By Mary Dodge Allen
When I worked at a Dallas college in 1983, I had the opportunity to interview Edna Gardner Whyte for an article about women trailblazers in our campus newspaper. During our interview, Edna offered to give me a half hour flying lesson! (I’ve included a description of my lesson at the end of this blog).
Edna Marvel Gardner was born on November 3, 1902. At the age of ten, her father died in a train accident, and soon after, her mother was placed in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Edna was raised by an aunt and uncle in Wisconsin. As a teenager, she became fascinated with aviation. She enthusiastically followed news reports about two early women aviators - sisters Katherine and Marjorie Stinson. Katherine set records in aerobatics in 1915, and in 1918, Marjorie became the first woman to fly as an air mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office. The accomplishments of the Stinson sisters were a rarity at the time. In the early years of aviation, women were generally excluded from the field, dismissed as unsuitable to become pilots.
In 1924, Edna completed nursing training and moved to Seattle to begin her nursing career. But she still retained her passion for aviation. She convinced one of her patients, amateur pilot Bob Martin, to take her up on her first flight. He charged her $7.50 for 15 minutes in the air – a large sum at the time. Despite the cost, Edna was hooked. She said, “After my first ride, I knew I had to be a pilot.”
In 1928, Edna made her first solo flight. Later that year, she applied for her pilot’s license. Edna took the written test with two male applicants and earned the highest score. Even so, the examiner made her wait over two hours, while he took the two men on their flight tests. Then he pulled Edna aside and said, “I’ve never given any woman a license, and I’m not at all sure that I want to now.” She pleaded for a chance, and he relented. When he witnessed her flying skills, he couldn’t find a reason to withhold her license. Edna was elated!
She began entering air races and aerobatic competitions... and winning! At one of her early air races, she became friends with Amelia Earhart. Edna and her first husband, Ray Kidd, had dinner with Amelia and her husband, George Putnam, in 1937, on the night before Amelia began her ill-fated round-the-world flight attempt.
After returning to the U.S. in 1946, Edna met and married her second husband, George Murphy Whyte, a former Army pilot and a flight instructor. She helped George raise his daughter, Georgeann Whyte. (Edna’s first marriage had ended in divorce). Edna worked as an instructor with George at the flight school he operated at Meacham Field, while also working as the first female sales rep. for the Harry Pennington Channelchrome Company, which sold aircraft parts. Her territory extended from Canada, across the U.S. to Central America, and she logged thousands of flight hours.
Edna Gardner Whyte flew in over 300 cross-country and international air races, winning over 120 trophies. She was a member of the earliest international organization of women pilots, the “Ninety-Nines” and served as its president from 1956-57. She was one of the first ten members of the Whirlygirls, an international organization of women helicopter pilots, and she held memberships in a number of other pilot and racing associations. As a flight instructor, she taught over 5,000 men and women to fly. In all, Edna logged more than 25,000 hours of flight time. She received many honors for her contributions to aviation, including her induction in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, and her induction in the Women in Aviation International Hall of Fame.
While interviewing Edna, I mentioned that I had always had an interest in flying. Right on the spot, she surprised me by suggesting we take a half hour trial flight. My nerves felt jittery as I walked toward the red and white Piper PA-28-150 Cherokee.
We began by conducting a pre-flight inspection of the plane. Edna showed me how to inspect the brakes, tires, and critical parts of the wings, fuselage and the engine to make sure they were in working order. After we manually backed the plane out of the hangar, we climbed in. My anxiety increased when I saw the rows of knobs and dials on the instrument panel. I wondered if all first-time flyers felt as overwhelmed as I did. Edna led me through the pre-flight checklist and explained every item with the enthusiasm of someone who had done this hundreds of times... but had never lost the love of it.
The thrill of lift-off was exhilarating! As we climbed higher and higher, my anxiety disappeared... replaced with a giddy feeling of freedom. Green fields dotted with trees stretched out below us, crossed by thin grey roads carrying tiny moving cars. Over the roar of the engine, Edna explained the fundamentals of straight and level flying, and then she turned the controls over to me. I struggled to keep the plane from bumping and rolling from left to right. Edna said, “There’s quite a bit of turbulence at this altitude.” She guided me through a slow climb, and as soon as we reached the calmer air, my straight and level flying improved.
Soon, it was time to try some turns. My first attempts jerked the plane and tipped it sideways. Edna encouraged me to focus on how my actions affected the plane’s performance. She suggested I glance at the turn indicator on the instrument panel to help me guide the plane. During the next few turns, I focused my gaze on the panel.
Edna suddenly asked me if I was aware of any other aircraft in the area. I startled, as I realized that staring at the instrument panel wasn’t a good safety practice. “Don’t ever assume that you’re the only one up here,” Edna cautioned. She used her clipboard to cover a portion of the instrument panel and suggested I make my turns, referring only to the horizon and my compass. I looked out the windshield at the hazy blue horizon and gradually learned how to guide the plane by coordinating my hand and foot movements. My body relaxed for the next several minutes as I felt the plane responding with smooth and level turns. I was enjoying this!
“That’s it, you’re getting the hang of it,” Edna said. “Now, can you tell me where the air field is?” The air field? I had been so busy checking the horizon, watching for other aircraft, and referring to my compass, I hadn’t been looking at the ground. With all the turns I’d been making, we could have been halfway to Oklahoma City by now. Amazingly, when I glanced down, I spotted the air field right away. Edna took over as we made our approach. She explained how to line up to the runway, taking into consideration traffic, wind conditions and airspeed.
After we landed, I felt sad that it was over already. I taxied the plane back to the hangar in another clumsy zig-zag pattern. When we stopped, Edna turned to me. “You did well for your first flight. Once in the air, you seemed to catch on quickly.” Then she grinned. “Of course, on the ground you need a bit more practice.”
I regret not taking any additional flying lessons. A few months later, my husband I started our family, and I focused on work and family responsibilities as we made several cross-country moves. But I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to fly with Edna Gardner Whyte!