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When Japanese aircraft began their assault (Nakajima B5N Kate bomber, lower right), Cornelia Fort was giving a flying lesson; she later documented the terrifying surprise in her logbook. (National Museum of the USAF; Texas Woman's University Libraries; Library of Congress; Photo Illustration by Theo)

A Pearl Harbor Mystery

How a 1940s Interstate Cadet trainer sent a famous airshow pilot on a journey to find a kindred spirit

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“The Interstate was the first aircraft that I got enthused about restoring to some sort of authentic condition,” Talen says. “Every one I’ve looked at since has given me another clue or tells me something that I didn’t know before about what it looked like originally.”

Compared to other trainers in the early 1940s, Talen says, the Interstate turned in better performance. “I’m sure all the Aeronca and Piper lovers would say I’m crazy, but I’ve flown them all. The Interstate is just a notch above. But it’s not brain surgery to figure out why. The Interstate came later on the market than these others, so it benefited from experience and from good design and good engineering. It shows up in the aerodynamics. It’s just a superior flying airplane.”

The men finished loading the parts onto Talen’s truck, and off N37266 went to regain a 1941 appearance. The rain was still coming down, and the Souris ran slate gray to the horizon.

It was just after THat when the smoking gun turned up. In June, Dr. Fort realized that he could find the serial and tail numbers of his aunt’s Cadet. The Texas Woman’s University Libraries owns a group of photographs on the WASP, and among them was a scan of “page 13 left” of Cornelia Fort’s logbook, covering the first week of December. The scan was on the library’s Web site. Cornelia had flown the same Cadet on four occasions, and the entry for 12-7-41 read:

Cadet, 37345, Cont. 65 [Continental 65-horsepower engine]—Flight interrupted by Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. An enemy airplane shot at my airplane and missed and proceeded to strafe John Rodgers, a civilian airport. Another airplane machine-gunned the ground in front of me as I taxied back to the hangar.

Fort’s Cadet was N37345, not Pietsch’s N37266.

When he got the news, Pietsch was remarkably philosophical. Maybe he had a new perspective; on June 25, the Souris River breached Pietsch’s last defenses and flooded his house. The contents and the airplanes had been moved in time, but the interior would have to be gutted: The sheetrock was soaked.

Today, Pietsch believes that even if Fort had not flown it, N37266 must have been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, perhaps sitting unharmed in a hangar at John Rodgers. Talen continued reconstruction of the “wrong” Cadet, right down to its original cables, brakes, and linen wing covering. As of press time, the fuselage and wings were finished; the engine had yet to be installed.

Once the Cadet is airworthy, Pietsch plans two debuts for it: The first is a flight this December 7, the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Dr. Fort will fly the airplane; so far, a place has not been arranged. Pietsch also plans an airshow on the 4th of July, 2012, at the Minot International Airport to benefit area residents who were flooded. Along with the Cadet, the show will feature the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds, a B-25, a P-40, a Mustang, and a Japanese Zero. The Zero and the Cadet will reenact Cornelia Fort’s Pearl Harbor flight.

There is a final mystery within the mystery: Pietsch has discovered that he might have owned Fort’s real Cadet all along. In his frantic transfer of airplane parts to higher ground, Pietsch had a quick look at a Cadet fuselage he had picked up in Texas years ago. It came without an aircraft registration number, but stamped on the metal was 188, the serial number listed for N37345.

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