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
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.”

Porterfield and Beech Bonanza Aircraft in 1947

I think I finally have my subscription software sorted out. I’m using something called Mailchimp now — please let me know if there are any problems.

Back to Arnold at Rennselaer during his first semester in 1947 and his money woes. By the end of April, he had saved $105 from his pin-setting duties, which was enough money to take care of living expenses for the rest of the semester. He quit working so he could focus on his studies, and the strategy worked — he got all As and Bs.

However, he discovered at the end of May that he had forgotten to save enough money for his return trip home by train. Rather than head back to the bowling alley to earn some more money, he convinced his cousin Carl, who now had his own shiny new pilot’s license, to fly his Porterfield airplane to New York and pick him up.

Click Here to view a photo of a Porterfield

A description of the upcoming trip to his parents provides some insight into the state of small aircraft navigation in 1947: “I also told [Carl] that, since this is country where they have no section lines, he should be sure to get a good compass.”

After spending the summer flying BT-13s in Poynette, Arnold still didn’t have his commercial or flight instructor ratings. He headed back to Rennselear that fall, but decided to drop out after the fall semester when Rennselear raised the tuition to $350. He discovered that the University of Minnesota had a good aeronautical engineering program, so he deicded to go there instead.

During his last semester at Rensselear, Arnold also saw his first Beech Bonanza, a speedy single-engine airplane that could carry four people. He thought it was a “swell” airplane, but noted that it should be, since it cost $9,000. The Bonanza he saw would have been the same model that Buddy Holley was riding in when he died on February 3, 1959.

Click here for a picture of a 1947 Beech Bonanza


Arnold Ebneter’s First Airplane Design

In 1947, although Arnold had yet to take the engineering classes he needed to learn the mysteries of designing airplanes, his lack of knowledge didn’t stop him from fantasizing about what he might do. After only one month at Rensselaer, he was already trying to find a way to turn a two-seat PT-23 into an airplane with three seats. Why exactly he wanted to do this is not clear, but he was sure he could do it.

Even better would be to make money with an airplane. In April, he wrote his parents and told them, only half-jokingly, that he wanted to build an airplane and win the light aircraft division of the National Air Races held in Cleveland, Ohio in September. To prove he could do it, he included a sketch of the proposed airplane at the bottom of his letter. He named his design “The Dreamer.” The Dreamer is shown below. He never completed the design or built the airplane, but some of the features below can be seen in the airplane he eventually built to set a world distance record. But more on that much later!

The Dreamer

Arnold’s Idea for the 1947 National Air Races: The Dreamer

Arnold Ebneter: Student Engineer and Itinerant Pilot

Sorry I have taken so long to get the next post up! I have been in the middle of moving from California back to Washington State. I’m now somewhat settled in (although still surrounded by boxes). My internet is running and I got my printer working this afternoon. Now all I need to do is find the espresso machine and I’ll be all set! On the other hand, there is a Starbucks within walking distance, so I’m not going to go into latte withdrawal (after all, this is the Seattle area).

Enough about me! When we last left Arnold, he had just received his private pilot certificate and he was eager to start using it. Let’s pick up at the beginning of Chapter 2, currenty titled “The Itinerant Pilot.” You’ll see why over the next several posts.

After earning his private pilot’s license, Arnold worked as a mechanic for Forrest and Paul at their struggling flying service through most of the fall of 1946. Although Arnold loved working with both of them, the partners had apparently not thought about any sort of business plan – they seemed to hope that people would just show up in Poynette to start flying their war-surplus airplanes. However, if people are going to fly airplanes, they need instructors to teach them, and neither Paul nor Forrest seemed in any hurry to get their civilian instructor certificates. Knowing that Arnold was eager to earn a living flying, they instead  pressured him to obtain his flight instructor rating, but he first needed a commercial pilot’s license. Arnold also needed a mechanic’s license so he could work on airplanes unsupervised, and, although he was game for the additional ratings, he soon had to put his flying and mechanic careers on hold to start college at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

After Thanksgiving, Arnold took a train from Portage to Troy, arriving in early December. In his first letter home, he dutifully recounted his “refresher” schedule to his parents – Mechanical Drawing, Physics Lecture, Physics Lab, Trigonometry, and Physics Test – and suggested a briefcase as a Christmas present to help him lug around the load of books and drafting supplies he had just purchased for his classes.

Within a few weeks after arriving in Troy, Arnold already missed flying, but flying in Troy was out of the question due to both time and money. The only decent planes available to rent were located an eight mile bus ride away in Albany, and they were too expensive, especially since he could no longer trade his mechanical skills for flying time. When his parents wrote to him that Forrest and Paul had each bought war-surplus BT-13s, he was green with envy and yearned to be back in Wisconsin flying them. He wrote back, “All I can say is some day I’m going to own one [a BT-13] . . .” Then in February 1947, adding insult to injury, his cousin Carl bought an airplane, a Porterfield, so he could start flying lessons as well. It seemed to Arnold that everyone he knew owned an airplane and was flying but him.

By New Year’s Eve, Arnold was adjusting well to college life and enjoying the freedom of being on his own for the first time. He wrote to his parents that people were already noticing his pleasure at his freedom, which he attributed to the “Swiss independence” of his heritage. In line with his growing maturity, he penned, “I figure that if I can learn to handle my problems alone now while they’re not too big, it will make it a lot easier when I do run into some real problems.”