BEMIDJI, Minn. — John Heineman wanted so badly to take flying lessons that he rode his bicycle nearly 15 miles to the nearest airport as a teenager.

Those trips paid off, and some 53 years later, the Bemidji, Minnesota, man has been honored with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s kind of humbling,” Heineman said. “I just think I’m just another pilot, you know. I’m really lucky to be able to fly that many years.”

The award was presented in May at a ceremony in Buffalo, Minnesota. It is the most prestigious honor the FAA issues to pilots certified under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The award recognizes individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as Master Pilots.

Heineman, 70, grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. After his junior year in high school, he started taking flying lessons. In order to get there had to hop on his bike and head to the Lake Elmo Airport. He made his first solo flight that summer — on July 2, 1968 — and caught the flying bug.

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It remained his passion until July of this year when he retired as a pilot with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Now that his flying days are over, Heineman plans to enjoy his time back on the ground or on water.

“I see everybody fishing when I’m flying and think, ‘Doesn’t anybody work?’ Now it’s my turn,” he said. “It’s one of the neatest jobs I’ve had. Working for the DNR has been a great career.”

John and Deb Heineman pose with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award that was presented to John in May. Contributed / John Heineman
John and Deb Heineman pose with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award that was presented to John in May. Contributed / John Heineman

Heineman initially enrolled at the University of Minnesota with the intention of majoring in history. But he switched gears after two years, joined the National Guard, and eventually returned to the U of M as a forestry major.

He also got his commercial instrument flight instructor license and worked at the Anoka County Airport. He spent 26 years in the Guard, and was a Medevac pilot during Desert Storm, although his unit stayed in the U.S.

“Being a Medevac pilot was a great job,” Heineman said. “The military has been really good to me. You make a commitment to do what they want, but still, it’s pretty neat stuff you get to do. After paying to fly, you go into Fort Rucker and there are like 100 helicopters cranked up there. God, they’re paying me to do this? It’s great.”

He was a forester with the DNR’s Bemidji region, but also became a flight instructor with Bemidji Aviation. He also applied for a pilot job with the DNR, but those positions were handled by enforcement personnel, and since he was not a game warden, he did not qualify.

Eventually, however, he was asked to help out as a part-time pilot.

“That’s when I got my foot in the door,” Heineman said. “Eventually they picked up some helicopters like the ones I flew in the Guard, so I started flying those. In 2002 I was up flying moose survey, and all of a sudden my boss called me and asked if I was interested in being a full-time pilot. I almost fell over, because I wasn’t a game warden. But they got me in as a natural resources pilot. They must have liked my work.”

He spent the last 19 years of his DNR career as a full-time pilot. From the air, he conducted surveys of sandhill cranes, ducks and other wildlife. He once observed a moose giving birth.

“We saw her pushing out, so we didn’t hover,” Heineman said. “We didn’t want to harass her. We were checking on the moose after they were born. We were watching for a couple of days, seeing how many of the young would survive, how many were dead.”

They would fly 20 to 40 feet above the ground for some of the surveys, checking for nests and eggs.

He said there were a few mechanical issues on helicopters over the years, but no engine failures. And GPS technology made life a lot easier for pilots.

John and his wife, Deb, celebrate their 45 wedding anniversary this month. Their two children and four grandchildren all live in the western United States, so they plan to travel and spend more time with family in retirement. With someone else at the controls.

“I feel like I’ve been really lucky to be able to fly for 50 years,” he said.