LA CROSSE - It's been nearly four decades since Bruce Warhanik last sat in the cockpit of a Mississippi Valley Airlines plane. But when he pinned his co-pilot wings to his lapel for the first time in 38 years earlier this month, it brought back a rush of pride.
"It made me feel good," Warhanik, 72, said.
Warhanik joined 22 of his fellow MVA pilots for a three-day reunion that included a visit to the Holland Air Park hangar and memorabilia sharing. Flying in from across the country, all but about six of the living pilots and copilots to serve the former La Crosse airline, in operation from July 22, 1968, through 1985, made the gathering. For many, it was the first time they had seen each other in 30 to 50 years, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
"I literally started tearing up," said Craig Blechta, 69, of Florida. "Some of these guys I thought I'd never see again. It means a lot."
Warhanik, of Onalaska, and Blechta began planning the reunion 10 months ago, Warhanik doing a deep dive on the internet to track everyone down.
"I felt like Columbo," he quipped.
MVA was founded as Gateway Aviation, with flights from La Crosse to Chicago and Milwaukee on DHC twin otter planes, and renamed Mississippi Valley Airways in October 1969. During the next four years, the company, founded in part by Herb Lee, who purchased WKTY from the La Crosse Tribune , Norm Elsy of Chicago and Chuck Draine of Winona, expanded operations to the Twin Cities, Dubuque, Winona and Prairie du
In 1982, operations were moved from La Crosse to Moline, Ill. In 1985, the company merged with Air Wisconsin.
"I really think we started an operation that filled a niche," Warhanik says. "A big-time airline in a small town."
For Warhanik and Blechta, MVA was their first piloting gig, having previously worked as flight instructors.
"If (MVA) hadn't happened, there's a good chance we wouldn't have gone on to do what we did," Blechta said of the starting point of his career.
Bob Bolinger, 82, of Tennessee was a corporate airline pilot before taking a job at MVA as a commercial pilot.
"It was one of the best jobs I ever had," Bolinger says.
There were just five pilots when Bolinger came on — the first captain hired was Buzz Sundin, 75, of Florida — the number near tripling by 1972. Two planes were in operation the first year and following the twin otters were a Beechcraft 99 and a prototype Swearingen Metroliner pressurized twin turboprop airliner.
Back in the 1970s, Bolinger says, "We were cowboys — we'd do things no one had ever done," and the atmosphere inside the aircraft was much different. The cockpit was rarely closed, with passengers wandering in and out to chat and hear about the inner workings of the plane. On the downside, the lack of radar on the planes made for a guessing game when it came to inclement weather. During one particularly bad storm, Bolinger recalls looking to see Warhanik reciting "the Lord's Prayer. ... There was nothing to do but hang on and enjoy the ride."
Warhanik always seemed to be on duty when turmoil struck, in the copilot seat during the only two incidents in MVA's history.
"You don't want to fly with me too much," he joked.
On one flight, a goose flew into the windshield and on a flight to Winona on Nov. 9, 1970, Warhanik, pilot Paul Tyvand and four passengers narrowly escaped death when their DeHaviland Otter plummeted and crashed a half mile from the La Crosse Municipal Airport.
"The motors of the plane, two wings, and motor, fuselage and motor parts were strewn along the path. ... Tree tops that had been clipped off were strewn about," stated a La Crosse Tribune front-page article.
Tyvand was in intensive care with a broken leg and cuts after the crash, according to the article, and Warhanik had a skull fracture and contusions. Warhanik recalls having metal pieces stuck in his leg and his head split wide open. There were, astonishingly, no fatalities.
"That airplane is built like a tank," Warhanik said. "The twin otter is the (safest) plane to crash in."
Despite the harrowing incident and his injuries, he says he didn't hesitate to get back in the co-pilot seat.
Warhanik says working for MVA was the job of a lifetime, and Bolinger says his career was "one of the most rewarding experiences in the world."
Bollinger wore his silver name tag for the reunion, like Warhanik having not donned the prestigious pin in decades.
"The last time I wore this," Bollinger said, "I was called 'captain.'"