Sunday, March 04, 2007

Talk about world-class experiences!

Two weeks ago, I attended the 18th annual Women in Aviation International conference, held this year at one of the Disney conference centers in Orlando. WWW’s president Jacque Boyd and I roomed together.
Jacque is part of the volunteer staff for WIA. I went to sell my books. I write about the WASPs – the women pilots of World War II. Nine of those ladies were there – all old friends of mine – and after conference attendees meet them at their booth, they come buy my books. I always sell well at WIA. This year, I sold every copy I took.

I also went to help staff the International Women’s Air and Space Museum booth. I got my start writing about the WASP while doing freelance work for IWASM and take every opportunity to give back by working their booth at WIA.

But my finest reason for being there was to help honor an outstanding lady. Her name is Iris Cummings Critchell. She is one of the WASPs and I am proud to call her my friend. Let me tell you a little about her.

Iris was a member of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team in Berlin in 1936 and reigned as U.S. women’s 200-meter breaststroke champion from 1936 to 1939. She majored in science and math at the University of Southern California and graduated from the first Civilian Pilot Training class there. She then flight instructed CPT classes and Navy Cadets until December 1942 when she became a member of the second WASP class. That makes her a member of an exclusive community of 1102 WWII-era women, of whom about 400 survive.

She flew the hot Army planes known then as pursuits and today as fighters — the P-47, P-51, A-20, P-38 and P-61, and many other single and twin-engine aircraft as well.

Using her education and aviation acumen, she wrote several special aviation curricula that use the airplane as an educational tool to broaden and enhance the education of three age groups of young people: junior high, high school and college level.
She and her WWII pilot husband, Howard, established the Bates Foundation’s college age program at Harvey Mudd College of Science and Engineering at the Claremont Colleges in 1962. Iris served as director of the Bates Aeronautics Program and for 28 years served as Lecturer in Aeronautics on the college faculty.

A 53-year member of the Ninety-Nines (international organization for women pilots), she competed in 15 All Woman Transcontinental Air Races (better known as the Powder Puff Derby). She retains all of her flight ratings, including that of flight instructor, and still flies her own Cessna 172.

On February 16, she was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame. I had the privilege of sitting next to her at the banquet. I also had the privilege of nominating her for this honor.

A woman of the west – born and bred in southern California – an athlete, an aviator, a teacher, a scholar, and an absolutely incredible human being. Iris is 86 years young.

Sarah Rickman, author of THE ORIGINALS — the story of the first women to fly for the U.S. Army in WWII — and — WILLA Literary Award Finalist, FLIGHT FROM FEAR, a WASP WWII novel.

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