Prairie Profiles, Mal Ernest: Wild blue yonder

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 18, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

In 1939, Mal Ernest saw a notice in the Albert Lea Tribune that the government was looking for young men to fly planes.

The requirements were relatively simple &045; the men had to have had at least three years of college and they needed to be able to pass a flight physical.

&8220;We had to take our eye tests, so we had to go over to the Mayo Eye Clinic in Rochester,&8221; Ernest said. &8220;This one guy had a Model A Ford sedan, and we went over there, and they put something in our eyes. You went into your car to get home, laughing and having a good time, but we couldn’t see.&8221;

Getting home may not have been easy, but it was just the start for Ernest and his three friends. They started learning how to fly planes, taking off from a pasture west of town, and eventually all three began taking advanced flying classes in Rochester, living by the river in one apartment. They got jobs waiting tables at a restaurant.

&8220;And we had this nice path to walk. I had a little wire-haired terrier, just chased the mailman at home. He was into it,&8221; Ernest said. &8220;He’d go with me down there, and all these girls had to stop and pet our dog. Greatest way to meet new girls at that age.&8221;

Ernest took an exam to go into pilot training with the U.S. Army Air Corps &045; the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force &045; and after heading up to the Twin Cities initially, he was sent down to Dallas to get his primary training &045; in open cockpit biplanes.

&8220;I think that was the most fun of any flying I did, the open cockpit plane,&8221; Ernest said.

Of course, the old planes had their ups and downs.

&8220;I was out there flying with my instructor pilot, and he says &8216;Have you got your seatbelt fastened?’ I said yeah, so what do you suppose he did? He rolled the plane over!&8221; Ernest said. &8220;I didn’t have this seatbelt pulled up real snug, and when we were upside down I dropped off about five inches below the seat. From then on, when I got in that plane with him, I had that on tight.&8221;

Competition in the Air Corps’ flight school was tough. Of the 89 men in Texas that started the instruction, only 38 graduated.

Ernest went on to train in monoplanes with larger engines and more advanced equipment. Eventually he went to Shreveport in Louisiana, where he started flying twin engine planes for the first time.

&8220;The first thing we did, this buddy of mine and I, was run down there and see the biggest plane we could see on the ramp. And here’s this engine panel covered with gauges. I don’t know which one of us said it, but &8216;Oh, we’ll never be able to learn this,’&8221; Ernest recalled. &8220;But we did.&8221;

Because the Air Corps didn’t have any advanced training planes, instructors used old bomber planes to teach their students. Sometimes the aging machines broke.

Once Ernest’s plane’s landing gear didn’t stay down, and he ended up skidding over the runway on the plane’s belly, wrecking the plane.

&8220;I got out of the plane and all I could think was, I flunked out. I’ll never graduate,&8221; Ernest said.

But his captain backed him up, and Ernest did not flunk out of training. He graduated and received his first written orders as a second lieutenant &045; and pilot &045; in the Air Corps.

&8220;I tell you, when you’re young like that and you’re doing all these things you’ve never done in your life, it was really an exciting, thrilling life,&8221; Ernest said.

He went down to Tampa Bay in Florida and kept flying, spending time in a B-26 Martin Marauder, a plane with the highest wing loading of any in the world at the time.

&8220;Which means you’ve got to be going pretty fast to stay in the air, and if you lost one engine on that plane, you had to be close to sea level because the air’s a little thicker there, and turn the throttle up on that good engine that’s left, and then look for a place to come down,&8221; Ernest said.

He never did have engine trouble with that kind of plane, though some in the Army Air Corps (and later the Army Air Force) refused to even get into them because of their dangerous reputation.

&8220;But it was a fun plane to fly, because you knew you had a tiger by the tail, you’d better do it right,&8221; Ernest said.

After America joined the war, Ernest went to Sardinia and flew bombers into Italy, and later, Germany, dropping bombs and turning around to go back to the airfield.

He made it through the war, and found himself back home in Albert Lea needing money to support his wife and young child. After starting up a mink ranch and a hardware store &045; the first at his father-in-law’s suggestion and the second with his brother &045; he ended up building houses with his brother.

His wife, Eva, kept the books and did the interior decorating for the houses.

When Ernest had six houses on sale, employees at the Wilson packing plant in town went on strike, killing the housing market.

Ernest started renting out the houses at $65 a month and keeping up the houses.

&8220;That’s better than nothing, right?&8221; Ernest said. &8220;But I couldn’t keep up, I didn’t have enough money to keep up with all my payments.&8221;

Eventually business got better, and Ernest sold the houses or raised the rents, and before he retired, he paid back every bit of the money he owed.

&8220;I really regretted having to go out of the homebuilding business,&8221; Ernest said. &8220;I really enjoyed that. You felt like you had accomplished something when you visualized a house and a plot of land here, and you get it all done and people come and live there.&8221;

When Ernest set out to build his own house he made a beeline for a certain lot.

&8220;It had this beautiful oak tree out there, the biggest one in Albert Lea,&8221; Ernest said. &8220;I’d admired that for years before I ever thought of buying it. I thought, I’m going to have my house down by that oak tree.&8221;

The tree in Ernest’s front yard is over 300 years old and may be even older. The city of Albert Lea has grown up around it; when Ernest bought the lot the neighborhood was empty pasture.

It is an old tree.

But Mal Ernest is

not an old man. At 88 years old, he’s just as feisty as he ever was.

&8220;You know, when I think of 88 years old, old people are that age! And I don’t feel like an old person,&8221; Ernest said. &8220;Well, I’m shooting for 160.&8221;