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Flying machines: Hudson man builds airplanes of all sizes

Tom Marson, a veteran pilot who built and flew his own planes, has devoted his time to building and flying model airplanes in his town of Hudson home. The 82-year-old Marson continued flying until he was 80 and sold his favorite plane. Photo by Jon Echternacht1 / 2
Tom Marson with his finished Dakota Hawk. He figured it took 1,500 hours and about $25,000 to build it. Photo submitted2 / 2

To say Tom Marson has a gargantuan love of flying is probably a gross understatement.

By his own admission he built his first model airplane at age 10 or 11. At age 12 he rejoiced over the early morning news on the radio that Jimmy Doolittle had bombed Tokyo with a group of B-25s flown off an aircraft carrier deck in the Pacific during World War II.

Even when he met his wife, Mercedes, "Mercy", while serving with the U.S. Army at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 1953, aviation was on his mind.

"He told me when we met that someday he was going to be a pilot and build and fly his own airplane," she said during a recent conversation in their town of Hudson home.

"I remember the first model airplane I built was a Grumman Wildcat in 1942, a popular plane during World War II," the 82-year-old Marson said who only gave up his pilot's license two years ago.

The first real plane he built was a Dakota Hawk. He got the kit from the North Dakota manufacturer in 1994 and took his maiden flight in the fall of 1996 off a runway in a field at his town of Troy residence at the time.

He remembers being at the end of the runway, ready to take off in the spanking new green and white airplane and thinking, "Is this going to be the last 10 seconds of my life?"

"There was no answer so I guessed it wasn't," Marson said.

All the time he was in the air on that first flight, Mercy said, "Come down, come down," she recalled.

Marson has the whole maiden flight on video that his son filmed with a shaky hand because he was so nervous.

He continued to fly just about every week until he turned 80 and sold the Dakota Hawk. He said his longest trip was about 300 miles.

"I've owned eight planes," he said, "Four I built and four I bought. That first one was my favorite."

Maybe because it was special. It carried serial No. 4 and was one of the first kits produced by the Fisher Flying Products of Edgeley, N.D., and designed by Steve Lambert.

"The first one they built was what they call a mule in the aviation industry," said Marson, which is sort of a test craft. "The second one was factory built by Lambert, No.3 is owned by a guy in Cascade, Mont., and No. 4 was mine."

Building your own aircraft from scratch with a kit is no meager hobby for the faint of heart or pocketbook.

"The kit without the motor was about $14,000 and about $25,000 when finished," he said. In addition Marson figured it took 1,500 hours to make from opening up the boxes the kit came in in November 1994 to that 45-minute initial flight in November 1996.

The Fisher Flying Products was purchased by a Canadian buyer and moved to Ontario.

The owner didn't have an airplane and Marson's was for sale, so he sold his Dakota Hawk.

The plane and Marson's hand in building it were included in a feature story on the Dakota Hawk in the April edition of "Kitplanes" magazine.

Marson never took his plan to the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. "When you go there with your plane you have to sleep under the wing and spend a lot of time with it. You don't get to take in all the EAA has to offer," he said.

But his Dakota Hawk has made it to the EAA twice with the new owner, he said.

Marson doesn't miss flying. He has devoted his creative energies into building model airplanes that fly with electric or gasoline motors, something he has been into for years.

Marson was born at 921 St. Croix St. in Hudson and graduated from Hudson High School in 1948. He was drafted into the Army in 1953 and sent to Ft Bliss, Texas, where he volunteered for an assignment as a fueling specialist at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

"There were about 500 soldiers on the base and 50 girls," he said. "Mercy (a New Mexico native) was one of the 50 girls."

Marson was discharged from active duty and stayed on at the missile base as a civilian employee a total of 14 years. He used the GI bill to earn a commercial pilot, multi-engine and instrument licenses.

When uncertainty hit the defense industry and caused layoffs, Marson moved to Hudson in 1964 and worked for 3M for 28 years until 1994. The couple raised five children: Mike, Mari, Jim, Julie and John, all Hudson High School graduates.

Tom and Mercy's daughter Mari Marson provided a children's point of view in a flying family.

"I know that it was quite an interesting life growing up around planes. We spent a lot of time up in the air," she wrote in an email.

"The back seat of our planes were big enough to fit three kids, so we three oldest got shuttled around a lot. In fact, a few of our family vacations included a cross country airplane trip from Texas to Wisconsin or Wisconsin to Texas with my dad as pilot and my mom as co-pilot."

"A vivid memory for me was a time when we hit major turbulence in the skies above Tucumcari, New Mexico. It was pitch black at night. You can imagine how magnified turbulence is when you are in a small aircraft. As kids we were pretty darn scared. The fear factor amped up as we heard my dad say to my mom, "Mercy, I don't know if we are going to make it..."

"Needless to say, we did make it and I'll never forget my mom getting on her hands and knees and kissing the ground when we landed at the Tucumcari airport!"

For more information, google Dakota Hawk on the web.