America’s First Flying Air Scouts

Considering how young they are, I am truly amazed at the way your boys handle themselves. While marching or going through the various military routines, they have exhibited the fine training that is normally only found in full-time serviceman.”¹

General Thomas Darcy
U.S. Air Force

The Boy Scouts of America was a transformative organization aimed at teaching boys life-long skills that would prove to be the foundational component in a life exemplified by skill, good citizenship, and courteous behavior.  Many boys did exceptionally well in the program, however by the age of 14 or 15 years, their interest waned considerably. This occurred from the earliest days of scouting and was titled the “older boy problem.” Over the years, the BSA implemented numerous programs in an attempt to prevent dwindling participation from the older scouts but many were unsuccessful.  However, in 1912, the first Sea Scout troops were founded.

Two Sea Scout Eagles (Circa 1920)

The Sea Scouts were the nautical arm of scouting, and most activities and programs centered around ships.  The creation of the Sea Scouts led many to pursue other branches of scouting; one particularly appealing was the Air Scouts.  Unlike Sea Scouting, which only required the use of any old boat, the Air Scouts promised to demand more resources.  Suggestions to add an Air Scout branch were initiated in 1927, however because there weren’t enough trained adult scout leaders, the idea never took off.  The Boy Scouts of America eventually formally established the Air Scouts fourteen years later in 1941. 

Neil Armstrong’s 1956 Air Explorer Manual (2nd edition).

The original Air Scout Troops were designed to only allow scouts to pursue an interest in aviation through ground-based activities.  Merit badge activities fell short of actual flight, but did include the following: aerodynamics, aviation safety, airplane design, mechanical drawing, radio communications, airplane structure, model airplane construction, and weather pattern recognition. Field trips occasionally included visits to airports, air training schools, and aircraft factories. 

In 1949, Air and Sea Scouts were rebranded as Air and Sea Explorers, however, very little changed with their programs. The press continued to refer to the Air Explorers as Air Scouts, and I will as well for continuity.

David Smith’s Senior Photo St Norbert High School 1954 Yearbook

That all brings us to De Pere, in August 1951. Local 15 year-old David Smith (432 S. Erie St.), was taking flying lessons from flight instructor James Mulva, Sr. David loved learning to fly and often wished other boys his age could take part in the same flight training. David, whom had already been a member of Boy Scouts for the past 6 years, began to dream of a Boy Scout troop that actually took to the skies.² At the time, it was a federal law that you had to be 16 years of age to obtain a pilot’s license, (now it is 17) but you could start flying lessons prior to your birthday.

Young David presented his thoughts to Art Lindgren, scout executive of the Nicolet Area Council. This historical meeting turned out to be the birth of Air Scout Squadron 700, otherwise known as the Air Scouts of De Pere. David’s flight instructor, James Mulva Sr., volunteered to command the squadron, and shortly after the establishment of this momentous group, they secured the De Pere Rotarians as a sponsor. From this point forward, their home base for instruction and most activities was at the St. Francis School Hall.

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Oct 23, 1951

The Squadron Commander, James Mulva Sr., was the first General Manager of Wisconsin Central Airlines and at the time was a licensed instructor for 15 years.³ He grew up in Oshkosh washing planes for champion aircraft racer and Aviation Hall of Famer Sylvester “Steve” J. Wittman. Wittman was instrumental in bringing the EAA festival to Oshkosh and because of his accomplishments, a regional airport is named after him.¹⁷

During World War II Mulva served with the US Air Force and was licensed to instruct all three training commands in the U.S. He was a member of the prestigious International Caterpillar Club, an organization of men who had parachuted out of an aircraft in distress. At the time he was associated with the State Bank of De Pere and was also a flight instructor for Nicolet Airport.³

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Jan 25, 1952
Air Explorer uniforms were sky blue

Mulva declared that the newly formed group had three primary objectives:

  1. Scouting Advancement
  2. Developing Leadership & Responsibility
  3. Advancing aviation in the community all while promoting safe aviation

There were contributions from local businesses but the cadets themselves paid for all flying expenses through dues and projects.⁴

Photo Courtesy of the De Pere Historical Society
David Smith (center) and James Mulva, Sr. (right). Man on the left is unidentified.
The Silver Award
The highest award given to Air Explorers

Since there was no precedent for this type of organization, 5 months of careful planning preceded the actual organization of the group. Prospective Air Scouts also had to go through a rigorous screening process. By the time the screening process was complete, 21 boys, all ages 14 to 16 years old, represented the inaugural group of Squadron 700. This fortunate group became known as the first scouts of the sky. The list of cadets were as follows: Clayton Smits, Kenneth Kleuskens, Lowell Turriff, Bernard Jansen, Ronald Timm, Leonard Thompson, Kenneth Kussow, Donald Roth, Howard Helker, Jerome Rickaby, Louis McAbee, Ted Newell, Kenneth Hannan, Jerome Kolb, Norman Janssen, Richard Staeven, Donald Gibbons, Larry Francken, James Kemps, David Smith, and James Clumpner.⁵

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Feb 21, 1953
Air Scouts Model Airplane Competition

Less than one month after the group’s genesis, they were ready to begin their first in-flight instruction. Large crowds gathered at Austin Straubel and Nicolet Airports on Feb 17, 1952, eager to witness history in the making. Names were drawn randomly to establish whom would be the first lucky scout to make history and fly the beautiful blue skies. The fortunate fellow who won this fateful opportunity was sixteen year-old James Clumpner, departing from Austin Straubel Airport with his instructor James Mulva. Fourteen year-old James Kemp was next, taking off with instructor Henry Bredael.⁶

History was written in the cool, sunlit air over Brown county Sunday afternoon as 21 Senior Boy Scouts of Air Scout Squadron 700 at De Pere logged their first half-hour of flight instruction.”⁶

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Feb 18, 1952
by John Lee
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Feb 18, 1952
“Cadets gather about flight captain Louis McAbee prior to take-off time at Austin Straubel field to learn their position in the program which saw 21 boys of Air Scout Squadron 700 receive their initial half-hour of air training Sunday afternoon.”
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Feb 18, 1952
“Commander James Mulva confers with Air cadet James Clumpner in the cockpit of their plane before taking off to launch the first Boy Scout flight program in history”

On the other side of the river, Nicolet Airport instructors George Frisbie, A.J. Glover, and Melvin Michiels took to the skies with a group of eager scouts as well. All of the instructors devotedly volunteering their time to the organization.⁶

Mulva stressed that the flights would only occur if the weather retained perfect flying conditions, and fortunately for the scouts, the conditions were ideal. A steady northwestern wind with unlimited visibility was the forecast, and all flights were a success on that momentous day.⁶

The program generated so much interest and enthusiasm from the community that both airport managers (Nicolet and Austin Straubel) expressed amazement and pledged to continue to give their utmost cooperation to the squadron. Each cadet continued to log half-hour flights each month until a total of 10 hours of air-time was achieved. Although known for their flying, the squadron also had to successfully complete 6 hours of classroom and laboratory time each month as well.⁶

In September of 1952, the Air Scouts were invited by the Mayor of Wausau to help with the dedication of the city’s new airport. The young boys were informed they would be marching to tunes from the U.S. Air Force Band and practiced their drilling diligently in preparation for the exciting event. Charles Watke, executive officer to the Air Scouts, proudly led the Air Scouts in drilling in front of the Wausau faithful and U.S. Air Force General Thomas Darcy. It was the first public appearance of the famed air scouts.⁷

Photo Courtesy of the De Pere Historical Society
De Pere Journal-Democrat
Sep 18, 1952

An astounding twenty-thousand people showed up to the parade and the landmark dedication of the notable Air Scout squadron. General Darcy hailed De Pere’s Air Scouts as “Amazing”¹. After the historic event James Mulva was quoted as saying the following:

During the ceremonies when our boys were out there, Henry Bredael, the squadron’s assistant commander, and I just watched and the scouts did so well that they went beyond all expectations. After watching them and listening to the many compliments everyone had for them, I never felt so good about anything in my life.”¹

James Mulva, Sr.
Squadron Commander

At this point, the Air scouts’ activities began to intrigue their biggest and most supportive fans; Mom and Dad. Squadron Commander James Mulva decided to invite them for a birds-eye-view of the proceedings so they could see what their hardworking boys had accomplished. Thirty-three out of the 36 parents agreed to take a gander at the beautiful surroundings from the blue skies. At least one parent from each of the 21 scouts attended. It is possible, due to the ongoing Korean war conflict taking place at the time, that not all the parents were present stateside. While the parents enjoyed their delightful experiences above in the azure skies, The Air Scouts remained on the ground where they served as a reception committee. The parents took flight from Nicolet Airport, each of them logging about 15 minutes in the air. After the flights, a party was held in the Director’s room at the State Bank of De Pere.⁸

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Oct 13, 1952

At the end of 1952, members of De Pere’s Air Scouts received their very own Air Force Jacket. Each jacket was designed to include an emblem representing their local scout group. With winter approaching Mulva stated that instead of wheels it was time that the Air Scouts learned to operate airplanes with skis. The group now was at 20 eager members, and Mulva was asked by the Chicago Explorer Scout Office if he would be willing to extend his participation numbers to 40. He said he could not, because it would decrease not only the overall efficiency of his instruction, but impact the individual skill of each scout.⁹

Following the Air Scouts’ quick rise to an unexpected local fame, a series of awards followed.  In December of 1952, James Mulva was awaded a “Rose for the Living” from the De Pere Rotary Club. The rose was given for his work as Commander of the De Pere Scout Squadron.¹⁰ Also in March 1953, James Mulva received the Trailblazer Ax Award. The award is given to Scouters on the basis of “outstanding service to boyhood” within the Brown district (the local district at the time).¹¹

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Dec 16, 1952

In February of 1953, James Mulva stepped down as Squadron Commander. Charles Watke, formerly the Assistant Squadron Commander, assumed the role; though Mulva would still remain in charge of flight training.¹² That same month the squadron was awarded the National Standards Rating plaque from Boy Scouts of America. The top scouting rating was the first ever given to an air scout or air explorer unit, marking a new first achieved by the boys. Each of the scouts received a National Standards Rating citation patch as well.¹³

Photo Courtesy of the De Pere Historical Society
De Pere Journal-Democrat
Feb 26, 1953

The most imposing thing about the award is the fact that Air Squadron 700 accomplished the feat after just one year in operation.”

Eugene Malcolm awarding the Air Scouts with the “National Standards Rating” Plaque¹³
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Mar 30, 1953

In April of 1953, an Air-Lift event was planned. This was quite similar to the time the boys gave the parents a cockpit-view of the area, but this time they played host to local Girl Scout Brownie Troop 75 of St. Francis Church. Again, the air scouts served ground functions as their instructors, James Mulva, Sr. and Melvin Michiels took their passengers up in the air one at a time for 15 minute flights.¹⁴

Photo Courtesy of the De Pere Historical Society
De Pere Journal-Democrat
Apr 2, 1953

In July of 1953, Mulva stated that it was time to acquaint the scouts with the complications of cross-country flying. In this new phase of flight training scouts actually had to plan and fly “missions.”¹⁵ Almost one year later, in June of 1954, the Squadron received the National Standards Rating plaque for the second consecutive year.¹⁶

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Aug 20, 1953

From 1951 to 1953 the newspapers covered the local Air Scouts incessantly. However, after August of 1953 (above) there was only one more article, four years later in 1957. In the picture below James Mulva was still conducting flight training and David Smith was still involved as an assistant. What used to be called Air Squadron 700 was now listed as 200. Perhaps, soon after the program was ended or reduced in scope.

Green Bay Press-Gazette
Mar 4, 1957

The Boy Scouts of America unfortunately discontinued the Air Explorer program in 1965. In 1985, citing insurance reasons, they eliminated all powered aircraft flight from their programs.

Tragically, James Mulva, Sr. died in a plane crash on Dec 4, 1976. While test driving a plane at Nicolet Airport, Mulva performed a couple of loops and aerobatics before losing control. Mulva, who began flying in 1937, was a member of the OX5 Aviation Pioneers, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and the International Aerobatic Club. James Mulva, Sr. was the President of the Community Bank in De Pere at the time of his death. He is buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery.¹⁷

James Mulva, Sr. in 1976
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Dec 5, 1976
David Smith
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Feb 16, 2003

David Smith eventually joined his family’s law firm (Smith, Smith, & Roels) as a fourth generation associate where he practiced law for twenty years. He remained a lifelong supporter of the Boy Scouts of America and served as a scoutmaster of St. Francis Troop 1037 as well as many years on the Bay Lakes Council executive board (the current local council for scouting). He passed away after a short battle with brain cancer in 2003 and is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. For his funeral, in lieu of flowers, the family requested donations be made to St. Francis Church and the Bay Lakes Council.¹⁸

The following is a list of every air scout I found listed in the newspaper (alphabetical order) : Frank Buethe, James Clumpner, Lauy Christensen, Grant Dieck, Robert Durbrow, Larry Francken, Fred Freiburg, Bernie Fritsch, Donald Gibbons, James Guerts, Howard Helker, Eugene Hendricks, William Hendricks, Bernard Janssen, Norman Jansen, Ronald Kane, Kenneth Kannan, James Kemps, Kenneth Kleuskens, Jerome Kolb, Kenneth Kussow, Joe Laes, Bill Leithold, Louis McAbee Jr., Roger McAbee, Ronald McAbee, Ted Newell, Tim Nuthals, Ronald Paque, Jerome Rickaby, Donald Roth, Ellsworth Schinke, Ed Senecal, David Smith, Clayton Smits, Neil Smits, Richard Staeven, James Stoddard, John Sundstrom, Leonard Thompson, Ronald Timm, Lowell Turriff, and Ted Wiechers.

The following is a list of all non-Air Scouts who assisted with the program in some way (alphabetical order) : Howard Atkinson, Henry Bredael, Don Butz, Hugo Cuene, William Fisk, George Frisbie, Bill Glover, William Gross, Francis Higgins, Father Eugene Hotchkiss, Captain Korthals, Ray Lasee, John Lee, Art Lindgren, Eugene Malcolm, Don McDaniels, Melvin Michiels, Capt Francis Middleton, Col. Victor Milner, Boyd Miller, James Mulva, Jules Parmentier, Russell Porath, Phil Sitter, Leslie Smith, Elmer Stein, Dr. A.M. Sterr, Col. Bernard Teeters, Armand Ullmer, Dr. Raymond Waldkirch, Charles Watke Jr., Herbert Wenberg, Steve Whittman, and Rev. Gervase Zanotti.

Courtesy of the De Pere Historical Society (Captions provided by the De Pere Historical Society)

As always, thank you to my wife and editor Dawn Hoffman, without whom this blog post would not be possible.

1- De Pere Journal-Democrat Sep 18, 1952
2- De Pere Journal-Democrat Jan 31, 1952
3- De Pere Journal-Democrat Apr 24, 1951
4- De Pere Journal-Democrat Jan 31, 1952
5- Green Bay Press-Gazette Jan 25, 1952
6- Green Bay Press-Gazette Feb 18, 1952
7- De Pere Journal-Democrat Sep 4, 1952
8- Green Bay Press-Gazette Sep 30, 1952
9- De Pere Journal-Democrat Dec 11, 1952
10- Green Bay Press-Gazette Dec 16, 1952
11- Green Bay Press-Gazette Mar 11, 1953
12- De Pere Journal-Democrat Feb 26, 1953
13- Green Bay Press-Gazette Mar 30, 1953
14- Green Bay Press-Gazette Apr 22, 1953

15- De Pere Journal-Democrat Jul 2, 1953
16- De Pere Journal-Democrat Jun 10, 1954
17- Green Bay Press-Gazette Dec 6, 1976
18- Green Bay Press-Gazette Feb 16, 2003

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