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. Kraig Hayner says

    I remember when I worked at FloAir at Wichita Municipal in 1969. April 3 of 1966, Floair Inc. will move from Newton Municipal Airport to Wichita Municipal Airport by
    November 1. Merle L. Patterson, vice-president of Floair. Anyway’s I would hear stories from the Pilots about flights across both oceans. We would outfit different manufacturers aircraft using a STC, 50 gal. oil drums full of gas inside the aircraft compartment. We would also have a hand pump to oil the engines in flight. I would install Sun HF Radios with a Trailing Wire Antenna in the tail section. My first civilian avionics job. I also maintained F-105 Doppler Radar equipment at McConnell AFB at the 4519 CCTS, Flying Tigers 23ed TFG.

    • ann pellegreno says

      concerning the fuel/oil and radio systems installed in lee’s lockheed N79237
      dave blanton at within engineered/designed, built, and installed our systems
      the fuel tanks were fit into the fuselage a tank on each side forward of the spar
      and a large tab behind the spar fuel was pumped into the wing tanks with electric pups
      the oil system had a tank in the nose compartment and lines into the engines two hand cranks were jus below the instrument panel, one for each each engine 58 turns of a crank put a gallon of oil into an engine
      our hf was a 618T3 loaned to us by collins we used an electric reel for the antenna
      collins gave us frequencies for the following day we were also in touch with andrews
      with phone patches it was easy to keep in contact with family back in the states
      an amazing radio and most gratefully accepted on loan from collins
      when we forgot to reel in the trailing antenna at dakar, the cone was lost people suggested using a funnel, which we did for the rest of the flight

  2. Kraig Hayner says

    Tali Polhemus, I have a question. Did you ao anyone fly Number 47 C-47 at the Normade 60th Year Ceremonies. I caught a short clip on the TV (FOX) and I thought I heard the name.

  3. 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.

    • Kraig Hayner says

      I just noticed your note Steve. You were real young when I last saw you. My hope is you and your family are doing well. Just talked to your Great Uncle Jerry a month or so ago. Life moves so quickly. Please update me at khayner@gmail.com for family information. If people could just know how many A&P’s your Grandfather Lee and instructors like Martha Winnard had turned out, it would boggle the mind. Hope to hear from you soon.

  4. 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


  5. David says

    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


  6. 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!

    • Kraig Hayner says

      Ann, because Jeff was my Son-in-law, one day Lee gave us our own personal slide show of the trip. One slide he showed he was filtering gas through chamois to make sure there was no water going into the tanks for the trip out of New Guinea I believe. It has been many years ago, so I might be wrong on the location. As you know the plane is in Canada now. I worked from about 1977 to 2004 at Willow Run Airport with stints at Detroit Metro Airport maintaining all the Navaids and TWR / Tracon there.

      • Ann Pellegreno says

        hello, kraig

        the chamois filter was used on the island of kupang reached as the sun was going down

        yes, am glad you had a slide show from lee he knew so much about being a great mechanic and airplanes and also about this lockheed in particular

        am happy that the lockheed is in canada it was the first of three electras purchased by trans canada airlines hence the registration of CFTCA the airline also purchased two more electras CFTCB and CFTCC, which is still being flown in a restored, and somewhat glorified
        restoration take care ann

        • Kraig Hayner says

          Later in life Lee started a sort of Industry Museum in Manchester, MI. (Google Map and you can see the building off of Michigan. 868-912 Michigan 52) It had a Steam Engine from the Henry Ford. He and “Tom” Monaghan brother were into Steam Engines and they have a show up at Frank Lloyd Wright styled Domino Farms every year. He also replaced the wooden bearings on the Ford Water Wheel Driven Plant on the Raisin River. http://lignum-vitae-bearings.com/wood-bearing/ He was into everything. Man after my own heart.

          • Kraig Hayner says

            Also today, June 18, 1928 Amelia Earhart begins flight to make her the 1st woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. Soon she will take over the controls.

          • ann pellegreno says

            as i recall amelia was only a passenger on this flight
            she later referred to herself as a sack of potatoes
            this being only a passenger spurred her on to make her solo atlantic crossing in 1932

          • ann pellegreno says

            hello, yes, kupang near sunset people there did not want anything but cash so we
            passed the hat and collected the 72 or so dollars
            as i recall lee slipped off the wing due to spilled gasoline not the best fueling situation, holding a chamois and having fuel pumped at varying rates
            took off with only headlights of jeep shining at us from the other end of the runway
            hill on runway so could not see jeep until about halfway down the runway
            but, we were on our way to austrailia

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