MINDEN - Biplanes have held a grand fascination for 59-year-old Ralph Belden.
Growing up just 3 miles off the departure end of the runway in Miles City, Mont., Belden said he dreamed of flight.
"Growing up, I watched all these warbirds land at the Miles City Airport and knew that someday I would be a pilot", said Belden.
Belden, his salt-and-pepper hair tucked under a leather flying cap, gazed over the edge of the open cockpit of the Liberty Bi-Plane. The engine rumbled as he sat on the tarmac of the Minden-Tahoe Airport.
His full-toothed smile revealed the joy he gets even now from flying.
Belden, who is a mechanical engineer, holds a number of patents on internal combustion engines. He has worked all over the world.
"My last assignment was in Asia," he says. "This afforded me the opportunity to retire early and pursue aviation."
It wasn't immediately that Belden received his pilots license. Circumstances kept him from realizing his dream until age 50.
"I came back to the states, bought my Liberty Bi-Plane and moved to Minden," he says. "The Liberty taught me to fly."
That should be clarified - the Liberty and John Brown, instructor at the Minden-Tahoe Airport, taught him to fly.
He said he immediately clicked with Brown. They went from teacher-student to best of friends.
"Right away, I knew John was a person of integrity," he says. "We are now business associates."
Brown operates Flying Start Aero at the airport.
"John is a first-rate flight instructor," he says. "He has provided me with high performance and complex training and does my flight reviews."
That flight instruction has taken off and brought new and added joys to Belden. While the Liberty is Belden's favorite airplane, he owns four others.
Belden is currently negotiating the USA West Coast assembly and marketing rights to the Australian Slepchev Storch, a scale version of the WWII German Storch.
"This is a unique fixed wing aircraft that has flight characteristics similar to a helicopter," he says. "During the war it was used by the Luftwaffe for observation, air ambulance, and search & rescue missions."
He adds that it has such unusual flight capabilities - it flies at 15 mph and can land and take off in 50 feet - that the Allied Armies mounted espionage campaigns to "liberate" a dozen or so for use by their generals. Several were confiscated and the Allied generals found them to be better than Jeeps at getting around battlefields.
Belden said he believes police, firefighters, photographers, surveyors, real estate agents and developers all could benefit from having access to an airplane that performs similar to a helicopter and may be operated at less than 10 percent of the cost of a helicopter.
Ralph said that he loves his airplanes so much that his significant other complains that he paid more attention to the planes than he did to her.
"She said that I was just going to have to choose one or the other," he says.
Belden admits that his girlfriend resides in Australia.
With propeller rolling, Belden guns the engine and taxis down the runway. The Liberty Bi-Plane roars. It rumbles down the runway and takes flight.
"I believe it was time to stop dreaming and start flying," Belden says.