New Picture of Donald Rock

This is the best picture I’ve seen yet of Donald Rock, the rock on Arnold’s boyhood farm that pilots used as a landmark. Many thanks to my Aunt Tere for finding this gem! The boy in the picture is Arnold (is that a tie?) and the woman right behind him is his mother, Bertha. The other woman is his Aunt Mary (his father Emil’s sister).

Donald Rock

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.”

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.