A Bellingham man’s antique plane, and a Pearl Harbor mystery

A casual beer at an air show several years ago pointed a Bellingham aircraft collector toward a possible solution to one of aviation history’s more obscure mysteries – what happened to the aircraft that was likely the first to encounter Japanese warplanes during the infamous Pearl Harbor attack 75 years ago.

“The story of the airplane was rumor at best,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders of Bellingham, who is executive director of the Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington. “This is a facet of aviation history that is almost completely forgotten and almost overlooked.”

That airplane is an Interstate Cadet: a two-seat, single-engine trainer. At 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, instructor Cornelia Fort and her student were flying out of John Rodgers Field – now Kalaeola Airport – west of Honolulu, when they were attacked by a Japanese warplane.

Historians cite that incident as the first U.S. air engagement of the war, and it was memorialized in the opening scenes of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” although film dialogue erroneously refers to the pilot as Marguerite H. Gambo, another woman flying that day. The Japanese pilot fired on the little plane, forcing Fort and her student to land, where they were strafed but uninjured.

Within a year, Fort was accepted into the fledgling Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, a unit of the Army Air Forces whose pilots flew military aircraft to their airfields from the factories where they were built.

Fort would make aviation history again in 1943, when she crashed after a midair collision and became the first woman pilot to die in active military service, according to articles at Smithsonian.com and in Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. She was 24 years old.

Anders thinks he now owns Fort’s little trainer, and he tells her story to preserve the memory of a bold young woman who died serving her country. He bought the plane from noted Interstate collector and aerial performer Kent Pietsch, after chatting with him over drinks in 2013.

“It was literally a pile of parts,” Anders said. “It was literally just the airframe.”

Only about 120 of the little trainers remain.

Memorial flight on Dec. 7, 2016

Anders had a hunch about the plane’s origins, and he wanted to learn more. The aircraft’s registration number, like a car’s identification, is stamped on its airframe. FAA records show that Anders’ plane, registration No. N37266, was in Honolulu at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. But Fort’s own log books show that the plane she was flying on Dec. 7, 1941, was N37345.

Anders thinks he knows the reason for the discrepancy.

Fort’s family home burned in December 1942, destroying her diaries and log books. Anders thinks Fort made new flight logs from memory, using the registration N37345 – a plane that was built after the Pearl Harbor attack, according to Smithsonian research. Flight logs are important to pilots who want a career in aviation, Anders said.

“There’s the verbal legend, and there’s the log book, which says it’s a different airplane” Anders said. “I think what happened is that she just took that number.”

Knowing for certain the plane Anders owns was Fort’s actual aircraft matters to historians and to museums, but Anders says he is satisfied about its historical significance.

“That’s what this is really about, is preserving a piece of history. We almost lost this airplane to the smelter, quite literally.”

He said he would love to find a photograph of Fort with her airplane, because its registration would be painted on the aircraft’s wings and tail.

“In my opinion, my level of official claim is beyond a reasonable doubt,” Anders said. “(But) until we have a picture of her with the plane, there will always be doubt.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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