Civilian Pilot Training in a pre-war Aeronca Chief

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In 2008, Wes Anderson, a retired Delta Airlines pilot from Seattle, Washington, asked if I wanted to purchase an Aeronca Chief that was in storage on the family farm near Malta, Montana. Wes and I knew each other from my years as an agricultural scientist involved in on-farm research in northern Montana.

The airplane was a 65C Chief, serial number 6399 and registered as N23974, that came off the production line on October 6, 1939. The Aeronautical Corporation of America built the so-called 1-series Chief between 1938 and 1940. Of more than 200 65C Chiefs that were built, the FAA registry shows that there are only 70 still registered within the US.

Initially, I was uncertain about acquiring another airplane. I had owned a Cessna 172 until financial circumstances forced me to give it up. But my spouse stated that I “needed a project” to get my mind off the challenges at work. So, in fall 2009, I committed without realizing how much time and effort would be required to restore an old Aeronca.

Wes loaded the airplane into an enclosed trailer and drove to the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton. The restoration project took place in an WWII-era hangar that EAA Chapter 219 leased from the city. I would have a place to work and access to individuals with knowledge and skills in aircraft repair. My only experience as an aircraft mechanic was years ago repairing and maintaining amphibious aircraft in the US Coast Guard.

Montana’s dry, cold climate had been kind to the airplane—there was very little corrosion on the steel frame. Though the engine and metal parts were sound, the wooden structure and covering were not. All of the original plywood formers and longerons were replaced with new wood. Mice had chewed the rear spars and so new ones were obtained from a firm specializing in the manufacture of wooden parts for Aeronca aircraft. During winter, when too cold to work in the unheated EAA hangar, I repaired wing ribs at home using new spruce cap strip and plywood gussets.

Aeronca Chief N23974 after restoration at Pendleton, Oregon in 2020.

Harold Nelson, an A&P/IA mechanic with over 60 years of experience, supervised my work. He loaned me a rotisserie that eased the tasks of covering, rib stitching, and painting. The final color was Colorado red with black trim, based on the original paint scheme. The original Eiseman magnetos were replaced with new Slick magnetos, along with shielded ignition harness and spark plugs. Harold shaped the upper cowling to accept the longer, shielded spark plugs. A one-piece windshield was installed to replace the original two-piece and an electric pump replaced the original, manual fuel transfer pump that was bulky and leaky. A handheld radio, hung from the dash, would serve as the sole communication device. An antenna designed to work without a ground plane was mounted inside the fuselage behind the seat.

The last five percent of the project was the really detailed work. Over several months, Harold and I rigged the controls, tested the fuel system for proper flow rate, undertook the weight and balance, checked for leaks, installed fuel drain valves, adjusted wing camber, and finalized the paperwork.

Finished with the restoration, it was time to fly the Aeronca. All my experience was in tricycle gear Cessnas and I had not flown as PIC in years. I needed to obtain a BFR and tailwheel endorsement, but the insurance company required an instructor with a minimum of 10 hours in make and model to be added to the open pilot policy. I had heard of Fred Ball, a flight instructor from nearby College Place, Washington, who specializes in tailwheel aircraft. Fred is a master pilot who logged the majority of his 27,000+ hours flying in western Alaska. He is also known to many as “Mr. Goose” because of his intimate knowledge of Grumman Goose and Widgeon seaplanes. The insurance company had no issues with Fred’s qualifications.

We flew on days of light and variable wind typical of late summer in eastern Oregon. Fred wanted to start at 7 am and complete the training within a week or two. Each session lasted an hour and a half. If conditions remained calm, we went up a second time. At first, Fred worked with me to keep the airplane oriented with the runway centerline during high-speed taxi. I was very tense. It was extremely awkward not pushing on one rudder pedal or the other quickly enough and with the right pressure to keep the airplane straight. My wild oscillations forced Fred to rescue the airplane during my first efforts.

Soon Fred had me practice takeoffs and landings in the pattern. He emphasized the importance of using the ailerons and rudder together to make coordinated turns. He reminded me to keep the ball centered when turning and the wings level when straight. Apparently, aerodynamic knowledge in the 1930s was incomplete and thus coordinated handling is critical with a vintage airplane. In addition, Fred explained that, due to changes in angle of attack of one propeller blade or the other, one must learn how much pressure to apply to one rudder pedal or the other to achieve aerodynamic balance during climb or descent.

The airplane cruised at 80 mph on the downwind leg with the power set at 1900 rpm. Fred instructed me to reduce power to 1000 rpm, hold the nose at an attitude to maintain an airspeed of 65 mph, and adjust power to control rate of descent on approach. Sometimes I was too high. Fred showed me how to perform a forward slip to reduce altitude while maintaining 65 mph. Achieving three-point touchdowns took time because I was concerned about keeping the airplane straight. I could not see over the cowl in a nose-up attitude and so sensed alignment using my peripheral vision to see each side of the runway. If the airplane bounced, I would lower the nose and add power. Fred corrected me by stressing the importance of maintaining lift by keeping the nose up and adding power as needed. Sometimes, on touchdown, Fred would sternly call out, “use the wheel to keep the wings level!” if I let the right wing go up.

After three days of training, I had developed a feel for rudder and allerion control. On the fifth day, Fred was more confident of my ability and surprised me with instructions to fly solo three times around the pattern. How thrilling to taxi out by myself and take off! Single mindedly, I voiced the procedures Fred had taught me during the execution of each leg, controlled the airplane methodically, and landed each time with a heightened sense of my surroundings. Success! I had completed my training and received the tailwheel endorsement from Fred.

Cover of book describing the Etchart Flying School. Student pilots with Aeronca Chief N23974 at Havre, Montana in 1940.

Registration records on file with the FAA revealed that Ralph E. Morrison of Helena, Montana, had purchased the airplane from the factory in October 1939, but then sold it to Gene Etchart in spring 1940. The logbooks showed Glen G. Grazier, a mechanic, had signed off the service and maintenance. In addition, the 82-year old airplane had accumulated nearly 1,000 of its 1,500 hours of total flying time during this one-year period.

The significance of this information became clear when Wes sent a book entitled A Flying Start into the Big Sky (1998, Star Publishing Co.) that told of the role of the Etchart Flying School in the Civilian Pilot Training program. The government created the CPT in 1938 to not only boost civil aviation, but also train 20,000 college-age students, both men and women, in preparation for a likely entry into a European war. Morrison had purchased an Aeronca Chief for his flying school under CPT contract at Havre, Montana, with Grazier as instructor and mechanic. Later, after training a first class of students in fall 1939, Morrison was unsure he wanted to continue and sold the school and the airplane to an enthusiastic Etchart.

Because the book corroborated the FAA and logbook records, it was clear that Morrison and Etchart’s Aeronca at Havre had been N23974. At the time, the airplane had a 50 hp Continental engine. Logbooks show a 65 hp engine being installed in 1953. This Aeronca was one of three airplanes that Etchart used to train a second class of 30 students between June and October 1940. On page 13, he writes:

“There were two Aeronca Chief planes, one with 50 hp and one with 65. The Taylorcraft had 65 hp and was a good performer. None of the planes had self-starters or radios. You had to hand crank them, and today, this is nearly a lost art. There were no radios for communications and the way you avoided collisions was via the method of see, and be seen, and consistently fly correct traffic patterns so that the other pilots could predict your likely actions and location. None of our airplanes had wing flaps, to lower the landing speed, and to compensate for this, all the students were taught the side-slip maneuver for losing altitude in order to get into a short field. The airplanes were sturdy, simple, reliable and easily maintained.”

Etchart stated that students usually soloed in eight to 10 hours after receiving training in forced landings, stalls, spins, steep turns, sideslips, spot landings, and navigation. In 1940, Havre’s airfield was a grass field that allowed the students to land into a wind from any direction. Amazingly, these authors write how the entire class would turn out to grab and hold onto the wings of an airplane when it wheel landed into a strong headwind to keep it from blowing over!

Glen Grazier and Gene Etchart (left to right) next to Aeronca Chief N23974 at Havre, Montana in 1940. Photograph copied from book “A Flying Start into the Big Sky” by P. Gudmundson, G. Etchart and O. Markle.

After graduating, many of these students further trained with the military and flew with the Army Air Corps in WWII. Morrison, Etchart, and Grazier also had important roles as military aviators during this critical period. In 1942, Morrison was killed in a military aircraft accident on Christmas Eve near Tampa, Florida, while serving as a flight instructor in the Army Air Corps. Etchart also served in the Army Air Corps as flight instructor after Pearl Harbor. He maintained his flying status to nearly age 95—his five-digit pilot’s license number was among America’s longest active licenses. Grazier flew gasoline, bombs and other supplies to Allied forces in the China-Burma Theater.

Aeronca Chief N23974 was one of many light civilian airplanes that were used across the nation to prepare thousands of individuals for military pilot training prior to WWII. Notable individuals who started under the CPT included John Glenn, Richard Bong, Bud Anderson, George McGovern, and Robert Dietz. Having an aircraft with an association to people who served in WWII inspires awe. But the fact that N23974 is still flying today, due to simple design and construction, is also impressive.

Now with 25 hours of solo time, I am less apprehensive about the wind and am enjoying the whole experience of hand starting and flying a light airplane. Fuel consumption is only 3.5 gph in cruise at 2000 rpm. To me personally, this simple, vintage airplane and the generosity of masterful individuals provided a welcome opportunity to learn and experience flying once again.

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