The Pilot’s Rock

Today we visited the farm where Arnold lived for about seven years when he was growing up. The land surrounding the prominent rock on the farm is now a county park. However, you can hardly see the rock any more! See the picture below. The rock is behind the barn and is almost completely hidden by trees.

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It’s almost hard to believe that this is the rock that pilots used for navigation in the 1930s. It’s barely recognizable as a rock formation. When the farm was there, all the farm animals and other farm activities kept the trees at bay, so the rock was very prominent, as shown in the previous post.

Here’s one more picture from the county park. This is a bench in the park that is dedicated to Arnold’s parents, Emil and Bertha. Arnold and his siblings donated the funds to install the bench several years ago. The bench is located in an area that overlooks one of the farm fields and also has a view of Donald Rock.

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I’m heading back to Seattle Monday and will post some information on Thursday night about the propeller that Arnold acquired in 1970 as he tried to begin working on the E-1.

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.

The Pilot’s Rock

Numerous airplanes flew daily over the farm where Arnold lived as a small boy, and this likely fueled, at least partly, his early interest in aviation. That he saw so many airplanes in the 1930s was a coincidence of geography and geology. A straight line connecting the present-day Chicago-O’Hare and Minneapolis-Saint Paul airports passes close to Mount Horeb and the dairy farm where Arnold lived. The farm, owned by a family named Donald, also housed an attractive landmark for early pilots with only rudimentary navigation equipment — a Glacier Age limestone remnant the size of a ten-story building that dominated the surrounding terrain.

In 1940, John Steuart Curry, a prominent Midwestern “artist-in-residence” at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, portrayed the massive rock pillar in an oil painting as a favor to a member of the Donald family. The painting hung, unknown by the art community, in the home of a Donald family descendent for more than sixty years. It is now on display at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin[i]. You can see a picture of it on page 74 of the pamphlet in this link (warning, big file): http://www.arts.wisc.edu/artsinstitute/pdfs/Arts%20at%20Wisconsin%20history.pdf

The land encircling the present-day “Donald Rock” is a county park, but in the 1930s, the Donald family rented the farm to various tenants, including Arnold’s parents – his father Emil, who had immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1919, and his mother Bertha. In 2010, Arnold and his youngest sister, Tere Widstrand, sponsored a bench in the park dedicated to the memory of their parents. You can see Donald Rock as it appears today at this link: http://donaldpark.org/welcome/?page_id=222


[i] Gayle Worland, “Curry Favor,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), July 26, 2006.