A Pearl Harbor Mystery
How a 1940s Interstate Cadet trainer sent a famous airshow pilot on a journey to find a kindred spirit.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
National Museum of the USAF; Texas Woman's University Libraries; Library of Congress; Photo Illustration by Theo
When you collect a certain kind of airplane, after a while, those airplanes seek you out. That is more or less is what happened to Kent Pietsch. Pietsch, 54, has repeatedly been charmed by a high-wing, low-power, two-place-cabin, tail-dragging, primary trainer called the Interstate Cadet. It is not a famous design. Even in its day, the Cadet was often mistaken for the far more numerous Piper or Taylorcraft Cubs. The Cadet’s heyday was 1941 and 1942, the brief period from just before America entered World War II until just after. Smack in the middle came the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which one Interstate Cadet played a brief, minor, but memorable role. It was this Cadet that, seven decades later, began to possess Kent Pietsch.
Pietsch (pronounced “peach”) grew up on a farm about nine miles south of Minot, North Dakota, part of a clan of flying Pietschs. His father, Al, formed the Pietsch Flying Service, which is still crop-dusting and selling, servicing, and restoring aircraft after 56 years. In 1968, the family expanded its flying ventures, debuting Pietsch Air Shows.
Pietsch was still a teenager when he bought his first Interstate, a tired flight school veteran. He had been working in the family hangar since grade school, trading work for lessons and soloing at 16. In high school, he began drawing up a dream airplane—a hotshot, mid-wing aerobat—but he couldn’t get the wings right. That led him to a fat volume on airfoils, and turned him into a teenage airfoil fancier. Looking out the hangar door one day at Uncle Leonard’s weatherbeaten Cadet, Pietsch realized that the Interstate was sporting his ideal airfoil. He ran out to measure, then ran back inside to buy N37428 from his uncle. He’s had it ever since. When he joined the family airshow, Pietsch built his act around the Cadet’s forgiving airfoil.
Pietsch is a big man, well over six feet tall. (Part of the joke in his act is Big Man climbing out of Small Airplane.) He doesn’t go for the costumey flightsuits most show pilots wear. His wardrobe is jeans and a T-shirt advertising his sponsor’s Jelly Belly candy.
Pietsch has several routines. He flies a show-stopping act in which he lands a Cadet on top of a galloping recreational vehicle that carries on its roof a tiny “runway.” He also has a gentler but no less impressive performance. Call it his energy management act. At 6,500 feet Pietsch cuts the engine, then rolls, loops, glides, swoops, and dances his way down, landing so precisely that his Cadet comes to a stop with its motionless prop spinner kissing the palm of the airshow announcer, who has planted himself with seeming nonchalance on the runway. Then the Big Man hops out of the tiny Cadet for a bow. It’s a routine that combines showmanship, comedy, suspense, and a lesson in aeronautics.
Today, Pietsch has four Cadets, plus choice parts. One, N37266, came from a collection of seven more or less separate Cadets that an Ohio aficionado was disposing of. He had seen Pietsch fly a Cadet routine at the Florida Sun ’n Fun Air Show and tracked him down. Pietsch was not in the least interested. He had more than enough Cadets for his act, plus a pair of Waco Taperwings, open-cockpit biplanes he was reconstructing.
The Ohio owner talked up his wares. One of the Cadets, he said, had been in a Honolulu flight school the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
That caught Pietsch’s attention.