It was 1945. Highland-Winet Airport had just been built.
Merle Wernle was just 5 years old. His mother was trying to get him to lay down for a nap — always quite the chore. But this day — and every day thereafter — it would prove even more difficult.
As he was just settling down, a great roar outside his window pulled Wernle’s head from the pillow. He sprang from bed to see an airplane climbing through the sky over his family’s farm. From that day on, whenever he would close his eyes, Wernle would hear the rumble of that propeller and dream of one day touching the heavens.
“I always told (my mother) I was going to learn how to fly before I got my driver’s license, and I did,” Wernle said.
Never miss a local story.
When he was 9, Wernle began working at the same airport. He mowed grass, worked the lines and ran fuel as a gas boy. He patiently waited, biding his time and saving his money, until he could begin flying lessons.
When he turned 15, he put the earnings from his airport work toward a pilot’s license, which cost $350 at the time. A year later, he would be preforming his first solo flight.
“I never will forget that day,” Wernle said. “It’s either, ‘I do it right or I make a mistake.’ ”
Everyone gets nervous from time to time, but Wernle said there are no nerves like climb into the cockpit alone for the first time. But once he was airborne, all of his fears seemed to float away on the passing clouds.
“I’ve been flying ever since,” he said.
Two years later, Wernle received his wings — figuratively and literally.
After he earned his license, as a gift for his senior year of high school, Wernle’s parents bought him his first plane — a 1947 Piper Super Cruiser with three seats.
“It is quite interesting to look at things from the air, like a bird, and also be able to fly where you want to,” said Wernle, who makes his living as a farmer.
Even now, Wernle will jump at the chance to get into the air. And he loves to have company. He’s also is quite the tour guide, even for people who know the area. As guides his craft, he points out each farm, park, landmark, and homestead.
Recently, Wernle took the Highland Mayor Joe Michaelis and City Manager Mark Latham up, so they could see their city from the sky. He said they chose a beautiful day and were able to fly at 1,000 feet over Highland.
“It was a great experience to see the community you have lived in for so many years from an aerial view,” Michaelis said. “You just get a different perception.”
Wernle, now 77, still farms. His agricultural operation, located north of the Blue Springs Cafe, east of Highland, is an ode to his love of the air. He calls his enterprise “Flying W Farms.”
Over the past 60 years, Wernle estimates he has logged about 2,400 flight hours. He has flown to multiple states.
He has owned two planes, but today, he rents a plane out of Greenville Airport.
Every day he walks upon this earth, Wernle said he longs to glide above it. And he doesn’t ever see that changing.
“You say, ‘Am I going to quit flying?” he parrots back as he contemplates the question.
“No,” he says, looking up.