By Anna Jauhola
Lifelong friends Jim Younggren and Bill Sugden recently received the most prestigious aviation award for their 50 years of safe flying.
Their formative years were spent in airplanes while growing up in and around Hallock. And in separately telling their stories for the nomination for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, it’s clear they both caught the flying bug early. Sugden first rode with Maurice Sugden – who also received the Master Pilot Award – at the age of 4. Younggren was 8 years old when he first flew with his uncle.
“It’s just amazing how this thing has all unfolded,” Younggren said last week.
The Master Pilot Award is given to only one-half of 1 percent of all pilots in the United States. When Younggren was approaching his 50-year anniversary date as a pilot, Sugden called him up and said he wanted to be his chief sponsor for the Master Pilot Award. Sugden, along with local pilots John Fowler and Jeremy Seng, wrote letters of recommendation and Younggren received his award in 2020. However, due to COVID, there was no ceremony.
In 2021, Sugden’s 50-year anniversary approached and Younggren became his chief sponsor, along with Fowler and Harvey Deterling, Sugden’s most influential flight instructor.
In November 2021, the friends finally organized a get together at the Fargo Air Museum to officially receive their awards.
“Dusty Jostad from the FAA presented our plaques to us,” Younggren said. “We both started flying when we were 18 or 19 years old. It’s just amazing. We still fly together today.”
Although Sudgen is in Alexandria now, the duo still share their passion for aviation and each own Super Cubs on floats and skis. They’ve flown to Oshkosh, Wis., to the airshow over 15 times. And meet up each year to fly to Sunset Lodge at Oak Island on Lake of the Woods.
“I was honored and humbled to receive this award. When I was 18 years old and soloed, I never thought this far ahead as a teenager,” Sugden said. “We were just living for the day and the next adventure. All of a sudden, it’s 50 years later. I would not have been eligible for this award without the training from an exceptional flight instructor named Harvey Deterling.”
Deterling constantly stressed safety, ensuring Sugden knew his airplane, his own capabilities and doing so with a calm, easy-going nature.
The only way to receive the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is to have no accidents and no violations on your record with the Federal Aviation Administration over at least 50 years.
Both Younggren and Sugden have been focused on safety since the beginning, crediting their alertness to several factors. Both said it had been stressed by the pilots who first took them on flights to their private pilot instructors through continuing education over the last five decades.
Despite living in a non-towered aviation environment, both men say it never made them complacent in their safety consciousness. The key was they both have been involved in flight clubs in Hallock and out of the area, and have flown all over the United States and Canada.
“There’s one thing in aviation – if you stay in your rural area and you never move out of that, you won’t make 50 years of flying,” Younggren said. “What happens with flying in a rural environment is you get complacent and you get sloppy, and you get scared to death of flying to Fargo or Grand Forks. That’s a bad deal because if you ever get called on to do that, you’re going to make a mistake.”
Now safety is even more important as they both often fly carrying their most precious cargo – family and friends.
Sugden spent most of his life in an airplane as an aerial applicator, starting for Nelson-Sugden Flying Service in Hallock. The 1970 Hallock graduate first trained under pilot Jim Sjostrand and soon started classes at Thief River Falls for aviation. He then trained with Harvey Deterling and by September 1971, Sugden took his first solo flight. He earned his private pilot certificate from LeRoy Jesme at Baudette.
Younggren took a similar path, but worked mostly from the ground as a farmer. He started working for Luke Younggren who owned Luke’s Airspray in Hallock. The 1969 Hallock graduate first trained with Dawn Gullard, who signed him off for his first solo flight in July 1970. He attended aviation school in Thief River Falls and also earned his private pilot certificate under LeRoy Jesme at Baudette.
Through those first several years, Sugden and Younggren didn’t own planes. Rather they belonged to clubs – like the Hallock Flying Club – where they were able to use different planes owned by the club and rented out by the members. This made aviation less expensive for the young pilots as they raised families and had regular jobs.
Both men merged piloting with their agricultural careers. Younggren farmed for 35 years. Sugden sprayed crops from 1975 to 1990, and then became involved in production agriculture from 1980 to now.
They each own planes now after years of flying club aircraft. Younggren is excited about his hangar at his farm east of Hallock where he keeps his 1956/2013 Piper Super Cub. He also keeps a 182 Cessna at the Hallock Airport. Sugden keeps a 1956 Piper Super Cub and a 1946 J-3 Cub at a private hangar at Alexandria, where he and his wife, Lori (who is also a pilot), moved in 2019.
Beyond 50 years
As their 60-plus year long friendship continues, Younggren and Sugden have many, more leisurely plans in place. As you are reading this, they are likely fishing through a hole in the ice on Lake of the Woods, their planes parked on the expansive frozen water. If it’s too cold, they’re probably on the phone discussing when they might try to meet up instead.
Beyond that, both are careful to watch their health. They exercise regularly and eat as healthy as possible. Pilots must pass an FAA physical every two years. Without that, they cannot fly. And both hope to continue flying for at least another 10 years, if not longer.
“That’s a driving force behind eating well and treadmills and walking,” Younggren said. “If you don’t, you’ll never make 50 years. That’s what pilots do if you’re going to stay in the business.”
Despite living several hours apart, the lifelong friends speak nearly every day and continue to make many memories as pilots together. While their legacies as pilots remain with them, both are working hard to convince a few grandkids to take up the trade whether as a passion or career.
To young people considering a career in aviation, Younggren and Sugden emphasized the need to begin at a young age. You can begin flight training at 15 and solo as young as 16, Sugden said. Beyond that, Younggren said if you’re going to get into aviation, do it right – go to a certified flight school and immerse yourself.
Until Younggren and Sugden can use these same ideas to gently guide grandchildren toward aviation, they’ll continue flying together — across the country with their wives, giving rides to family and friends, and maintaining impeccable safety standards.
By Anna Jauhola