Guy garbage: a woman learns to fly in the 1950s

“Girls can’t fly airplanes,” was verbal garbage the guys kept tossing at me when I announced that I intended to learn to fly. It was the 1950s, and that was a common litany despite what women pilots had accomplished during World War II.

I didn’t want to be a professional pilot. I just wanted a private pilot’s license. Wally, the fella I was dating, had just gotten his Flight Instructor rating and Ray, the owner of the airport where Wally would be chief instructor, came up with the idea that teaching a female to fly one of his J-3 Cubs might generate business for him.

Thus began a month of sheer torture.

To hear Wally tell it, I made nothing but mistakes. He yelled and scolded and made every lesson miserable.

And memorable.

Miriam Seymour
A woman learning to fly in the 1950s was pretty rare, and not without its challenges for Miriam Seymour.

To add to the misery, all the men who regularly hung out at the airport managed to find out when my lessons were scheduled. They lined up along the outside of the flight office, and when each lesson was over, they let me hear about everything I did wrong.

There were moments when the guy garbage had me almost believing that the day would never come when I would be able to make those three required solo takeoffs and landings.

But the day finally did arrive.

Wally got out of the airplane, said, “Okay, let’s see you do three half-way decent takeoffs and landings,” then closed the door, turned his back and ambled off toward the flight office.

I was stunned. Could I do it? I better! It was now or never if I really wanted to earn that private pilot license.

Slowly, with great care and deliberation, I turned the airplane and taxied to the end of the runway. There was no other traffic in sight, the engine checked out okay, controls all free and easy. Everything was ready and steady. I scanned left, scanned right, and turned onto the runway. Took a deep breath, said a small prayer and slowly advanced the throttle.

I used rudder to keep the airplane rolling straight ahead. Watched the speed as it increased… pulled the control stick back slowly and smoothly… saw the ground drop away. Kept the nose pointed straight ahead and climbed on a compass heading of 360 degrees. Maintained the climb until the altimeter read 500 feet.

Below was the big barn that was the check point for the first left turn. I did the turn, looked ahead and saw the highway that parallels the west side of the airport. Halfway between the airport fence and the highway was the next turning point and the altitude was still 500 feet. I flew the downwind leg along the airport boundary. So far so good.

I scanned the sky for other airplanes. None in sight. When the windmill came into view just over the nose, I turned to the crosswind leg, saw the runway, made the last left turn to line up with the runway. Pulled back a bit on the throttle and began losing altitude. At 350 feet, I shoved the throttle forward to clear the engine, and pulled on carburetor heat. I reduced power and kept the rate of descent steady.

At 50 feet across the airport fence, I made sure the nose was on the centerline. Crossed the end of the runway… moved the throttle to idle position… pulled back on the stick to raise the nose and kill the flying speed. Touched the ground and rolled along the runway.

One perfect, three-point landing.

As I taxied back to the takeoff point, I glanced toward the flight office. There was not a guy in sight. When I was doing lessons, they were all standing around outside just waiting for me to goof. But today… my big day… nobody’s in sight. Not even Wally. After all the needling, the constant criticism, the repeated garbage that “girls can’t fly airplanes.” I’ve just proved them wrong and they weren’t even here to see it.

How rotten can they be?

“Oh, get on with it,” I told myself, and did the other two takeoffs and landings. I’ve soloed. There will be many more hours of lessons and practice before I earned that private pilot license, but I’ve passed the first important step.

So I taxied the airplane back to its assigned parking space, shut down, secured it with the tie-down ropes, grabbed my logbook and headed for the flight office. No guys anywhere. Then Wally came around the corner of the building.

“Well,” he said, “You did it. Let’s go inside so I can sign your log book and make it legal.”

No smile, no congratulations.

Okay, so maybe it was no big deal for him. But his attitude really annoyed me. I forged ahead, yanked open the door to the flight office, someone shoved a cold can of soda into my left hand and a huge bouquet into my arms, and there were all the guys yelling, “Congratulations!” Laughing and slapping me on the back.

Wally grinned and explained, “We didn’t want to make you nervous so we watched from in here.”

I was stunned. And ashamed of the nasty thoughts. So I stood there like a dummy holding that can of soda and burrowing my face in the bouquet to hide girl-tears. Thirty seconds later I threw that blasted bouquet clear across the room.

One deep breath had me choking and sneezing. What my tear-blinded eyes had accepted as a bunch of flowers was the biggest bunch of stinkweed ever picked.

Guy Garbage to the end.

6 Comments

  • My flight instructors over the years included Kate, Nancy, Sue, Corrine and Margot. It was Sue that got me through to my Private Pilot certificate after I restarted my training from an underfunded attempt as a teenager. I am very thankful to each of them for giving me the knowledge and skills that I use today.

    Thank you, Ms. Seymour, for sticking it out and showing more people that no matter what others think, no matter what your background, you can learn anything you put your mind to.

  • Miriam –

    Boys will be boys!!!
    Thanks for sharing your story, and for all the aviation research and writing that you’ve done over the years.

    See you in September,

    Bill Harmon

  • miriam great article

    yes, love-hate for flight instructors

    even when he told me, “a woman’s work is never done because she never gets started.”

    ann holtgren pellegreno asmelicfi

  • Thank you for sharing your truth! I loved reading this and, while I’m so grateful for women like you who fought hard and paved the way for women like me, I’m also amazed at how relatable these kinds of situations are to me even today.

  • Great story Miriam. So good to hear of success through adversity.
    BTW, that wouldn’t happen to have been Wally Olson of Vancouver, WA would it?
    Regards,
    Jim

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