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.

4 thoughts on “Arnold’s Private Pilot License: Things were quite different in the 1940s

    • Actually, by the 1940s people had to get proper training and pass a written exam as well. However, the standards of instruction were much looser and there were no practical test standards to train to. Things were much more subjective and left up to individual instructors and examiners.

      You are correct that up until the late 1920s, there were no real standards for pilot training or even pilot licenses, but the 1926 Federal Air Commerce Act changed all that. In fact, Charles Lindbergh received his official pilot license not long before he departed on his Atlantic crossing to Paris, despite obviously having significant flying experience. One of the reasons for getting the license was to alleviate any concerns the French or other European countries might have about him overflying or landing in their countries. As an aside, that concern was unfounded. France and the rest of the world were so electrified by Lindbergh’s feat that I don’t think they would have cared about any pieces of paper he had or didn’t have on board his person or airplane!

  1. Colonel Bjorkman,

    I am glad you seem to have gotten the email sending sorted. I have not received an update sine December, I think. Anyway, I am very pleased you are writing the saga of your father’s life. It is both enjoyable and instructional.
    Now, just a small correction before you publish the book, of which I want an early copy. In the February 3rd update you stated that Steve Wittman founded the EAA. He did not. Early member, yes, but the EAA was founded by Paul Poberezny.

    Keep up the good work,


    • Barry,

      Thank you for the kind words! And also for the correction on Steve Wittman — I must have had a brain cramp when I wrote that. I’ve updated it to read “Steve Wittman, who owned Wittman Field in Oshkosh and later was among the first members of the Experimental Aircraft Association” in both the post and the draft manuscript.

      Thanks again,

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