Well-known aviation mechanic Lee Keopke passes

By Ann Pellegreno

Well-known aviation mechanic Lee R. Koepke, 87, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, passed away July 3.

After serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, Lee pursued a career as a mechanic and IA.

Known for taking a derelict 1937 Lockheed 10 Electra destined to be used for firefighting practice at Willow Run Airport, he restored it for the 1967 Earhart Commemorative Flight.

He went on the flight with pilot Ann Pellegreno, copilot William Payne, and navigator Bill Polhemus. The group successfully located Howland Island on the date, 30 years later, that Earhart was to have landed there.

Left to right: Lee Koepke;   Bill Polhemus, Navigator;    Ann Pellegreno, Pilot; Bill Payne, Co-Pilot

Left to right: Lee Koepke; Bill Polhemus, Navigator; Ann Pellegreno, Pilot; Bill Payne, Co-Pilot just before take-off at Honolulu heading for Calif.

Lee’s Lockheed is in the National Transportation Museum of Canada, representing Trans Canada Airlines’ first purchase of a modern airliner in October 1937.

Lee will be remembered by many mechanics who attended the Detroit Institute of Aeronautics, which he founded in 1968 and operated until it was purchased by the Michigan Institute of Technology in 1990.

Koepke retired as an aircraft mechanic from Republic Air Lines in 1980.

As an aeronautical tribute, Lee leaves not only his work as a mechanic but hundreds of persons whom he taught, mentored, and helped, including his two sons, Jeff and Gary, who became aviation mechanics.

Lee refueling his wonderful Lockheed at Singapore in 1967.

Lee refueling his wonderful Lockheed at Singapore in 1967.



  1. Steve koepke says:

    I totally agree with Tali. Lee was My Grandfather, He and Jeff Koepke have made me who I am. I did become a 3RD generations A&P. I named my first born Amelia Lee, After Grandpa and the flight. I would also love to her from you about you experience. I only own 3 of the “world flight books” you wrote.

    You can feel free at any point to reach me on email at Steve.Koepke@NEE.com

    Hope all is well and thank you for writing this.

  2. Kraig Hayner says:

    Lee and I worked at Willow Run Airport for many years. I started in 1977 working for the FAA. I married Karren Glass and my step daughter, Krystal married Jeff Kepoke, Lee’s son. I had many friends and Marth Winnard who taught A & P Classes for Lee at the Detroit Institute of Aeronautics became a FAA Inspector with me at the Detroit FSDO. Many people knew Lee including the Zantop family who use to fly the LogAir for the Military in L-188′s back in the 60-70′s. Lee has a 124 sitting at his hangar for many years. Finally the U.S. Air Force came and put it in Airworthy condition and flew it to the west coast. I believe it went to McCord as a static display. Lee also owned the aircraft that went around the world in 1967 following Amelia Earhart’s flight. On the flight were a Air Force pilot and Navigator. One set the speed run for the B-58 with John Denver dad and the other was the President of the Institute of Navigation (ION). We were sad to see the C-124 go, but it needed to go home. Nothing like the sound of four R-4360′s taking off. This is where a Flight Engineer earns their pay. Taking them off Autolean and richening them up every half hour to keep the valve from getting too hot. All good Memories when there was still gas powered transport category aircraft. http://www.generalaviationnews.com/2013/07/well-known-aviation-mechanic-lee-keopke-passes/

    • Ann Pellegreno says:

      hello, kraig

      thanks for posting your comment always nice to learn more about lee lee restored his lockheed and went around the world with me, polhemus, and payne to prover that earhart’s lockheed could have made the flight

      i never worried about flying that airplane because lee had restored it and on the flight he made sure it was always ready for the day’s flight

      he was a great mechanic and person


    • Ann Pellegreno says:


      if you want further information or comments, please feel free to
      e-mail me at pellegreno@hotmailcom

      i am always interested in information about lee


  3. Thank you Ann,

    For giving us a little glimpse into that event in your life. That must have been extremely fulfilling for you as a woman to accomplish and finish what Earhart failed. In a way I can imagine Earhart congratulating you….you and her being one in spirit.

    • Ann Pellegreno says:

      thanks, david

      lee was the key to the flight ever taking place he wanted to show that it wasn’t the plane that gave earhart a problem so, he rebuilt one and instigated a world flight

      the two bills and i were happy to share lee’s dream and made sure that that lockheed succeeded

      the flight was a lot of work but well worth every second spent


  4. Ann Pellegreno says:

    Copilot Bill Payne flew Lee’s restored Lockheed fifteen minutes, landed and said, “I’ll

    All aboard had extreme confidence in Lee as a restorer and we never worried. In fact, the engines ran better over the oceans.


    • Tali Polhemus says:


      My grandfather was Bill Polhemus. I just ran across this article and would absolutely love to chat with you! I would love to hear about this trip first hand and hear more about my grandfather. Please feel free to reach my by email at talipolhemus@yahoo.com.

      All the best!

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