Larry Diffley was a legend in Minnesota's aviation community.

His flying skills were considered extraordinary, his people skills top-notch and his business acumen as sharp as they come.

So it was a surprise to friends and family when Diffley died in an airplane crash last week while doing an aerial pipeline survey near Manhattan, Ill. He was 74. He was the only one on board. The cause of the crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In 1970, along with partner Mark Shough, Diffley took over Bemidji Aviation Services and its fleet of three aircraft and grew it into a regional business with nearly 40 planes today.

"He was a significant player in this market for aviation," said Tom Letson, a first officer for Delta Air Lines who flew for Diffley early in his career. "There's a lot to this guy."

Letson said Bemidji Aviation aircraft flew people, cargo and even firefighting missions to pinpoint hot spots for water bombers.

"When you worked for Larry, you flew everything," Letson said.

Diffley grew up on a small farm in Becida, Minn., a small town near Bemidji. In his early days Diffley lived with his parents and six siblings in a tar-paper house lacking modern-day amenities, said son Tony Diffley.

"They worked from sunup to sundown to get by," Tony Diffley said. "My dad was born to work and flying he loved. He once said, 'In a lot of respects, I never worked a day in my life.'"

Diffley graduated from Bemidji High School and then dabbled in some college courses and joined the National Guard. He moved to Los Angeles and became a UPS driver, learned to fly and met future business partner Shough. While in Los Angeles, Diffley married Mimi Stevens of Edina.

At Bemidji Aviation, Diffley was the main pilot while Shough, himself a pilot, assumed more of a mechanic's role. Bemidji Aviation had a contract with UPS to deliver packages from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport hub to various outstate communities. The carrier also offered daily passenger service from Bemidji to the Twin Cities airport for several years.

"Larry was a phenomenal pilot, a great instructor," Letson said.

Tony Diffley said his dad was a hard worker but was also a dedicated family man. He would read to his grandchildren and spoil them with bags of cotton candy and boat rides to the Dairy Queen, he said.

Besides son Tony Diffley, Diffley is survived by daughters Jennifer Benjamin and Carrie Lundgren, seven grandchildren, and siblings Ila Olson, Nina Anderson, Terry Diffley and Patty Kluzak.

He was preceded in death by wife Mimi, infant son Steven, parents Jack and Marian and brothers Mike and Hank.

The family asked that memorials be sent to the Larry Diffley Memorial Fund, which will provide financial assistance to beginning pilots.

After the Illinois crash, Diffley's body was flown to Fargo where members of the Diffley family flew to pick it up and fly it back to Bemidji.

"We brought him home the way he would have wanted -- in a plane, not in the back of some Chevy Suburban," Tony Diffley said.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269