Arnold Ebneter Commemorates 70th Anniversary of First Solo

Arnold’s first solo flight was in a Piper Cub at Mael Field in Portage, Wisconsin, on April 2, 1944, about six weeks after his sixteenth birthday. On April 2, 2014, the 70th anniversary of that event, he took to the skies again in his current Cub, this time at Harvey Field in Snohomish, Washington. He flew with my older sister Maureen, so I guess it technically wasn’t a solo flight, but it was still the anniversary! Here is a picture of him after the flight:

70th Anniversary Solo

Arnold Ebneter on the 70th Anniversary of His First Solo Flight
(Eileen Bjorkman personal collection)

The Cub in the photo is the one that he rebuilt for my mother back in the late 1980s.

Arnold reminisced about how the 2014 flight was different from his first solo. The Cub he flew in 1944 had no radio and no brakes, and he flew from a grass field. His current Cub also has an 85-hp engine instead of the 65-hp engine of his original solo airplane, so he climbed a lot faster in 2014 than in 1944.

The traffic pattern in 1944 was also quite different from the typical modern pattern. In 1944, after taking off, he flew straight ahead until he reached 400 feet above the ground; at that time, he reduced the throttle a bit, leveled off the airplane momentarily, and turned ninety degrees left to his crosswind leg. After finishing the turn, he added power again and then climbed up to 600 feet above the ground as he turned parallel to the landing area/runway on his downwind leg. He stayed at 600 feet above the ground until he was ready to land.

Most modern patterns for light aircraft are flown at 1,000 feet above the ground (although there are some exceptions). The pilot climbs straight out until reaching 700 feet above the ground and then turns onto the crosswind leg and then downwind leg while still climbing. There is no power reduction, and Arnold isn’t really sure why they ever did that in the Cub in the first place. He thinks it might have had to do with making sure the airplane had enough airspeed so the pilot wouldn’t stall., but if anyone knows the answer, please let me know!

Heading Back to Vietnam

The Ebneter family landed in Phoenix in late July, 1967. Besides relearning to fly the F-100, Arnold’s highest priority was finding suitable housing for his family while he was gone. The obvious solution would have been to live at Luke AFB, but in those days families weren’t allowed on-base quarters if the military member was deployed. Luke was on the outskirts of Phoenix, and except for a retirement community, there wasn’t any suitable housing close to the base. Arnold found a three-bedroom rental house 30 minutes from the base in a quiet neighborhood. The house was just a few blocks away from Sajuaro Elementary School. He also took a trip to the local pound to get the family’s first dog, Princess, to act as a first line of defense while he was gone and couldn’t resist picking up a black-and-white kitten the girls dubbed Patrick.

At the end of December, Arnold received his orders to Vietnam. He was to report to Travis AFB in Northern California on January 24 and then head to the Philippines, where he would complete jungle survival school.

During the Christmas holiday, he tried to get his fill of Charlie before he left. He flew the airplane six times, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He also took the family for a ride on New Year’s Day, a family tradition. Charlie’s new home was at a tiny airport named Litchfield Park, located just south of Luke. The airport owner had a crop dusting business, and most of the airplanes on the field belonged to him. However, he must have had a soft spot for military pilots, because he allowed Arnold to hangar Charlie at the airport and even conducted a required inspection on the airplane at no cost to Arnold while he was in Vietnam. Although Colleen had her pilot’s license, she had not kept up her flying skills after the arrival of their third daughter, so Charlie was relegated to sit in a hangar for the duration, waiting patiently for his pilot to return.

Despite the flurry of flights in Charlie, the training to deploy to Vietnam was relentless and left little time for saying goodbye. After finishing his F-100 training on January 11, Arnold headed to Homestead AFB near Miami for a one-week sea survival school, which consisted largely of lounging around in a raft and trying not to drown while being dragged behind a boat.

Back in Phoenix, on January 23, Arnold and Colleen took their daughters out of school for a day. The family first headed to Litchfield Park for what would be their last flight together until October, and then to Sky Harbor airport, where Arnold boarded a commercial flight to San Francisco. He arrived at Clark AFB in the Philippines three days later.

On January 30, as he wrapped up his jungle training, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a major ground operation that turned the well-tuned Air Force rotation schedule into chaos.

Foster Air Force Base and Jets: The T-33 and F-86

Congratulations to Bryan Stinekens for correctly answering the question about the balloon registration number N7927A! It is the same registration number used on the E-1, Arnold’s world record setting airplane. And now, back to pilot training.

After finishing primary flight training at Goodfellow in early September 1953, Arnold was assigned to Foster AFB for advanced training. Foster AFB was located near a small town named Victoria, close to the Gulf Coast. Even in September, the heat and humidity were oppressive.

The cadets were assigned to small “flights” of three students, each led by an instructor. A flight with two Belgian students and a Norwegian student was appropriately named the “Falstaff Flight,” but Arnold’s “riff raff Flight” seems to have been assigned as a whim by the pilot training leadership. Other cadets endured colorful names such as “Yo Yo,” “Odd Ball,” and “Moonshine.”

At Foster, the cadets first flew the 800-horsepower T-28A. Once they were used to flying the more powerful airplane, they switched to a jet trainer, the T-33A. Arnold’s first flight in the T-33 was on the Monday before Thanksgiving, on November 23rd.

Foster_AFB_1953

Arnold flying T-33s at pilot training, Foster AFB 1953
From Arnold Ebneter personal collection

The Air Force commissioned Arnold as a second lieutenant and awarded him his silver pilot’s wings on March 15, 1954. After graduating, Arnold took two weeks of leave before reporting for his next assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, just north of Las Vegas for additional training. With no time to spare, he made a mad dash to St Paul and married Colleen on March 18, ending her patient two-year wait as he romped around the United States flying airplanes.

After the wedding, the furious pace continued unabated; Arnold and Colleen drove west to Las Vegas, arriving in time for a short honeymoon before beginning the next phase of his training.

At Nellis, Arnold learned to fly the F-86, which was then the Air Force’s frontline fighter. After F-86 training, he returned to Foster, along with five of the other top cadets in his class for his first real assignment, this time with Colleen in tow. Although Foster had been a training base when Arnold left, by the time he returned it was an operational fighter base assigned to the Tactical Air Command, which was responsible for most of the fighter aircraft in the Air Force.

The F-86 could fly faster than the speed of sound in a dive, and the pilots started “booming” Foster AFB every afternoon at 4:30 to announce the beginning of the retreat ceremony that signaled the end of the official day. One pilot would climb to a high altitude directly over the base, and then point the nose of his airplane at the ground. As the airplane accelerated through Mach 1, a loud cracking noise shook the ground below, rattling windows and waking babies. Although the nearby Victoria residents loved the daily air show, senior Air Force officials weren’t amused and soon told the pilots to knock it off.

The University of Minnesota Flight School: From the Ground Up

After running through all his summer earnings, Arnold did what many college students do when they are broke – he asked his parents for help. They agreed and sent him $100, advising him to use the money to pre-pay for his flying so the funds didn’t slip through his fingers again. Following their advice, he pre-paid for flying time in a J-3 Cub at Hinck Flying Service at Wold Chamberlain Airport, which is now the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport.

He also finally found a use for women. For the instructor certificate, he needed to practice flying the Cub from the front seat where the instructor sits. However, a pilot can’t fly the Cub sitting alone in the front seat – the center of gravity is too far forward and the airplane won’t fly. To solve the problem, Arnold found a pretty, female student named Mary Ellen to fly in the back seat so he could practice being an instructor. In addition to being an “attractive weight,” he found her good for polishing his instruction techniques, as she was a journalism student and knew nothing about airplanes. He told his parents, “If I can explain a maneuver to her I can explain it to anybody.” In what must have been a major relief for his parents, he finished his commercial pilot certificate on February 13, 1949 and then added the flight instructor certificate on April 4. At 21, he was finally on his way.

By March, Arnold was already using his commercial certificate to further his pilot career. The University of Minnesota was interested in starting a flight program, and they recruited the perfect chief pilot, Jim Magnus, a US Marine Corps veteran who had flown C-47 cargo aircraft during World War II. Although Jim had left active duty when the war ended, he continued his service by flying as a Marine reservist. In addition, the Minneapolis native had been a star hockey player in both high school and at Minnesota, so he performed double-duty as the UM assistant hockey coach.

Jim had to build a flight school from the ground up, and the university expected him to do it on a shoestring, which was easy given the plentiful surplus military airplanes available at no cost to public universities. The only problem was, the airplanes Jim wanted were five J-3 Cubs located in San Marcos, Texas, and he had no pilots or money to retrieve them.

He solved the first part of the problem by recruiting Arnold and four other pilots eager to get the flight school going. Jim couldn’t pay them for their time flying the airplanes, but he could pay for their expenses – fuel, hotels, and food. However, the ferry pilots still had to get to the airplanes. Jim solved that problem by getting permission from his Marine reserve unit for Arnold and the others to ride as passengers on a PV-2 patrol aircraft during a training mission from Minneapolis to Dallas. That left 240 more miles to San Marcos, but someone arranged for a car to pick the pilots up and drive them the rest of the way.

Arriving in San Marcos, the pilots discovered the Cubs were in poor condition, but good enough to fly to Minneapolis. Arnold and the others piled into them and headed back north the next day. With excellent weather, they cruised all the way to Des Moines that day, stopping in Waco, Texas and Sherman, Oklahoma to refuel the tiny tanks in the Cubs. After an overnight stay in Des Moines, they made their way to Albert Lea, Minnesota for one last fuel stop before landing back at University Airport. The total time to cover the one thousand-mile distance was sixteen hours flying time for an average ground speed of about sixty-five miles per hour, no faster than a car, but certainly more fun for the young pilots.

Once the Cubs were safely in Minneapolis, the next order of business was to make them suitable to fly by students. All five Cubs had poor fabric and needed recovering, so Arnold led a total overhaul of the airplanes. Jim Magnus paid him $1.00 per hour, and he worked with several assistants to completely take apart the Cubs, clean up rust and corrosion, replace parts, and then reassemble and recover them. Two of the engines also needed rebuilding, so Jim found a high school aviation maintenance program willing to do the job in exchange for one of the Cubs. The whole process took about one year and in the end, the university wound up with four shiny yellow Cubs at practically no cost.

Arnold Flies His First Air Show

After completing his first quarter at Minnesota, Arnold returned home for the summer, where he worked again as a mechanic for Forrest and Paul in Poynette. On July 4, 1948, he flew in his first air show, which received a short write up in the Portage paper. The air show was part of a carnival sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the paper reported, “Ebneter in the Cub made 30 turn spins and consecutive loops.” Forrest and Paul also flew in their BT-13s, doing slow rolls, loops, and a mock “dogfight.”

Arnold also joined the Wisconsin National Guard that summer to keep at bay the peacetime draft started in 1948, since college students weren’t eligible for draft deferments. Arnold became a private first class after two-weeks of learning to be an infantryman. However, Arnold’s time in the Wisconsin National Guard was short-lived. After he returned to Minnesota in the fall, he transferred to the Minnesota National Guard. Transferring not only made it easier to complete his training obligations, but it came with an even bigger benefit – he was able to work on airplanes and fly in them instead of toting around a rifle.

The Minnesota National Guard unit was a field artillery unit, but it had an aviation section conveniently located at the University of Minnesota airport. The aviation section included the military version of an Aeronca Champ, a small single engine airplane similar to the J-3 Cub. The unit used several of the airplanes for spotting artillery targets. In addition to working on the airplanes as a mechanic, Arnold had opportunities to fly as well, even though he was not officially a National Guard pilot. One of the pilots had flown the P-51, a fast, nimble fighter used by the Army Air Corps during World War II, but he couldn’t seem to get the hang of the slow, underpowered Champ. Rather than ground the pilot, his superiors simply asked Arnold to fly with him in the backseat on every flight. Arnold loved the opportunity, even if it was bootlegged time. Here’s a picture of the airplane:

Aeronca_L-16

Aeronca L-16
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons (USAF Image)

Although Arnold had saved some money from the summer of 1948, which he hoped to use to finish his commercial and instructor ratings, the money slipped through his fingers when he returned to Minneapolis in the fall. He did some flight training, but he also bought his first car, a Model A.

By early 1949, Arnold was out of money and ideas, frustrated once again that he had not completed his professional pilot certificates. His sorority job covered his room and board, but little else. In a letter home, he complained to his parents, “Sometimes, I think I must have rocks in my head or something, trying to make a living at flying.” Then, more optimistically, he added, “Oh, well, Swiss stubbornness being what it is, everything will probably turn out all right.”

Arnold’s Private Pilot License: Things were quite different in the 1940s

To earn more money for his flying lessons, Arnold started working in a radio repair shop for twenty-five cents an hour; however, the lessons cost seven dollars an hour. Flying solo was a little cheaper at only six dollars an hour, but that still translated to twenty-four hours of radio repairs for one hour of flying. Arnold figured there must be a better way, and he soon found one. Nearly all small airplanes then were covered with cotton fabric that required frequent replacement, and that recovering provided a lucrative business for the budding pilot. Once Chet taught Arnold how to attach fabric to airplanes, he traded labor for flying and the lessons accelerated. As a bonus, he gained some of the skills he also needed to realize his dream as an aircraft mechanic.

With the funding problem solved, Arnold flew as much as he could. By June 1944, as the US Army stormed into France, he was flying solo cross-country flights, where he navigated to an airport other than Portage and landed. By the end of July, he had the forty hours of flying time he needed for his private pilot certificate. Despite his experience, however, the license was still out of reach because he was too young – he was more than a year-and-a-half away from eighteen, the age required at the time to be a private pilot. Rather than slow down, Arnold just continued to trade airplane recovering for flying as much as he could, flying both by himself and with Chet.

During Arnold’s junior year, he took his first-ever out-of-state trip when he and Chet flew to Lansing, Illinois. In anticipation of his pilot’s license, he also took the written exam required during another hitchhiking trip to Milwaukee. Similar to new automobile drivers, all aviation certificates require the prospective pilot take both a written exam to demonstrate knowledge and a “practical test,” often called a “check ride,” to demonstrate various maneuvers to a flight examiner. Completing the written exam early almost earned Arnold his pilot’s license ahead of schedule since, in 1945, the Civil Aeronautics Agency overhauled pilot certification requirements and changed the minimum private pilot age to seventeen. However, although Arnold had turned seventeen in February he found it impossible to take advantage of this gift as Chet sold the beloved Cub. Additional delays checking out in other airplanes and finishing high school kept him from completing his check ride until after he graduated in 1946.

After graduation, Arnold began flying with two ex-Army Air Corps aviators in nearby Poynette, who also allowed him to trade his mechanics skills for flying time, this time in a war-surplus PT-23. Within a few weeks of beginning to fly the PT-23, he received an endorsement to take the check ride from one of the instructors at Poynette.

With the long-awaiting signature in place, Arnold now had to align his schedule with the schedules of one of the PT-23s and a flight examiner. In 1946, only two examiners existed in Wisconsin – the legendary air racer Steve Wittman, who owned Wittman Field in Oshkosh and later was among the first members of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and Jack Spaulding, another prominent Wisconsin aviation pioneer. As much as Arnold wanted to meet and fly with Wittman, Oshkosh was more than fifty miles away, twice as far as Spaulding’s operation at Morey Field in Middleton. The additional distance, combined with the vagaries of schedules, working airplanes, and good weather made Arnold opt for the less risky Morey Field to avoid even further delays.

Arnold finally received his private pilot’s license on July 24, 1946, nearly three years and 240 hours of flying time after that first euphoric lesson. After all the struggle, the check ride was a mere formality — he flew a PT-23 to Morey Field for the flight test, and returned home to Poynette triumphant, the coveted piece of paper bestowing private pilot privileges on him safely tucked in his wallet. However, the private pilot certificate was just the beginning. That certificate only allowed him to fly his friends and family as non-paying passengers. If he wanted to make a living as a pilot, he needed commercial and flight instructor certificates, but he put those plans on hold and left Wisconsin to begin work on another goal: his aeronautical engineering degree.

And we are now done with Chapter 1! The material on this blog is about half of the material included in the book.