A pilot who's kept to her flight plan

No conventional 9-to-5 job was ever invented that would fit Iris Cummings Critchell, who has never met a challenge she didn't like.

In 1939, when most 18-year-old women didn't wear slacks, swim competitively, or aspire to the Olympics (Mrs. Critchell did all those things), she was also learning to fly an airplane. Sixty-two years later, never without the proper medical certificate and commercial license for the task, she is still teaching people of all ages to fly.

Part of her motivation during those early years was fueled by her father, a former athletic director and head football coach at Swarthmore College. They attended the National Air Races in Los Angeles together in 1928 and 1933.

It's likely, though, that Critchell would eventually have found her way into the wild blue yonder, no matter what the obstacles. In l944, she married Howard Critchell, a World War II bomber pilot, who later flew commercially for Western Airlines.

Critchell's flying lessons began in 1939 on a grass field at what is now Los Angeles International Airport. The plane was a fabric-covered, 40-horsepower Piper Cub. The price, including gas, was $4 for 30 minutes.

"Flying, along with getting a college education, was something I had to do," Critchell explains. "Fortunately, the University of Southern California had a federally funded Civil Flight Training Program for students. By the time I was a senior, I had earned a private pilot's license and a ground- instructor's rating. I had also taken a CPTP [Civilian Pilot Training Program] course in aerobatics at USC that involved 65 hours of open cockpit flying in a variety of biplanes."

Later in her career, Critchell taught more than 700 students to fly, helping them earn their private pilot's licenses. Many continued to study under her until they also earned commercial, instrument, multiengine, and flight-instructor certificates.

Still later, she helped promote and compete in 14 of the famous 30 "Powder Puff Derbys" (official name: Women's Transcontinental Air Races). After finishing second in l955 and l956, she won in l957.

Critchell says that when she discovered in the summer of 1942 that the government was looking for qualified civilian pilots to ferry trainers, fighters, and bombers built in California to military bases across the United States, she was among the first women to apply. Eventually, she flew everything from the lightning-fast twin-engine P-38 to the P-61 Black Widow fighter.

Stationed in Long Beach, Calif., with the 6th Ferrying Group of the Air Transport Command, she regularly delivered planes that had just come off the assembly line.

For this, Critchell and more than l,000 other members of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) received $200 a month plus $6 a day meal money when on assignment away from home base, she recalls. Male pilots doing the same job were paid considerably more.

In 1946, Critchell was hired to administer the University of Southern California's College of Aeronautics flight training courses. In 1962, after raising a family, she helped create the aeronautical courses and flight program at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Overall, Critchell and her husband were associated with Harvey Mudd for 33 years.

Critchell still teaches flying on a limited basis and is part owner of a 1970 four-passenger Cessna 172 that she flies regularly. Last November, Critchell was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Flight Instructors in Oshkosh, Wis. - the aviation equivalent of having a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

However, this story would not be complete without going back to l936 when Critchell, a three-time winner of the US national women's 200-meter breaststroke event, represented the US in Hitler's Berlin Olympics. This was the Olympics in which American track star Jesse Owens ran himself into a legend by winning four gold medals.

"If you had an Olympics credential, the Berlin police and the military personnel treated you fine," Critchell says. "Since Germany was showing its best face to the world, Hitler insisted that his goose-stepping soldiers be on their best behavior. In fact, if you had a camera, you could take all the pictures you wanted. But at the same time, you couldn't miss the superior attitude of those wearing German military uniforms. It was obvious, even to a teenager, that they were up to something."

According to Critchell, when a German athlete won a gold medal, the Third Reich played its national anthem five times, while cries of "Heil Hitler" echoed through the stadium. Any time a visiting nation won a gold, its national anthem was played once.

"When I heard that the Germans would be holding a major air show during the Games, I was able to make arrangements to attend," Critchell says. "Since Germany had been restricted by treaty after World War I as to how many engine-powered airplanes it could build, this show consisted mainly of gliders. The point is: The Nazis had found a way to train hundreds of young pilots without breaking any laws.

"When Hanna Reitsch, the world-famous female German Luftwaffe test pilot and personal favorite of Hitler, landed her glider wearing a fashionable all-white flying outfit, the crowd went wild. It was an impressive demonstration of German ingenuity. They wanted their Olympic visitors to see it. I was even able to take pictures of Hanna without any problem."

Critchell, who was 15 years old at the time, got as far as the semifinals in the swimming competition. Even though she didn't meet Hitler, she was invited to a huge outdoor party at the mansion of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. The Goebbels' home, with multiple swastikas in every room, was located in the middle of a river that snaked through Berlin.

Today, the energetic Critchell logs several hours of flight time a week, often taking her husband or close friends along as passengers. Teaching new students hasn't stopped, either. She is one of only a handful of instructors her age to teach the hard-to-grasp concepts of instrument flying.

Swimming and Critchell haven't parted company, either. When time permits, she arranges to swim a quarter of a mile in an Olympic-size pool at the Claremont Colleges or substitutes a before-breakfast swim in her backyard pool.

The next time Iris Cummings Critchell files a flight plan of any length, it will indicate a l,600-mile cross-country July trip with friends to Oshkosh, for one of the largest air meets of the season.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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