman Flying Service to pay for lessons.
When the Goodyear Air Races were announced after World War II, Wittman rebuilt and reconfigured his old race airplane, Chief Oshkosh (which hadn’t flown since a post-engine-failure crash in 1938). The resulting ship was so different from the original that Wittman gave it a new name: Buster. Brennand was surprised when Wittman asked him to race it. At 100 pounds, Brennand was much lighter than Wittman at 170, and that difference was significant when flying an airplane weighing about 500 pounds. Wittman knew talent when he saw it. And so, Brennand, having never flown an air race before in his life—and in a rebuilt wrecked airplane—beat the pants off of the pilots he idolized while growing up. He went on to fly many other races and won over half of them.
Brennand was smart enough to recognize that while racing was fun, it wasn’t a stable career; he left it behind to fly a Beech 18 for a local company. Later he started his own airport, Brennand, about 10 miles north of Oshkosh; it still thrives today. He loaned property on Lake Winnebago to the EAA for use as a seaplane base during its annual convention and oversaw its operation for more than 20 years. He also supervised the operation of a 1920s Stinson Trimotor that he and friends resurrected from a hulk.
Where others of his generation often spurn modern avionics, Brennand is quick to state that he always wanted the latest technology on any airplane he flew, because it made flying safer. Now 89, his next project is assisting his local EAA chapter with the construction of a replica of Buster.
Who | Bill Brennand, former race pilot
Hours | 15,000
Ratings | Commercial SEL, MEL, SES. CFI single and multiengine. CFII. A&P with IA
Extra | “My job at Wittman Flying Service was to wash the airplanes, sweep the hangar—and win the National Air Races.”