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For airline pilot Mal Freeburg, handling in-flight emergencies was all in a day’s work.

The bad news traveled fast on a beautiful afternoon at St. Paul’s Municipal Airport in April 1932. Sitting in Northwest Airway’s Minnesota headquarters, radio operator Bill Edwards listened to a message through his headphones:“Hello Bill. This is Number 4, southbound. Freeburg speaking. Propeller on left outboard motor just let go.” Northwest pilot Mal Freeburg had taken off an hour earlier, headed for Chicago in a Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor. He soon relayed more disturbing details to Edwards: The port Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine on his violently vibrating Tin Goose had broken loose, lodging in the landing gear and shredding a tire.

For the eight passengers and two pilots, it was a potentially disastrous situation.“Everybody knew a Tri-Motor would fly on two engines,” copilot Joe Kimm recalled, “but nobody had any idea how badly the ship would be unbalanced with one outboard motor removed altogether.” Freeburg had immediately cut the ignition to the dangling Wasp. As the plane continued to shudder, he shut down the other two engines. With more than 1,500 feet of altitude, the 26-year-old Minnesotan nosed the Tri-Motor down to maintain airspeed and assessed the situation. He calmly radioed his decision: “We are over the town of Wabasha [Minnesota]. I’m going…to fly over the Mississippi and try to drop the motor there.” Freeburg then fired up his two working engines, pulled the plane into a climb and, as the passengers hung on for their lives, used his rudder to fishtail the Tin Goose from side to side. After some eight minutes of maneuvering, the wayward Wasp broke loose, landing in a field.

Freeburg decided to land in nearby Durand, Wis., where he eased the Tri-Motor down and skidded to a stop. “Everybody and everything safe,” he reported. “Waiting for a relief ship so that we may continue.” Ignoring all the drama, he would summarize the incident in just two sentences in his report: “Delayed on account of motor trouble. Changed ships at Wabasha.”

Mal Bryan Freeburg’s roots were anchored in the Minnesota north country hamlet of Blackduck, 70 miles from the Canadian border, where he was born in 1906. After his family moved to Minneapolis in 1919, Mal attended West High School and became known as a loner who liked to sing and tinker with his motorcycle.

Freeburg studied law at the University of Minnesota until, in the spring of 1926, a thought about flying airplanes struck him, as he later said, “for no reason at all.” The next day he bought a secondhand Canadian Curtiss JN-4—known as the “Can” or “Canuck,” the Canadian version of the legendary American “Jenny”—and scheduled his first flying lesson. After seven hours of training he felt ready to solo. It wasn’t long before he began barnstorming and stunt flying.

In 1926 he married Ruth Smith and they embarked upon what Mal later called America’s first “flying honeymoon.” They returned to barnstorming in 1927 before opening the Freeburg Flying Service in Shenandoah, Iowa.

In the fall of 1928 Freeburg convinced Charles “Speed” Holman, Northwest Airways’ chief pilot, to give him a job. Freeburg flew airmail routes, racking up 6,200 flying hours, including 3,600 at night, by the summer of 1930. On the night of July 12, 1930, while cruising in his Waco JYM biplane toward Chicago, Freeburg was about 60 miles southeast of St. Paul when he spotted a fire below. He discovered that the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad trestle near Trevino, Wis., was ablaze, then realized he’d passed over a Burlington Blackhawk passenger express just minutes earlier, speeding toward the burning bridge. Freeburg began a low-level run back up the tracks, executing two warning passes at the locomotive with his landing lights flashing. When the train kept going he made yet another pass, dropping landing flares. The Blackhawk chugged to a stop just 400 yards from the burning trestle.

Freeburg flew on to Chicago, and didn’t mention his railroad adventure. But after the Burlington crew reported the incident, investigators discovered it was Freeburg who had stopped the train. The railroad gave him a gold watch, and the Chicago Daily News chipped in $100.

By the time Freeburg saved the Tri-Motor two years later, his fame was growing. On December 13, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the Northwest pilot the first recipient of the new Congressional Air Mail Medal of Honor.

In January 1933, Freeburg and Amelia Earhart headlined an effort to prove the viability of a year-round air route from the Twin Cities to Seattle—in winter. Freeburg, now Northwest’s chief pilot, served as a backup pilot to Hugh Rueschenberg and copilot Joe Kimm. A group of passengers, including Earhart and Northwest founder Lewis H. Brittin, boarded a Tri-Motor that lifted off in swirling snow on January 28. They struggled through snowstorms and mountains, and were delayed for two days in snowbound Spokane before reaching Seattle.

On September 19, 1934, the Chicago Herald and Tribune trumpeted, “Pilot Saves Seven! Lands Airliner Without Wheels.” Freeburg, copilot John Woodhead and five passengers had left St. Paul at 8:30 p.m. headed to Minneapolis in a Lockheed 10A Electra. When its retractable landing gear refused to deploy, Freeburg looked at a worried passenger and said, “Guess we’ll have to make it without wheels.” He turned back toward St. Paul and circled the airport for 90 minutes, dumping fuel in the river.

As Freeburg finally began his approach, spotlights illuminated the Electra. “Not helping matters any was the fact that this ship landed plenty hot,”he later explained.“Hot in this case meant 75 miles an hour!” His first try was too fast, so Freeburg gunned his engines and flashed up and out of the river valley to circle for another pass. The next time he touched down on the plane’s belly, and the Electra slid for 700 feet, spewing sparks in its wake before it came to a stop. Ever modest, Freeburg told an interviewer, “I still can’t see why everyone made such a fuss over that landing.”

When air routes across mountains brought new problems for commercial pilots, who reported feeling drowsy and woozy above 10,000 feet, Northwest and three Mayo Clinic physicians approached Freeburg to test a potential solution, a molded latex device with an attached rubber “lung”—the first modern American aviation oxygen mask. On July 28, 1938, Freeburg took the doctors, airline personnel and his second wife Vi on a test flight in a DC-3, with everyone wearing the masks. After they landed, one of the doctors declared, “It was just like breathing on the ground.”

Freeburg became NWA’s check pilot, later serving as operations executive. During the war years, the military contracted with Northwest to establish an aerial route to Alaska. Freeburg, flying C-47 Skytrains, blazed a trail from Anchorage across the Aleutians to Adak. After the war, when Northwest planned to link the Twin Cities with Honolulu, Freeburg was one of several pilots who learned to handle the new Loran (long-range navigation) system. He piloted NWA’s first flight to Hawaii, flying a DC-4 via Seattle and Portland. In 1952 he left Northwest to become Transocean Air Line’s director of operations. He later worked as a consultant for Japan Airlines.

Freeburg’s first marriage produced two children, James and Patricia. As a boy, Jim often sat on his father’s lap in the cockpit. He joined his dad in the national spotlight in August 1948, when they shared a Northwest cockpit for the first time—Mal as captain and Jim as first officer. Jim would fly for Northwest for more than 42 years, also taking part in the Korean airlift in the 1950s.

Mal Freeburg died of multiple sclerosis on May 10, 1963, at age 57. In a March 19, 2009, interview, Jim recalled how technically skilled and intuitive at the controls his dad was. He also pointed out another of Mal’s talents, to “always know what to do.”Regarding his dad’s low-key reaction to publicity, Jim said: “My father believed pilots, when well-trained and well-prepared, should be able to handle emergencies. He didn’t see what he did as heroic, necessarily. It was just part of the job.”


Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.