"It's a Good Life.... Especially if you like the woods and outdoors."

A continuing series by Tom Foster on the Minnesota DNR Aviation Program.From an oral history interview with Bob Hodge about natural resource flying.


November 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of his daughters, Bobbie Hodge and Becky Wahlberg

Lt. Hodge during his time in the U.S. Army Air Force.

Happiness is getting paid for what you love to do anyway. That's especially true if you're a flyer or nature lover. Lots of people spend plenty of money to go flying or get away from it all. Robert Hodge had a job where he got paid to both fly and be in the great outdoors. For 30 - plus years he was a game warden and pilot for what is now the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. To paraphrase the old TV commercial, "It just doesn't get any better than that."

Bob Hodge grew up with a passion for fishing, hunting, and anything else that was outdoors. Naturally, he was a Boy Scout and attended the 1937 Jamboree in Washington D.C. where he discovered airplanes. Living in the "north woods" near Chisholm made satisfying his passion for the outdoors easy, plus hunting and fishing helped by putting food on the table.

Flying was a whole different deal. Hodge took some iron ore samples to the Jamboree to trade for souvenirs but ended up using them to buy an airplane ride. It seemed like a good deal (rocks for flying time?) until it was discovered that the rides were given by a pilot with only a student license. No problem for Bob Hodge. He saved his money and started lessons with a real instructor at the Hibbing Airport when he was 16. Later he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. In the advanced courses he flew Waco UPF-7s and Beech Model 17s, classic bi-planes that today are worth a small (or maybe large) fortune.

By the time he was 19, Mr. Hodge was instructing in the CPT, first in Galesburg, Illinois where he'd finished his training then back in Hibbing. The CPT sent him to instruct fledgling Navy pilots in Northbrook, Illinois. It was good flying, but the world was at war. Hodge wanted to make a bigger contribution, so he applied to be a Navy pilot.

Hodge's military experience can only be described as bizarre. Originally the Navy offered him a pilot's commission but then reneged so Hodge joined the Army. In typical military fashion, an experienced instructor became "Cadet Hodge" and was sent to Texas for primary training. Realizing this was a grievous misallocation of government resources, he wrote some letters and got himself transferred to the 3rd Ferry Group of the "Air Transport Command" in Detroit where he was promptly put on KP for 10 days, then sent to Arizona for instrument and multiengine training. Finally satisfied that he knew how to fly, the Army made him Lieutenant Hodge and sent him back to the 3rd Ferry Group in Michigan just when the cosmos aligned perfectly and he went to a dance at the officer's club. At the dance Bob Hodge met a gorgeous Irish/American girl. Her name was Geraldine McCullough and it was the beginning of a 60 - plus year relationship.

Lt. Hodge was in love, but the Army continued to do strange things. After ferrying a lot of different airplanes around the country, Hodge was trained in the Curtis C-46 and sent to Sacramento, California, where the Army issued him arctic flying gear. Of course, he was shipped to a South Pacific Island called Biak where they had only Douglas C-47s. He spent the rest of the war transporting people and supplies around the Philippines.

After Hodge was discharge in 1946, he married Ms. McCullough and returned to the Iron Range where he started "Northeast Airways" in Virginia which included a flight school. Northeast purchased a surplus Stinson that was in England. It was shipped to Virginia in a crate. Bob sold the crate for enough money to pay for the airplane. The crate's new owner made it into a garage. Some of Bob's students were the local game wardens, who told him the "Department of Conservation" had two airplanes and only one pilot. He applied for the job. The State of Minnesota was much more practical about pilot qualifications than the U.S. Army or Navy, and Warden/Pilot Robert Hodge was soon patrolling the skies from Ely.

Natural resource pilots today use many of the techniques developed by Bob Hodge. Discovering people illegally harvesting wild rice and trapping beavers is much easier to do from an airplane. Enforcing laws against "shining" deer requires some low level night flying, and people who were "over the limit" fishing came to regret their actions because Hodge developed techniques to tell from the air that they'd caught too many fish.

Later Hodge would help track wildlife, both visually and with radio transmitters. He spent 200 - plus hours in the air with two PhDs to learn the behavior patterns of the timber wolf. Not only did he become an expert at tracking with an airplane, but he became the "go to guy" on wolves in general.

Search and rescue isn't part of a game warden's mandate, but they often help out. On one mission Hodge located a Boy Scout who was separated from his troop and lost in the Lake County woods. The boy was on the shore of a small lake. Bob used his aircraft loudspeaker system to say "stay put" while he dropped off his spotters. The scout was in a bad way, but the Warden Hodge calmed him enough to get him in the airplane. Recognizing his passenger could still use some emotional support Bob said, "do you want to fly it out of here or should I?" Having thus eased the tension he took off for the nearest resort.

Eventually the Department of Conservation became the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Robert Hodge was appointed the DNR's chief pilot then deputy director of the DNR's Law Enforcement Division in St. Paul. When he retired, he went back to Ely and lived on the other side of Fall Lake from the DNR base. His passion for conservation and wildlife influenced bureaucrats, politicians, and ordinary citizens. When he talked to young people everyone in the room ended up wanting his job when they grew up.

Photo courtesy of his daughters, Bobbie Hodge and Becky Wahlberg

Hodge in his Warden's uniform, shown here with his wife Geraldine McCullough.


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