September 1, 2020
John Parker was a pioneer. Growing up on a Southern Minnesota farm, he loved horses, but his fate took him to aviation and the use of aircraft for conservation and wildlife management.
From 1949 until 1983, Warden/Pilot Parker flew for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from what is now the Warroad International Memorial Airport.
A cowboy at heart, he flew his planes across a state size range. Parker's early career took him from controlling the wolf population (then considered a menace to other wild and domestic animals) to protecting them as a threatened species. He saw the Warroad Airport grow from grass runways, to an example of a modern facility that supports economic development in a rural area.
After World War II, Minnesota officials of what was then the Department of Conservation, began lobbying for aircraft to support their mission and finally got approval for two. Both were single engine, "conventional landing gear" airplanes. One was a Piper Cruiser, the mild mannered descendent of the Piper J-3, and finding a capable pilot was no problem. For reasons unknown, they also bought one designed by Donald A. Luscombe who pioneered the use of all metal "monocoque" construction for light aircraft. Luscombe was good with structures but was clueless about landing gear. Luscombe airplanes had takeoff and landing quirks that challenged even skillful pilots. At the time John Parker was working as a game warden in the neat little town of Springfield, MN.
The conversation at HQ about the Luscombe might have gone something like, "who do we get to fly this thing?" "The guy out in Springfield flew in the war, let's get him to figure it out." They were right. John Parker was uniquely qualified since he had flown the biggest single engine tail dragger ever built.
The Republic P-47 had a 2000 horsepower, 2800 cubic inch, 18-cylinder Radial Engine. It first flew in May 1941. Gross weight of later models was 19,400 pounds. 15,683 P-47s were built, 5,222 were lost in combat. Lieutenant Parker flew two of them both named "Honey Bun" for the girl he'd left behind. Near the end of the war, he flew a P-38. He didn't like the "Lightning," so it didn't get named. Neither did the Luscombe. Later the state assigned him a Super Cub which he named "Honey Bun III."
Parker and his Luscombe went to Warroad where the airport consisted of two unlighted turf runways. Since conservation work was a day/night operation, Carol Parker (aka Honey Bun) was often found shining the headlights of the family car down a runway so John could find his way home. Sometimes their young son accompanied her.
Parker spent his career in Warroad. Conservation flying is demanding. The airplanes John flew had floats, skis, wheels and later a wheel/ski combination for landing gear. The job involved lots of low-level flying, which was another place where his Army experience stood him in good stead. In 1944-45 the P-47 was used primarily as a ground attack aircraft. Parker did lots of shooting at the ground and dive bombing. He must have been good at it to survive 60+ missions. No wonder he became an expert at hunting wolves from an airplane. Later he worked with Dr. David Mech, a famous wildlife biologist and student of the wolf. They perfected techniques for tracking wolves from aircraft, both visually and using radio transmitters that had been attached to sedated animals. Counting moose also involved flying low. The waterfowl census was done at higher altitudes, but pilots need to be mindful of the danger of collision with their subjects.
In the 1950s, the state of Minnesota didn't have the specialized aircraft fleet it does today.
John Parker spent some time flying politicians including Hubert Humphrey. Helping the State Troopers catch speeders, plus doing search and rescue were other diversions that used his low-level flying skills.
Quite often he was called upon to fly sick or injured people from Minnesota's "Northwest Angle" which didn't have road access back then. Eventually he flew over 27,000 hours and became so well known that his mail arrived in Warroad addressed simply to "The Bald Eagle."
Besides flying, John was an athlete. He'd boxed in the Army Air Corps and established a "Golden Gloves" program in Warroad.
He was commissioner of the Warroad youth hockey program and a big supporter of the local high school athletic program. The previously mentioned son is Jeff, who played football. Unable to get home in time for a game, his dad flew over the field and used the loudspeaker system on his aircraft to cheer on the "Warriors."
Jeff went into aviation also and after a career as US Air Force B-52 pilot he retired back home in Warroad. The city is famous in the construction business as the home of Marvin Windows, which in turn is well known in aviation circles for efficient use of General Aviation aircraft. Jeff's retirement job was managing the window company's flight department.
The state got smarter about buying aircraft after the Luscombe. Parker had another Super Cub, a Champion, a Cessna 180 and a Cessna 185 (Honey Bun 4 to 7) for his work.
Today's DNR uses both fixed wing and helicopters, employing many of the methods and flying techniques developed by John Parker, but none of the current aircraft have names.