From the bookshelf: Women pilots' flying tales inspiring

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2005


  Women Pilots of Alaska, By Sandi Sumner

Women Pilots of Alaska, By Sandi Sumner

Women Pilots of Alaska

By Sandi Sumner

McFarland and Company

$45 (softcover)

Much has been written about Alaska's pioneer flyers and the unique role aviation plays in the state. Not all the daring "airmen" have actually been men, even if the males have gotten most of the ink.

Sandi Sumner, a pilot and writer from Eagle River, set out to give the ladies of the air their due. In "Women Pilots of Alaska" she profiles 38 female flyers on the Last Frontier.

About 600 of the state's 10,000 pilots are women, she says. Many of them are dynamic people who relish a challenge and work hard to realize their dreams. Their life stories are both interesting and inspiring, especially to girls attracted to flight.

"I set out to learn why each woman desired to fly, where she learned, when she soloed, and what it meant to her to become a pilot," Sumner writes in her preface.

"I learned that when these women decided to become pilots, the question was not so much 'Why?' The question was: 'Why not?'"

Working with the Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, Sumner researched and interviewed a diverse cross-section of aviators.

They span three generations, working or participating in an array of flight-related capacities from ultra-lights to air-traffic control, with plenty of Bush planes and commercial airliners in the mix. They include stunt pilots, flight instructors and managers of aviation businesses. On the ground, these women pilots have mushed in the Iditarod, served in the Alaska Legislature and worked in every field from flipping burgers to medical practice.

The early chapters showcase some of the first women to fly in the Territory. They arrived nearly 80 years ago, on the heels of the first airplanes. The first was Marvel Crosson, who followed her brother, Joe, to Fairbanks in 1927 and became the first woman licensed to fly in Alaska. In 1932, two more learned to fly in the Territory: Irene Ryan and Mary Barrow Worthylake.

These and other pioneers cited Amelia Earhart as their role model. Despite skepticism from some men, a few women and sometimes even their own families, they persevered to earn their wings and prove they could handle aircraft just as well as men could.

World War II made a huge difference to aviation, to Alaska and to the lives of women intersecting both. The prewar Civilian Pilot Training Program allowed women to fill every 10th slot in its classes. When the nation entered the war, many young women joined the military and served as WASPs (Women's Air Service Pilots). They handled the top war planes stateside, playing a major (although inconspicuous) role in projects such as the lend-lease program that ferried aircraft to the Soviet Union via Alaska.

These women provide a unique view of Alaska in Territorial days.

Mary Barrow Worthylake, for example, said this about moving to Fairbanks in 1931:

"There was an atmosphere about this friendly town which I liked. Anchorage might be a town in Montana or Idaho, but Fairbanks could be nowhere but in the interior of Alaska. The Northern Commercial Company store displayed skis and dog harness and mukluks and dehydrated potatoes in the windows."

Such flyers inspired the generation of women who followed them north or grew up in the new state.

In later years up to the present, more women flew in the growing field of frontier aviation. For many, Alaska became a land of aerial opportunity compared to other states.

Louise Gettman, who flies worldwide for Polar Air, put it this way:

"I wouldn't live anywhere else but right here. In Alaska, nothing can replace the intimacy of the relationship between yourself and a radial engine, and the millions of acres of uninhabited wilderness. It equals heaven," she told Sumner.

But, as many have learned the hard way, Alaska offers unique challenges and dangers, as well. The women's stories include tales of foul weather, carbon monoxide poisoning and remote crashes. The climate and vast wilderness put it in a class by itself.

Said champion aerobatic pilot Patty Wagstaff, "If you're not instrument-rated in Alaska, it's like skydiving without a parachute!"

Sumner takes readers along on some of her interviews, conveying details and quoting anecdotes that give a vivid sense of these women as real people. She also does a fine job conveying their competence, gumption and passion for flying.

Sometimes, however, she gets sloppy in little things. She spells names inconsistently, her chronologies are confusing, and she repeats things. Do we really need the height of Denali enumerated every time the mountain is mentioned?

Despite those shortcomings, Sumner has a knack for drawing out the people she interviews and sharing their exhiliration with readers.

The numerous black-and-white photos illustrating the book reinforce this. Most have the feel of casual snapshots, and they reveal the faces of young women brimming with confidence and exuberance.

Although the price tag is hefty, "Women Pilots of Alaska" is full of great stories and great people. It fills in an important part of aviation "herstory."

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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