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.