Stewart knew he was destined to fly. Incredibly, he convinced his worry-wart of a father to help him build his own glider, based on the Curtiss pusher that he had ridden. This worked out about as well as a wooden glider made by a teenager could, with a pile of destroyed wood and zero major injuries. The glider was designed to be launched from the sloping roof of the Stewart house, but the test flight was a resounding failure.
He would later meet fellow flight enthusiast Henry Fonda, and the two men would spend time building model airplanes and flying kits. Wholesome. Once Fonda strung up a line of kites, stretching so far that the top kite had disappeared. He needed help hauling them in. Their correspondence after Fonda left for Hollywood talked about almost nothing but their model planes.
War Has Come
Yes, it’s true that Jimmy Stewart took a break from filming commercial movies for a few years, but that was because he had joined the United States military to fight in World War II. He was the first major American movie star to do so, and it was due to the deep military roots that he had gotten from his family. His father had served during the Spanish-American War as well as World War I, and both of his grandfathers had fought in the Civil War.
Stewart was, at first, rejected from service in November of 1940 due to his low weight, but he was able to bulk up (or the army loosened its regulations) in February of 1941. This was still almost a year before America would enter the war fully following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Taking to the Skies
Stewart, still a fan of aviation, joined the Air Corps, applying for an Air Corps commission. Despite his life taking him away from the wild blue yonder as a career, Stewart still loved to fly. His love had started in the early twenties when a barnstormer in a Curtiss pusher arrived in town one day, offering flights to people in the area. Stewart had begged his father and saved money, finally getting the old man’s approval.
The elder Stewart had been so nervous about his son going up that he had sent the town doctor along to watch the flight. That first flight, when Stewart was just a child, lasted only a few minutes, but it remained one of Stewart’s most fond memories.
Learning to Fly
By the time Stewart had found some success in Hollywood, he was able to pivot back to learning about his favorite thing: flying. Learning to fly in a real airplane had always been a dream of his – having grown up during the infancy of transportation made it easy. Flying had the whole world’s attention. In 1935, Stewart signed up for lessons at the Minesfield Airport, which is the current location of the sprawling and gigantic Los Angeles International Airport.
The training plane he flew was a two-seat open cockpit biplane using a five-cylinder Kinney engine, the same kind of thing used to train the USAAF, eventually. At the time, Mansfield was a tiny landing strip surrounded by celery fields tended by Japanese immigrants and overrun by jackrabbits.
Flying on His Own
Stewart earned his private pilot’s license in 1935, and not long after that, he bought his first airplane – a Stinson 105. He called it a slow, gentle, and fun-to-fly airplane, and he would take it to visit his family on the East Coast. His continued education allowed him to become a commercial pilot – or at least earn a commercial pilot’s license – in 1938 or ‘39.
Due to his experience in flying and his college degree, he was hoping to step into a role as a pilot or similar role during missions. However, the army brass was concerned about Stewart’s potential as a publicity figure – they wanted to keep him out of danger not only because he could attract more people to the fight but also because of the backlash that would occur if he was shot down.