Streamlining the E-1

E-1 Wheel Pant

The E-1’s Innovative Wheel Pants
(Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection)

After doing some tests, Arnold found that he needed to coax a few more miles per gallon out of the E-1, so he decided to streamline the landing gear.

Reasoning that most of the drag came from the turbulent flow behind each wheel and tire, he decided to cover just the backs of those parts, fashioning two wheel pants that looked like little flat footballs. When he was finished, the simple solution looked a bit odd, but it worked.


Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle …

In the late 1960s, the US commercial aerospace industry suffered a tremendous downturn. Aerospace companies with large military contracts made soft landings, but companies focused on the airline industry were hard hit. Boeing was devastated – the company did not receive a single order from a US airline for an eighteen-month period beginning in 1969. Jumbo jets production slowed to a dribble. Droves of production workers were laid off, and unemployment in the Seattle area rose to a high of 16 percent.

To add to Boeing’s woes, by early 1971 the government-sponsored Supersonic Transport, or SST, was in serious trouble. Even though President Nixon and the two powerful Washington senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson, were all staunch supporters of the SST, others attacked the airplane as too expensive and environmentally unfriendly.

Word in 1963 that the British and French had entered a partnership to develop a European SST gave a boost to presidential and congressional support for a US version of the plane. Subsequently, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a contract to Boeing at the end of 1966 to build two prototype aircraft that would demonstrate the viability of the SST concept. General Electric also received FAA funding to develop the engines. The total government investment in the SST was expected to top $1 billion, with Boeing spending about $100 million of their own money.

There were many good reasons to build the SST. Boeing thought they could sell 500 of them, which would easily repay the investment to the US government. Tens of thousands of people would be employed building and operating SSTs; 5,000 in Seattle alone were already developing and building the prototypes. Boeing and their subcontractors were developing astonishing new technologies that would benefit the US aerospace industry and country as a whole. Everything about the SST exemplified US aerospace dominance – Boeing even boasted that the airplane was the first ever made entirely from titanium.

But none of that mattered to those who opposed the SST. Environmental groups saw hazards lurking everywhere – noise caused by advanced engines and sonic booms, unknown effects on the weather from flying high in the stratosphere, and even the possibility of increased skin cancers. To fiscal conservatives, the airplane was just too expensive, and many asked why was the US government investing in the aerospace industry in the first place? Let them fund their own research.

In March 1971, the House and Senate both voted to end SST funding. Seattle civic leaders, still reeling from previous Boeing cuts, watched helplessly as the company laid off an additional 5,000 workers, the entire SST team, over the next few weeks. This time the cuts included engineers, normally retained in a downturn due to the expense of hiring and training them. Engineers who had designed Boeing airplanes for decades became construction workers, grocery store clerks, and real estate agents. Mechanics became cab drivers. Many people left Seattle for work elsewhere and families disintegrated. Boeing’s name was mud throughout much of the city.

Trying to lighten the mood, two young real estate workers commissioned a billboard near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport that read, “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle – Turn Out the Lights.” Some saw the humor, but local leaders weren’t amused and after only two weeks, the billboard was dismantled.

By 1974, the aerospace industry had recovered and Boeing and Seattle were again booming. When Arnold reported for his first day of work at the 727 plant in Renton, Washington, his new company was profitable – airplanes rolled off production lines all over the Seattle area and order backlogs totaled billions of dollars.


Arnold Ebneter: Balloon Pilot

Arnold became a balloon pilot on January 23, 1951. The balloon program had temporarily moved to the US Army’s White Sands Proving Ground. Now called White Sands Missile Range, the range is located in the south-central part of New Mexico, about 50 miles northwest of El Paso.

AE_Jan 1951

Arnold’s First Balloon Flight, White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico

For Arnold’s first flight, the weather was typical for a January morning in New Mexico, sunny and chilly, but much warmer than the twenty below zero temperatures he and Charlie had left behind in Minneapolis. Since Arnold’s first flight was to try out some of his design changes, he had become a test pilot as well. He also carried an anchor he and Charlie hoped might provide for easier landings than the garden hose/rope combination they were using, especially during the windy conditions they were more likely to encounter in New Mexico. Both pilots had noticed that colorful drawings of balloons from the 1800s often depicted balloons with anchors, so they assumed the anchor must be a good way to stop a balloon. The anchor Arnold designed looked like a very large treble fishhook, weighed about two pounds, and attached to the balloon with a 100-foot nylon line.

Arnold and the balloon lifted off easily and after rising quickly to 1000 feet above the ground, he began drifting on a southwest heading toward the town of Las Cruces. After clearing the Organ Mountains, a small range of hills dividing White Sands from Las Cruces, he dropped down to about 200 feet above the ground, and flew silently for an hour, enjoying the desert sights below.

When it was time to land, Arnold decided to try out the anchor first. After descending a bit, he dropped the anchor from about 100 feet and snagged it on a piece of sagebrush. If there had been no wind, everything would have been fine; the anchor would have provided a stable platform. However, the 15-mile per hour wind blew the balloon sideways and turned Arnold into a human pogo stick — he banged onto the ground and then bounced violently back into the air. Although it might have made for a fun carnival ride, after three bounces Arnold had seen enough. He cut the anchor line, let the balloon climb back up, and then made an uneventful landing using the drag rope.

The ground crew chasing him in a Jeep arrived about ten minutes later to retrieve him and the balloon. However, they decided not to bother looking for the anchor, since Arnold had determined that, fanciful artist renditions aside, they were unlikely to try using it again. Somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico, that giant “fishhook” may still be waiting for someone to find it and wonder what sort of alien vehicle might have used it.

Arnold Ebneter: Accidental Balloon Engineer

About the time Arnold met Colleen, he also found a new job. His friend Charlie Moore was an engineer for General Mills, and he had a contract with the Navy to develop manned balloons that could stay aloft for up to twelve hours. Charlie had flown one manned flight in 1949, but he needed additional help to continue the program. He really needed three employees – another pilot, a mechanic, and an engineer – but he decided to hire Arnold because he could fill all three roles and thus save the program some money. Despite his lack of degree and his youth, by October Arnold was a General Mills employee and the project engineer for the balloon program. When the Minnesota National Guard activated on December 1, 1950 the Navy, not wanting to lose their prized new project engineer, arranged his to transfer to the Minnesota Air National Guard.

Despite the Navy perception of Arnold’s importance to their program, neither he nor Charlie knew much about manned balloons, and Arnold did not know much about balloons at all. However, if the balloonists-to-be had any doubts, the confidence of youth overcame them.


Charlie Moore in one of the General Mills balloons

Photos of these balloons do not inspire confidence that they could safely carry someone even five feet off the ground, let alone 5,000. Except for the use of a single balloon, the setup resembled a “lawn chair balloon” that Californian Larry Walters infamously used in 1982 to ascend to 15,000 feet, astonishing several nearby airline pilots. Federal authorities were not amused.

The GM balloons were legal, although the Navy took great pains to keep the program quiet. Each balloon was made of very thin polyethylene plastic and was twenty feet in diameter, when fully inflated with helium. Instead of the typical basket used on balloons to carry the pilot and passengers, the pilot dangled precariously below the balloon, attached using only the parachute for the instrument and a harness. With this unwieldy get-up, there was obviously no room for passengers, even if any had been willing to go for a ride.

Although Arnold modified later balloons with a plywood swing for the pilot to sit on, there was still nothing between the pilot and the ground, which made for interesting landings. The balloons leaked helium naturally, which caused the balloon to enter a gradual descent once it reached its maximum altitude on any given day. Once the balloon was about one hundred feet above the ground, the pilot would drop a one-inch weighted rope attached to the balloon. When the rope touched the ground, the weight of the balloon was reduced by the rope weight now on the ground, which caused the balloon to temporarily stop descending.

The pilot then brought himself to within five feet of the ground by simply hauling the rope into the basket; at five feet, the pilot pulled a balloon panel designed to rip away and deflate balloon, and the pilot dropped comfortably to the ground. Despite the simplicity of the system, it required a great deal of coordination and effort from the pilot. The landings could also become quite dicey when it was windy, as the rope did nothing to keep the balloon from blowing across the ground.

Arnold Ebneter’s First Airplane Design

In 1947, although Arnold had yet to take the engineering classes he needed to learn the mysteries of designing airplanes, his lack of knowledge didn’t stop him from fantasizing about what he might do. After only one month at Rensselaer, he was already trying to find a way to turn a two-seat PT-23 into an airplane with three seats. Why exactly he wanted to do this is not clear, but he was sure he could do it.

Even better would be to make money with an airplane. In April, he wrote his parents and told them, only half-jokingly, that he wanted to build an airplane and win the light aircraft division of the National Air Races held in Cleveland, Ohio in September. To prove he could do it, he included a sketch of the proposed airplane at the bottom of his letter. He named his design “The Dreamer.” The Dreamer is shown below. He never completed the design or built the airplane, but some of the features below can be seen in the airplane he eventually built to set a world distance record. But more on that much later!

The Dreamer

Arnold’s Idea for the 1947 National Air Races: The Dreamer

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.”