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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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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.

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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.

For 28 years, Pietsch had flown for the airlines (he retired from Northwest in 2007). On his 24-hour airline layovers in Honolulu, he had become fascinated by Pearl Harbor history, especially after taking a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial led by Pearl Harbor survivor Richard Fiske. In 1991, Pietsch was flying for what was still Northwest Airlines as a DC-10 copilot on the run between Fukuoka, Japan, and Honolulu, Hawaii. On December 5, he had been westbound, Hawaii to Japan. Word came to the cockpit that one of the passengers was Zenji Abe, an elderly businessman who had been a Japanese dive-bomber pilot in the second-wave attack on Pearl. A deeply patriotic man, Pietsch went back on his break just to stare at this ancient enemy, only to be charmed by Abe, who had be­come a promoter of peace. “At first I wouldn’t even sit down with him,” Pietsch remembers. “I just perched on the armrest, but then we got talking and it was all right.”

Two days later, Pietsch was on an early morning approach to Honolulu International, 50 years almost to the minute from the first attack. “I think it was 8:14 in the morning,” he recalls. “We were coming Fukuoka to Hawaii on basically the same route as they [the Imperial Navy] took, only they came north of the mountain and we were coming south of it. The sun was shining through cloud and you could see the rising sun. It was unbelievable. We went right by the Arizona Memorial and I just felt a chill.”

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