A Pearl Harbor Mystery

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

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)
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In Dr. Fort’s telling, Aunt Cornelia emerges as a feisty, very modern woman who drank scotch, smoked cigarettes, and fought with Dr. Fort’s father over politics, religion, and whether any member of the Fort family, let alone a woman, should be flying when their father (also a physician) had been so against it. In the 1920s, the first Dr. Fort had summoned his three sons into his study to take an oath that they would never fly. Soon after her father’s death, in 1940, Cornelia announced that, because she had been too young and a girl, she was exempt from the Fort family oath. She then revealed that she’d been taking flying lessons.

Also unburdened by the oath, the current Dr. Fort is today the enthusiastic owner of an Aermacchi SF.260 aerobatic and military trainer, which he considers the ultimate light aircraft. So he understands how a certain airplane can take hold of the imagination. When he heard last spring that an airshow pilot from North Dakota had bought an Interstate Cadet, believing it could be Cornelia’s, he wished the man well. But he could not verify that the airplane was indeed his aunt’s.

Last April the Hawaiian Cadet (well, its pieces) arrived in North Dakota. The logbooks that came with it went back only to the mid-1950s. So Pietsch did the next best thing: He got a disk containing all the data that the Federal Aviation Administration and its forerunners had collected on N37266. He learned that the airplane had been manufactured at Interstate’s El Segundo plant (now somewhere under Los Angeles International Airport) on June 9, 1941, and sold 21 days later to Andrew Flying Service of John Rodgers Airport, Honolulu, T.H. (Ter­ritory of Hawaii). On July 30, 1941, Olen Andrew, the proprietor of the flying service, sold N37266 to the nine partners of the Underground Flying Club at John Rodgers. So the setup for N37266 was perfect: a club aircraft parked at a flying school where it could earn some of its keep as a trainer for the proprietor’s Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. In September 1941, Andrew hired Cornelia Fort as a CPT instructor.

N37266 did not appear in the government records again until July 4, 1946, when the head of the aviation trades program at Honolulu Vocational School filed an Aircraft Inspection Report detailing a long list of repairs and manufacturer’s updates, concluding with the typed remark, “Aircraft has been in storage since December 1941.” (Nearly all private aircraft in Hawaii were grounded after the December 7 attack.)

The Underground Flying Club held onto N37266, flying it for the next 25 years. By 1971, the club had dwindled to two members. The airplane finally passed to a series of private owners in and around Honolulu. The last airworthiness application was dated 1973; in 1979, N37266 was sold in Honolulu for the last time. A few months later, it was registered in Newark, Delaware. From there it went to buyers in Texas, Arizona, Ohio, and now North Dakota.

When the airplane arrived in Minot, the city was sodden. It had been a wet spring, and the Souris River was rising, every day creeping closer to Pietsch’s airstrip and hangar. Pietsch started a small sandbag dike around the strip. It kept raining. By early May, he and an airplane buddy, Larry Eide, had a sandbag wall as high as their heads. By late May, with no sign of the river receding, Pietsch had flown out his flyable airplanes. In June, the water breached the dike, flooding his hangar to the rafters.

In mid-June, I rented a Hyundai and drove to Minot to check out N37266. Despite the inconclusive paperwork, Pietsch was now calling his purchase “Cornelia’s airplane.”

“Cornelia was right there on the forefront,” Pietsch told me later. “That was the start. That was the minute when it went from being a calm Sunday morning just like any other—then boom—it’s a world war in which millions of people died. And this airplane was there.”

Pietsch, Eide, and restorer Tim Talen wrestled the bare airframe, wings, and many boxes of parts onto Talen’s flatbed trailer, which Talen would drive to his shop in Jasper, Oregon. There, he would administer a full-bore, museum-quality restoration. Talen, who had earned a master’s degree in history before turning to antique airplanes, is the unofficial dean of Interstate Cadet studies. While the three men worked, Talen gave impromptu talks on how to recognize factory welds, how Interstate redesigned the original tail to gain 50 pounds of carrying capacity, and the mediocre performance of the Cadet’s military version, the L-6.

Interstate Cadets came into his life on a fluke, Talen explained. As a teenager, he’d hung around a small airport near his home in Chico, California, picking up enough of the rudiments of dope and fabric work to earn a few bucks. Noting his skill with wood and fabric, a customer offered him a set of wings off an unknown airplane. They turned out to be Cadet wings. Cleaned up and advertised in a western aviation newspaper, they fetched $500 from a grateful priest in Portland, Oregon, who dispatched them to a Catholic mission in Brazil that was flying Interstates. After that, Talen kept an eye out for Interstates. These days Interstates appear to return the favor, seeming to migrate toward Jasper, Oregon.


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