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Published: Sunday, 10/2/2005

Aviator converted hog farm into airport

Jesse R. Flegle, 88, a pilot and flight instructor who turned a former hog farm into an airport to serve private aviation in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, died Thursday in Toledo Hospital of heart-related problems.

Formerly of Monroe County's Whiteford Township, he'd lived most recently at Fairlawn Haven in Archbold, Ohio.

In 1948 Mr. Flegle cleared the former hog barns on Section Road in Whiteford Township and opened an airfield called Wagon Wheel Airport.

"He was a mechanic and a flight instructor and had all kinds of [aviation] licenses, and he just wanted a place to [keep] his own plane," his daughter Sally Melle said.

He retired in 1979. The airport, under different ownership, became Toledo Suburban Airport.

Development was gradual. He built the first hangar and first sold aviation fuel in 1953. He installed low-intensity runway lights in 1960. Four years later, Bob Schnipke became half-owner of the enterprise, which became Flegle Aviation Inc., although the airport retained its name.

In the mid-1960s, he built a new hangar and paved the runway to attract corporate business. Wagon Wheel became a place for would-be pilots to learn and for experienced aviators to keep their craft.

"Jesse was well looked upon for being a knowledgeable person," said Carl Baldwin, a longtime pilot and instructor and a former student of Mr. Flegle's.

Mr. Flegle was a corporate pilot for Toledo Stamping and Manufacturing from 1949 to 1980.

He grew up in Ottawa County, but the family moved at his urging so he could take up aeronautics at Toledo's vocational high school. He later taught aeronautics at Macomber Vocational High School.

He was attracted to the freedom "of getting up there and doing what you want to do when you want to do it - the freedom that driving a car doesn't give you, that driving a boat doesn't give you," said cousin Sam Raudebaugh, who became interested in flying because of Mr. Flegle.

During World War II, Mr. Flegle was a B-24 test pilot for Ford Motor Co. at Willow Run, near Ypsilanti, Mich. Afterward, he ran a crop-dusting business from Toledo Municipal Airport, now known as Metcalf Field.

Mr. Flegle was a former member of Bedford Alliance Church.

He and his pilot friends still gathered monthly for lunch, his daughter said.

He and his wife, Mary Agnes, married June 10, 1937. She died May 1, 1992.

Surviving are his daughters, Barbara Smith, Mary White, Sally Melle, and Christine Hubbell; 12 grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the Reeb Mortuary, where the body will be after 4 p.m. today.

The family suggests tributes to the Hospice of Northwest Ohio or a charity of the donor's choice.



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