Eleanor Wagner

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"Orchid" was the notation that TWA employees of the late '40s used for reservations made by Howard Hughes. Chuck Yeager and Pete Everest took off in the dark using a bus for runway lights. Actress Swoozie Kurtz is named for her father's airplane. In this month's Profile, Eleanor Wagner chats with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about the Early Birds, the WASPs, Howard Hughes, Paul Mantz, the Salton Sea speed runs, and shares more stories about some of the more colorful characters in aviation.

Eleanor Wagner with Jackie Cochran's planeEleanor Watterud Wagner was born November 29, 1914, in Glasgow, Mont. Growing up in North Dakota, she and her brother spent much of their spare time at local airports and began a scrapbook of aviation photos and news clips. When Eleanor was 14, the family moved from the midwest to Long Beach, Calif. There they found a mecca for private fliers at Daugherty Field, which is now Long Beach Airport. In 1941, she went to work for TWA in Communications and Reservation Control.

She learned to fly in 1943 to join the WASPs (Womens Airforce Service Pilots). The WASP program was cancelled just before her class was to graduate in 1944. After the war she worked for TWA, ran flight schools in San Francisco and Palm Springs, and was America's only one-woman airport operator at Thermal, Calif., in the 50s. Later she relocated to L.A. and edited General Aviation News. Recent health challenges have prevented her from enjoying the thrills and comeraderie of old friends in aviation. But she flies with friends as often as possible and still loves aviation photography.

How did your interest in flying begin?

As early as 1927, I became interested in flying. My brother and I were fascinated with airplanes and the early barnstormers we had seen flying from the pastures and taking people for rides over the towns and countrysides. Then in May of that year, when I was 12 years old, Lindbergh made headlines flying solo across the Atlantic in his single-engine Ryan Brougham. Then came Amelia Earhart who became my mentor — I followed her aviation career until her untimely death in July of 1937, and I still keep track of all the news concerning the many theories people have as to her disappearance. My brother and I began collecting photos, clippings, mementos and stories about Earhart and Lindbergh plus many of the popular fliers of that era.

We built model airplanes of balsa wood and tissue paper covered with dope, and flew them with rubber band motors. In old cigar boxes, we built crystal-set radios with headphones. We lived in Portland, Ore., at that time but moved to Long Beach, Calif., in 1929. It was there that I should have learned to fly, but finances and the depression of the 1930s didn't allow us any extra money, only barely enough for our immediate needs. I did learn to fly later on. It was in 1943, at Sky Haven airport in Las Vegas, Nev. That is now Hughes North Las Vegas airport, and had been bought by Howard Hughes in the mid-'50s when he invested so heavily in properties there. The flight school was owned by Howard "Dutch" Darrin, who had been a World War II pilot and became a well-known automobile designer. There were several young women flying Piper Cubs at the flight school earning enough flying time to qualify for entrance into the WASP program. For us young girls it proved to be a star-studded, exciting time in our lives.

Was Long Beach an active aviation community?

Yes, very active. It turned out to be one of the most exciting times in my early aviation life, and made me want more than anything to learn to fly as soon as I could. At Daugherty Field, which is now Long Beach Municipal Airport, we often visited a flight school owned by Gladys O'Donnell and her husband. She was a Ninety-Nine member when Amelia Earhart founded the national organization of women pilots on November 2, 1929. Members had to be licensed pilots — there were 99 charter members, hence the name, which has never changed even though it is now an international organization with over 7,000 members.

O'Donnell was famous as a daring young race pilot, especially for her closed-course pylon expertise. She thrilled the crowds wherever she went, but the annual Cleveland Air Races drew the biggest crowds. That event began in 1928 and featured men and women pilots from all over the U.S. and Europe in most of the events. Clifford W. Henderson founded the Cleveland race and when he retired, after flying the India/Burma hump in World War II, he discovered his own "Smartest Address on the American Desert." He developed and founded what is today Palm Desert, Calif., near Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley.

The Long Beach airport was managed by Earl Daugherty and his wife Kay. The "airport bums" of those days were Art Goebel, Buddy Rogers and Mary Pickford, the 13 Black Cats stunt team, members of the Early Birds of Aviation, the local members of the Ninety-Nines, Pancho Barnes, Bobbi Trout, Martin Jensen, Wally and Otto Timm and many other early aviators of the era.

Who are the Early Birds of Aviation?

It's an organization open to men and women pilots who soloed prior to December 16, 1916 — the only living Early Bird died in 1998; he was 99 years old. I'm treasurer of the Early Birds, and about 250 of us are trying to keep the organization alive — we may join with another organization to do that. As far as I know, there were three women Early Birds. I personally knew Matilda Moisant who, with her brother, operated a flight school in the midwest about the time the Wright Brothers were building their early trainers. There were 598 original Early Birds.

How did you get interested in the WASPs?

TWAI was working at Occidental Life in downtown L.A. and insurance wasn't the least bit interesting to me. At lunch, I'd take walks along airline row around the Biltmore Hotel. All of the airlines had offices along 6th Street. One day I got up enough courage to walk into the Transcontinental and Western Airlines — which became TWA — office and ask for a job. I thought maybe I'd be a stewardess (as they were known then), but in those days you had to be a nurse to qualify. So I started studying first aid. Then they dropped the nurse requirement, but put in an age requirement. By that time I was past the age limit.

So I was teaching Red Cross First Aid and I heard about different organizations for women going into the war effort. First it was the WACs, the Women's Air Corps, and I enlisted in the first 400. Just as I was due to take my physical and get my entry papers, I heard about the WASPs. Jackie Cochran had started something called the Women's Army Air Force to help the war effort by ferrying aircraft from the manufacturers to bases, and from one base to another. That's when I decided to learn to fly and get 35 hours I needed to qualify. Because of the war, and the blackouts in Los Angeles, we couldn't fly on the coast. So I got the money together, went to Las Vegas, and soloed in 1943 in a Cub. By that time they had changed the name to the Women's Airforce Service Pilots ... the WASPs.

TWA gave me leave of absence to get the training, then I returned to work and waited for my call to start training in Sweetwater, Texas. I had been accepted but the wait was nearly a year. The cancellation of the WASP program was a blow to all the women in December of 1944. As a result my class was not allowed to continue training so we didn't graduate. I felt fortunate that out of 25,000 applicants, I was one of the 1,800 that got accepted. Jackie Cochran and General "Hap" Arnold sent us letters expressing regrets — other than that, we got nothing.

How was the war different for female pilots?

Well, we didn't have seniority or titles. No Colonels or Lieutenants, just pilots. The WASPs got civil service pay, not military pay, and flew as Army Air Corps pilots with no insurance. WASPs ferried airplanes within the U.S. and Canada, towed targets, flew VIPs to various bases, flew single and multiengine aircraft from base to base, factory to bases of overseas departure points. The flying experiences were invaluable and many WASPs went on to active military careers and other aviation ventures. They meet annually and have quarterly regional meetings. I attend our Southern California WASP Region III meetings as a "friend" of the WASPs. I'm not a military expert and my field is largely general aviation, so I can't speak for the WASPs.

After the war you went back to TWA?

During the war years, the airline changed its name to TransWorld Airlines because of their expansion to Europe. I went back to TWA to their new Public Relations office in San Francisco. In those days they called PR the news bureau. We were taught to handle passengers with much individual care and there was no such thing as overselling a flight. Every seat had to be accounted for with a passenger's name and waiting lists were almost unheard of. Service was different then. For instance, we'd wake the passengers in the morning. Call their hotel and remind them that they had a flight later that day. Then we'd send a limo for them, because for a while nobody knew how to find Lockheed Air Terminal. If the passenger had special needs, like blankets or pills or distilled water, we'd arrange for that. In those days the passengers were mostly celebrities or executives, and they were used to being pampered.

We had three shifts. I'd often work the midnight to 8 a.m. shift by myself, doing reservations control for the DC3s. We had a large slanted table, like an architect would use. The west coast was on one end and the east coast was on the other. In the middle were all the stops in between. Even numbered flights went east, odd numbered flights went west. We'd put the passenger's name in and draw a line to where he was going, then we'd make a 3x5 card for each passenger. The card would list any connections the passenger had to make, or anything special the stewardesses should know.

What was Howard Hughes like in those days?

Mr. Hughes, as we called him, was eccentric — he kept his own hours, usually the wee hours of the morning. When I first went to work there, my job was in Reservations Control and Communications, where we worked various shifts rotating week to week. I never saw Hughes, but because I was often there in the middle of the night, I'd talk to him when he called to ask for special handling of people he would make reservations for. He never gave me names, just told me to hold a seat for himself and "guest." We'd notate the book "Orchid — handle with care" so the other shifts would know it was a Hughes request. Many people who worked for him never saw him — they just took their orders and assignments on the phone.

Years later, in 1954, I met him. I was at the Palm Springs airport and he was in a phone booth. I waited until he came out. He was in his usual sneakers, old sports jacket and hat. We talked for a moment about the TWA experiences. Then he went to the ramp where his converted A-20 was parked and took off.

Eleanor WagnerHow did you wind up in the desert?

I was at Belmont Airport in the bay area. My boss was killed in an airplane accident in 1949. His wife asked me to stay and operate the GI flight program, the Cessna dealership, and assist the airport manager until the estate was settled. We had some 200 students, both men and women, so it was a big responsibility. I had a chance to do quite a bit of flying, too. One weekend I planned a trip to Palm Springs in one of our Cessna 140 trainers. It was about a four hour flight from Belmont and I went to visit friends who had just built a home there. The next day when I was to leave for Belmont, I ran into one of the WASPs that ran the flight school at Palm Springs. She asked me to come to work for them and offered me a good salary, so I came to work there on Memorial Day weekend of 1950. It turns out that the two women who managed the Palm Springs operation, Mary Nelson and Winifred Wood, were both WASPs.

It was a good job and I enjoyed learning about the desert. I flew over the Coachella Valley and down to the Salton Sea, to the Imperial County airports at Brawley, Calipatria and El Centro. After a year with them, I heard about the Riverside County Airport at Thermal near the Salton Sea. It had been a military airport during the war. It was four square miles with two 5,000-foot runways and a huge hangar, and surrounded by lush farmlands and prosperous ranches. I took a vacation and resigned my Palm Springs job to think over taking the Thermal Air Base lease with the county. For a lone woman it was a big decision to make.

After a quick trip to Jackson, Wyo., and a stop in Las Vegas to help George Crockett at his Alamo Airways, I returned to the desert refreshed and full of ideas. How could I do it? No money, no airplanes, no collateral, just dreams and wishes to do something I had never done before. The CAA (now FAA) was based in the big hangar and operated on a 24-hour schedule, so that gave me some security that I wouldn't be completely alone. Good fortune was with me. The president of the Desert Bank in Indio was "Torgey" Torgeson, who had been in the aviation business in Alaska. He was amazed and pleased that one woman was taking on such a project. We negotiated, with nothing on my part except promises and honesty, and came up with a few dollars to get me started. I lived upstairs in the hangar. The people at the bank found me a bookkeeper named Clarence Joyce, who was of great help to me. I was able to buy two trainers and started an FBO with a CAA-authorized flight school. I pushed airplanes, washed airplanes, fueled airplanes, dispatched the students, booked the rentals, and when somebody got hungry I cooked one of my juicy hamburgers. Pilots I knew from Palm Springs and other surrounding airports came by to enjoy the food, the music on my jukebox, and a bit of "hangar flying."

So it became more than a flight school?

I'm not an instructor. Don Green gave lessons in his own Cessna 140 and the school's two Aeronca Champs. In addition to Don, I was able to call on a dear friend — a WASP, interior decorator and grape rancher — who lived with her husband near Thermal Airport. I would call Vee Nisley, often on short notice, and she'd be there in a few minutes. My operation was called Coachella Valley Air Service and I did much of my own flying for photographers, fish spotters at the Salton Sea, ranchers looking for lost cattle and horses, and geology students doing term papers on desert rock formations.

One of the school's Champs had a 85 horsepower engine, a Cessna landing light in the wing, and a full electrical system. If I was by myself and felt like flying I could just pull it out and start it up, without chocking and handpropping it. I eventually bought another 65 horsepower Champ which we rebuilt and recovered.

You were a Cessna dealer flying Champs?

Later on I joined in a venture with an airport owner nearby and we took out a Cessna dealership. We had a new all-metal 170 taildragger as our demo which I kept in the hangar at Thermal and flew passengers on sightseeing trips. The other airport was known as Desert Air Hotel at Palm Desert Airpark. It was popular nationwide and had lots of traffic in the wintertime. There were two grass runways, a round building with a dining room and lounge, a swimming pool and barracks buildings converted into hotel suites and rooms. The owner was Hank Gogerty, a Los Angeles architect who was a pilot. It was a nice place to get away from it all. I would bring the 170 to Desert Air and fly guests around courtesy of the hotel. I had a real estate license so I showed properties from the air, too.

Cliff Henderson, founder of Palm Desert and the Cleveland Air Races, and his wife Marian Marsh Henderson entertained friends at the resort. Jimmy Mattern, Frank Kurtz, Henry King, Art Goebel, Jackie Cochran, General Jimmy Doolittle and his wife Jo were some of their friends. Frank Kurtz and Henderson had both attended USC and reminisced often about the "golden years" of flying and Kurtz's book "Queens Die Proudly," the story of "The Swooze," a B-17 he flew in the Pacific during World War II. He and his wife Margo named their daughter, actress Swoozie Kurtz, after the plane.

Who were the best students?

Anyone who really wanted to fly was more adaptable and listened to the instructor and followed the instructions. It always helps to learn something about the history of aviation, too. After 60 or so years of being around airports and flight schools, I got so it was quite easy to predict who the most accident-prone pilots were who thought they knew more than their superiors. From those years of observation I found that professional people, like doctors, attorneys and engineers, were the most know-it-all.

Did you ever have an emergency?

Not really, but weather seemed to be a factor in any scary situation I ever faced. In the desert winds and dust storms prove to be a menace and it's important to have instruction in crosswind landings and to recognize wind shear. Several times I was glad to be in the high-wing Aeronca or 170 when the air got rough.

Paul MantzPaul Mantz flew an airplane through your hangar?

Yes. Mantz and I had known each other over the years. He came to Thermal Airport one day and made a colorful entrance flying his B-25 which had been converted to a bubble-nosed photography airplane. He also had a crew flying other planes from the TalMantz Aviation Museum he and Frank Tallman owned at Orange County Airport. Among the seven or eight planes he brought in was a clipped-wing Stearman which he used for motion picture stunt flying.

He asked me how much I'd charge to let him fly an airplane through the hangar. It was only to be the one-time shot, but it took several days of preparation doing practice runs outside of the hangar which were flown by Bob Boone, one of his crew. I had to move all of the stored airplanes out of the hangar for insurance reasons and safety and there were always little unexpected needs for the crew and the observers who had gathered to watch the fun. Mantz walked the area measuring every angle, the width, height, altitude of his entry and exit ... he was meticulous. The day came and Mantz strapped himself into the red and white Stearman. He made a couple of passes outside the hangar as a dry run, then he did the real thing and flew it through the hangar in once successful take. How much did I charge? $25 a day, and I think it was a five-day session. Figures were never my strong point.

And that's the same hangar that hid Chuck Yeager's F-104?

One of the most exciting times at Thermal was the Low Altitude Speed Run for two company's jets competing with one another. It was during the Korean conflict. Douglas was building the Skyray F-4D for the Navy and North American was building the F-86D Sabrejet for the Air Force. They wanted to fly the supersonic speeds at sea level, so they picked the Salton Sea. We had the right atmospheric conditions for that time of year, and they could fly at 100 feet agl and still be at sea level. (Thermal's airport elevation is 117 feet below sea level.) The course was 18 kilometers and race officials framed a race course by burning stacks of old tires because the pilots were going too fast to see anything on the ground.

They kept the jets at NAS El Centro because the runways at Thermal were too short. That meant that I had the press, company personnel from both contestants, their company bus and aircraft and the official race timers at Thermal when the speed run day was over. I fed them and made sure they had plenty of cold drinks while they waited for the officials to declare the results for each day. That's where the Chuck Yeager and Pete Everest story comes in.

They were not flying the runs one day and "sneaked" in from Muroc Dry Lake (now Edwards AFB), each flying an F-104. Since flying a military jet into a civilian airport wasn't technically the right thing to do, everyone looked the other way, including the CAA. It was a fun experience when they took off after dark. We had no lights on the runways so North American used the company bus to guide the F-104s down the runway and back to Muroc. Both pilots did slow rolls over the airport in colorful formation with their lights on and made high speed passes over the field as they left.

The pilots were a loose, fun bunch, and I kept plenty of cold beer handy at the end of the day. The timers were another matter. The took themselves very seriously. They holed up in a corner of the hangar and didn't want anybody talking to them.

Navy/Douglas F-4D Skyray test pilot Jim Verdin set the record at 753.4 mph. The F-86D Sabre wasn't far behind with Air Force pilot Lt. Col. William F. Barns at 715.697 mph.

Eleanor Wagner's 170 How did you wind up editing General Aviation News?

I found that the work at Thermal was getting too strenuous and had been hospitalized for that reason, so I did not renew my lease in 1955. Instead, I earned my real estate license and used Desert Air as a base. It was interesting to show some properties form the air. It was a great way to sell the wide open acreage of the desert.

A businessman from Los Angeles whom I met at Desert Air met with a fatal accident that killed him and his partner. It was such a devastating experience for me that I was forced to make a change and leave the desert. I belonged to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's Aviation Committee and I heard of an editorial position at General Aviation News. My publisher, Sol Bender, let me travel to many aviation conferences and events around the country. When the paper was sold to a Texas publisher, I freelanced for various publications and spent some time in Vancouver, B.C., covering the Abbotsford airshow.

I went into the Yukon to Whitehorse to cover the opening of a heated hangar for the Piper dealership up there. We had a freeze-up party, which is when they convert the airplanes from floats to skis. I liked British Columbia so much I kept an apartment in Vancouver for a few years. I loved the contrast of the cold wet Northwest and the hot dry desert.

When I returned to Los Angeles and the desert, I went with Northrop University in Inglewood, Calif., for four years as Coordinator of Aviation Community Affairs. I worked with Professor David Hatfield, who's a renowned aviation historian. He was establishing an aviation museum at the University called the American Hall of Aviation History. My job entailed fundraising and working with local Chamber members, flying organizations, early pilots to astronauts and holding open house events at the museum. The Hall wasn't connected with Northrop in Hawthorne, but operated under its own cash flow. The Northrop Institute of Technology was also a part of our group and taught students from all over the world in its engineering departments.

Are you still flying?

Not as pilot in command or solo because I can no longer pass my physical. I do fly with friends and enjoy aerial photography. My interests in aviation are still as active as ever and I am giving away some of my memorabilia to museums, and especially to younger individuals who are interested in collecting photos, news clips and mementos of aviation history and space technology of the future. Nothing can eve replace the wonderful people I've met nor the priceless friends who have made my life such a memorable part of the Golden Years of aviation.