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On a Wing and a Prayer

Orange City

 

Angel Aircraft Corporation Is on a Mission

Story and photos by Mike Whye

From his seat several hundred feet in the air, Carl Mortenson scanned the terrain below. Landing strips chopped out of dense jungle in this southern Peru region were up to 200 miles apart, and Mortenson couldn’t afford to miss an opening. During his challenging flights to deliver Bibles and supplies to missionaries in the late 1950s, he pondered the reassurance an extra engine could provide.

“There were times you could fly for an hour and 45 minutes without seeing a clearing in the jungle,” recalls Mortenson, now of Orange City, where his flying experiences landed him at a drafting table on which he’s been inventing a better plane since the 1960s.

Called the Angel, his twin-engine aircraft, designed around qualities needed when flying in remote areas, can practically leap into the air and land in very short distances. At its optimum, Angel uses only 658 feet to take off and only 568 feet to land.

The best that any similar-size plane can manage is, respectively, 1,525 and 1,825 feet. Angel can hustle up to just over 200 mph, but when flown at only 150 mph, the plane can travel 1,780 miles — a distance from Des Moines to Washington, D.C., and back — without refueling. With its wide, low-pressure tires and heavy-duty brakes, Angel can also use unpaved airfields freshly hacked out of the jungle.

Although its blueprint first formed in Mortenson’s mind somewhere over South America, Angel’s genesis really began in 1943 when Mortenson was 11 and lying on a sickbed in Yorkville, Illinois, with a burst appendix. “I was just about dead,” he remembers, sitting in a design room at the Orange City plant. “I was sick for nine months and had lots of operations.”

Mortenson believes he was spared for a reason, and he subsequently devoted the rest his life to “God’s work.”

After high school he attended Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, which had programs for missionary pilots and mechanics. Only 12 places were available for students that year. “I was 16 and about as average as one could be when I applied. I was the twelfth one accepted.”

After earning licenses to be a pilot and an aircraft mechanic, Mortenson took a language course and was assigned in 1958 first to Guatemala and then Pucallpa, Peru, where he spent the majority of three years flying to remote villages. A bout of polio brought him near death again, but he recovered and was soon flying over low-lying jungle and between the peaks of the Andes. “The passes were 17,000 feet high with 22,000-foot mountains on either side,” he says, describing perilous flights over lands not yet mapped. “No one really knew where anything really was. We didn’t have GPS.”

After returning to Illinois in 1961, Mortenson and others began designing a bush plane with an extra engine. Labor costs and the flight paths of nearby Chicago airports, however, propelled relocation. On the recommendation of a pastor friend whose wife had studied at Northwestern College, Mortenson landed in Orange City. His first design, the Evangel, took flight in 1967. (One of the eight produced now lives at the Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield.) “They’ve flown from Guam to South America,” he says. “It was [the missionaries’] first multiengine aircraft. It carried the pilot and eight others.”

Determined to make an even better aircraft, Mortenson began designing Angel in 1972. A handcrafted prototype first flew in 1984, but certification and manufacturing hurdles delayed its first sale until 2000. The sleek plane’s most notable characteristic is its rearward-facing pusher propellers that help it accelerate fast in a short distance — a fine quality to have on short airstrips surrounded by trees as tall as 200 feet.

Sons Ed and Evan, who both studied in Iowa State University’s aviation program, have been assisting their father with aircraft design and manufacturing since they were in grade school. (Ed still works alongside his father; Evan is now with Beech Aircraft.) Accountant Banj DeYoung completes the team of three at Angel Aircraft Corporation. “Because we’re so little, we do everything,” says Mortenson.

After building and selling three Angels, work at Angel Aircraft has come to a halt. Mortenson has not stopped planning, however. He envisions a major design change — replacing the plane’s gas-powered engine with a lightweight diesel engine because aviation gas is scarce in remote areas of the world but diesel fuel is plentiful. Unfortunately, such diesel engines don’t currently exist. “We’re stymied with no dollars to work with,” he says, adding that recent visitors from China, India, England, and closer to home have expressed interest in the company and its designs. Someone, he believes, will put more Angels in the skies.

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