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.

Down Time in Vietnam

I’ve been off for a week due to the Fourth of July holiday and some other commitments. It’s now time to finish up the Vietnam chapter and move on to some airplane building. Well, sort of airplane building — we’re only 8 years into the saga, so obviously a fully formed airplane won’t emerge in the next few posts!

Here’s a photo of an event involving some cheese — not sure what that was all about, but Arnold and the other pilot in the photo were both from Wisconsin.

Arnold Tuy Hoa 1968

The Cheese Incident?
Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection

Arnold also passed the time reading airplane magazines. He mused about buying a Hawker Hurricane World War II fighter he saw for sale in one magazine and fell in love with an acrobatic Bonanza he saw in another. He also began sketching out a design to modify Charlie so he could more easily carry the entire family. The Bonanza was designed to carry four adults, so his three older daughters would normally sit in the two backseats, and Kelly would sit on Colleen’s lap. Everyone was growing up though, and that wasn’t going to work for much longer. He devised a bench seat for the baggage compartment and started working on the paperwork to get it approved by the FAA.

Squadron parties were also common occurrences since someone was always going away. Even if someone wasn’t going away, it didn’t take much to decide to have a party. The pilots bought party flight suits, also called mess dress flight suits, made by a tailor in Udorn, Thailand for the princely sum of $12. The flight suits had short sleeves and places to show off all their unit patches that they couldn’t wear during combat flights. Each squadron had their own color, so the Emerald Knights were going to wind up with bright green party suits, which made for a lot of moaning since some thought they would look silly. However, other pilots equally hated another option of powder blue suits like those worn by the Thunderbirds at the time. After much squabbling, the pilots finally settled on green.

By early July, the Tet Offensive was largely over, US marines had abandoned Khe Sahn, and US forces began chasing the North Vietnamese Army all over the country again. Most of Arnold’s missions became routine “tree-busting” missions to clear out trees and brush so that helicopters could land for ground forces. During his spare time, Arnold negotiated via letter with Colleen regarding plans for a month-long expedition she planned to take with the girls to Minnesota and Wisconsin. As the war began to wane, he also had time to start missing Charlie and thinking about the record-setting airplane. It had now been eight long years since he had designed it, and somehow the time had gotten away from him. He’d turned 40 not long after arriving in Vietnam, and the un-built airplane hung over him, taunting him as he had failed to buy a single part of even a set of tools. Soon, he would know where his next assignment would be. As much as he wanted to keep flying the F-100, he also wanted an assignment as an engineer that would provide fewer deployments and crazy hours. Then he could really get some building done and find out if the airplane would really fly.

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.

Flight to the Yankees

During the spring of 1966 when we lived in Dayton, I became enchanted with baseball. My father sometimes watched sports on our black-and-white TV, and one afternoon he had tuned in a baseball game. I started paying attention and became transfixed by the action – the game was slow enough and the rules simple enough for a child to follow, but still exciting whenever someone managed to hit the ball. The Yankees were playing that day, so by default they became my favorite team.

The day before my birthday that summer was a Sunday, and the whole family would normally have gone to the airport to fly. However, instead my father took just my older sister and me. We both groused about it and wanted to stay home and play with our friends or watch TV. After flying for about two hours, we landed and my father said we were in Cleveland. My sister and I both protested this apparent change of plans and asked why.

“You’ll see,” my father said, as he hailed a taxi.

Five minutes later, we stood in front of the baseball stadium in Cleveland, and my father said, “We’re going to a baseball game.”

“We are? Who’s playing?”

“The Indians and the Yankees.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A live baseball game, with the Yankees no less. It would be impossible to ever top such a birthday. Our seats were in the nosebleed section but it didn’t matter – I was at a real baseball game.

The Yankees won, and although such stars as Mickey Mantle were on the team, the hero of the day was Clete Boyer, a journeyman third-baseman who hit a home run to drive in the winning runs. I was disappointed that Boyer’s homerun didn’t receive the booming torches set off when Cleveland hit a home run. I still had a lot to learn about baseball.

I flew so much when I was a kid that this is one of the few flights I actually remember!

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