Upgrading Charlie and . . . The Propeller Arrives!

AirVenture in Oshkosh is over so it’s time to get back to work! I’ll post a condensed version of the Oshkosh presentation on a separate page some time during the next few weeks once I catch my breath.

When we last saw Arnold and his family, they had just moved to Eglin AFB in Florida, where he was assigned to manage funds in the Air Force Armament Laboratory. Since he was no longer deploying all the time, he planned to start working on his record-setting airplane, but first he had one small project to do on Charlie, the family airplane.

Charlie was a Beech B35 Bonanza and had only enough seats for four adults. This was no problem when Arnold’s four daughters were small, but by 1969 they were too big to cram together into the two seats in Charlie’s backseat. Rather than buy another airplane, Arnold decided to equip Charlie with a second backseat. He designed a bench and installed it in the baggage compartment. There was still enough room to put small bags under the bench, and as long as the two girls in the backseat plus the luggage weighed less than about 200 pounds, everything would be fine. Of course, once the youngest girls got a little bigger and the rest demanded to take more luggage the solution would fall apart, but Arnold figured it would make Charlie work as a family airplane for a few more years. Plus, it gave him a chance to use his engineering skills that the Air Force seemed determined to waste, despite paying for his two degrees.

Arnold refreshed his mechanic’s skills by welding the frame for the seat and he found a local upholsterer to make the cushions. After getting a blessing from the FAA, he made the maiden flight with the family and realized he had forgotten that there was no window in the baggage compartment, so no one wanted to sit there. Fortunately, Beech already had a window kit that he was able to buy instead of heading back to the drawing board. A few weeks later, with the new window installed, the complaints from the back of the airplane died down.

With Charlie complete, another officer at Eglin presented Arnold with an opportunity to start building his dream airplane. All Air Force bases are full of pilots who can’t fly military airplanes for one reason or another, and Eglin was no exception. A second lieutenant who worked at the lab with Arnold had a civilian pilot’s license and owned a J-3 Cub that he kept at the airport in Crestview. The lieutenant decided to buy a new engine and propeller for his Cub and offered the existing ones to Arnold for only $100. The engine was a 65 horsepower Lycoming model that, even in 1970, was an antique. Parts were hard to come by, but at $100, it was too good a deal to pass up. Arnold decided to bring the wood propeller home to better protect it from the elements, and he found it fit nicely under the bed in the master bedroom. It was a good thing he didn’t try to bring the engine home — it wouldn’t have fit under the bed, and despite her own love of airplanes, Colleen probably would have objected to an engine as a centerpiece on the dining room table.

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.

Wisconsin Aviation from the 1940s

I’ve been on hiatus for about a week with preparing for and traveling to Wisconsin for AirVenture at Oshkosh. I’m having a great time so far and will be giving the Propeller presentation on Saturday (tomorrow) at 1130. Arnold will be there to answer questions as well.

While in Wisconsin, I’ve had the chance to go to the Wisconsin Historical Society and comb through old newspaper microfilms. I’ve also visited various places where Arnold did his early flying. From both of those, I’ve gotten some great tidbits to add to my early chapters and some wonderful photos, some of which will be in this post.

First up is a photo of a painting of Donald Rock by John Steuart Curry. Those of you who have been following this for a while know Arnold spent about six years of his early childhood on the farm depicted in the painting below. The rock made an attractive landmark that pilots used for navigation in the 1930s, so Arnold saw lots of airplanes flying over all the time. The painting was done in the 1940s and it now hangs in the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, which I visited on Tuesday. The farm is now a county park, and I plan to visit that on Sunday.

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The next two pictures are from the Portage Airport, Mael Field. I took these pictures on our visit to Portage today (more on that later). The first picture is of an old Mael Field sign and the current runway. The runway didn’t exist when Arnold flew there in the 1940s, but the picture gives you a feel for what the old airport must have looked like; just imagine all the concrete covered with grass instead. The second picture is of the hangar that Arnold helped to build in the 1940s — he figures he pounded about one-third of the nails in the hangar and it still stands today.

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Next up is a corn field. Not just any corn field, but the field near Poynette where Curtis Airpark used to be. We drove to this field after we left Portage, using the same roads Arnold trundled along in Forrest Sommers’s Model A pickup truck as they traveled to work on airplanes and go fly PT-23s. The Curtis family still owns the property and a relative we spoke to said the airfield continued to exist until about 30 years ago.

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The next picture is of Arnold in Vietnam with his brother Frank. Their tours overlapped briefly in 1968, and this picture was taken during one of Frank’s visits to Tuy Hoa. Frank was a forward air controller flying O-1Es, so he was happy to get to a real Air Force Base every once in a while! This picture came out of a short article in the Portage Daily Register that Arnold’s mother had saved in a scrapbook and that my Aunt Tere has now. Arnold is on the left and Frank is on the right.

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I took the last picture today at a lunch with some of Arnold’s high school classmates in Portage. Fifteen people showed up — that’s pretty amazing after all these years. What’s even more amazing is that they all get together for lunch once a month! The other gentleman in the picture (on the left) is Laverne Griffin, a distinguished aviator who also had a career in the US Air Force. He flew RF-101s and RF-4s, so I know he has some great stories that I need to get at some point! Laverne was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame last year, and this year Arnold is being inducted into the same place. What do you suppose the odds are that two guys from a small high school class would both get inducted into a state Aviation Hall of Fame?

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