James “Jim” Bestul lived and breathed airplanes. He flew Navy seaplanes, commercial planes for Northwest Airlines and his own private aircraft in his spare time.
Still, there were thousands of other planes out there. He started cataloging all U.S. planes, meticulously recording details like engine type, tail configuration and how many of each was built. The database, which encompassed more than 15,000 planes, caught the attention of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where some of the records are kept today.
“He just loved airplanes,” said son Doug, an Apple Valley pilot. “That whole dimension of being able to fly gets in your blood.”
Bestul, 86, of Excelsior, died Nov. 7 of pulmonary fibrosis at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
The oldest of two boys, Bestul was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Virginia and Washington state. After graduating from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, he joined the Navy in 1955 and began flying seaplanes, a path that took him to Bermuda.
There he met Nancy Chapman, who was teaching sixth grade at a school for military dependents. She had mutual friends with Bestul, who bore a resemblance to Johnny Carson, she recalled. The couple hit it off at a squadron party.
“I was absolutely blown away,” she said. “I knew right then and there.”
They married in 1959 and moved to Bloomington, where Bestul flew for Northwest Airlines. After being laid off, he re-entered the Navy and eventually flew support transport planes for the Blue Angels, the flight demonstration squadron known for its aerobatics. By the time the family returned to Minnesota in 1964, the couple had two sons, Doug and Greg.
He was “a very hands-on dad,” Nancy Bestul said, leading his sons’ Boys Scout troops, teaching them woodworking and taking the family on sailboat excursions that began on Lake Minnetonka and later moved to Lake Superior. She remembered her husband tying balloons to the sailboat’s shrouds and letting the children shoot them down.
Quiet, calm and confident, he was suited to sailing and flying, Nancy Bestul said, since “nothing seemed to ruffle his feathers.”
Jim Bestul began his plane cataloging project in the 1970s and learned computer languages so he could transfer the paper-and-pencil records to a database in 1982. “He became a very early adopter of computers and technology,” Doug Bestul said. “He was a gadget guy.”
His collection, which included registration numbers for 855,000 individual planes, landed at the Smithsonian after staffers from an airplane magazine told the museum director about the project. In exchange, the museum sent Bestul laserdiscs featuring photos of 200,000 planes to add to his database.
“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Doug Bestul said.
His childlike side also came out with his grandchildren, who relished playing dolls with him, said his granddaughter Erica, of Minocqua, Wis. She remembers that when she and her sister, Laura, were afraid of venturing downstairs at their grandparents’ house, their “Papa” invented a “Ghostbusters” game and played it for years, calling in pretend ghost sightings while wearing special shirts, writing on custom stationery and talking over a real intercom. They used a garden hose to fight off spirits, Erica Bestul said.
“He was so good with us, so patient,” she said. “He was definitely the glue that held our family together.”
Besides his wife, son Doug and granddaughter Erica, Bestul is survived by son Greg of Lester Prairie, Minn.; brother Bruce of Apple Valley, Calif.; and four other grandchildren. Services have been held.