Jessie Woods never learned to drive a car, but she stood on her head on airplane wings and began flying when aviation had a soul.
In those days, airplane fuel was 15 cents a gallon and Charles Lindbergh had just knocked the cap off the new frontier.
“I was born at the best of times the world has ever known, or will know,” Woods says. “At the time I broke into aviation, aviation was coming up to bloom.
“Now it’s outgrown itself. It has grown beyond me. I can’t really comprehend it. The push buttons have erased the soul of aviation.”
Woods, a trim 78-year-old with dark eyebrows, bright eyes, and gray and white hair drawn into a bun, says: “You don’t learn to fly airplanes any more. You take a computer course. People sit there and look at buttons and lights instead of looking out the window.”
Makes Her Cry
Jessie remembers flying alone in an open cockpit through an open sky, singing away at the top of her lungs, and it makes her cry:
“I flew when flying was flying, when it was just you and God and eternity.”
Born on a central Kansas wheat farm, she went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, rode a tractor and helped plow the fields.
“My view of the world was from over a horse’s rear. I was really country. I don’t think I’d ever seen toilet paper. We used the old Sears catalogue. Back then they had very good ink. It didn’t come off.”
Only Useful Thing
Her family moved to Olympia, Wash., where she later entered college. She majored in music and gave violin lessons but considers physical education the only useful thing she learned in school.
“I wanted to be a PE instructor. My heart and soul was in gymnastics. My dad wanted me to be a fiddle player. Neither one won.”
Her career changed headings when her family pulled her out of college and moved back to Kansas, to “a dinky little cow town between Dodge and Garden City,” she says.
Woods was outraged: “Everybody smelled like manure.”
Her brother told her one day that a couple of guys had been parking airplanes in a nearby pasture and that he himself had earned a ride by helping to wash a plane. Lacking alternative amusement, she went with him to check out the strange new machines.
Better First Impression
“They were nasty. They were dirty. They were ugly. My first impression was, ‘Why would anyone want to ride in a dumb thing like that?’ ”
The handsome, dark-haired pilot, however, made a better first impression. When he eventually left to perform in a traveling air show, she packed a few clothes in her violin case, told her parents she was going with friends to play at a dance in a nearby town, ran off and married the pilot.
“My father would have shot him. My parents were kind of old-timey. Flying was a sin. He flew in an airplane and drank liquor and played cards.”
They were married 30 years, until Johnny Woods died of meningitis in 1959.
Her parents eventually forgave her. Her husband taught her to fly an 0XX6 Sullivan biplane.
“He wasn’t exactly a good instructor. He screamed a lot. But back then you could fly unlicensed. There weren’t too many airplanes. There was a lot of open country.
The Flying Aces
They traveled from the Rockies to the Atlantic, from Mexico to Canada, putting on air shows at fields and fairgrounds and charging spectators $1 per carload. They were part of a troupe called The Flying Aces.
Jessie learned to grind valves, wash down the engines with gasoline and patch holes in the cloth wings. She washed laundry in motel bathtubs and clipped her husband’s undershorts to the blades of ceiling fans, spinning them dry in time to pack up and move to the next town.
The Depression was on and the troupe was hungry. The Flying Aces labored to come up with a gimmick to draw bigger crowds.
“We were standing around talking and someone said, ‘What we need is an attraction. What we really need is a woman wing walker.’
“Pretty soon, I saw they were all looking at me. I noticed I was the only woman there.”
Her husband tied a rope around her waist and tied the other end down inside the fuselage. When the plane reached 500 feet and 80 m.p.h., Jessie headed for her spot on the wing.
‘This Is It’
She inched her way along the wooden span that supported the cloth wing and began crawling over and under the wires that stretched between the two wings.
“I said to myself, ‘This is the last moment of my life. This is it.’ The prop blast was hitting me. The wind was dragging on the rope. The rope got tangled up in the wires. I knew I was dying. I was mad. Oooh, I was mad.
“When we landed, we had our first family argument. I said if I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way, with no rope. I just blew up like Mount Vesuvius. I think we got along better after that.”
She learned to make parachute jumps and performed gymnastic routines on the wings. It was easy, she says, so long as you remembered a cardinal rule:
“Get a firm grip on something and never let go till you’ve got a firm grip on something else. You have to be careful.”
She fell just twice. Once she just fell to her knees on the wing. The other fall was recorded on a Paramount Newsreel in 1935.
Fell Off the Wing
“The plane was upside down. I fell off the wing. I was a parachute jumper, so I just opened the parachute.”
She landed in a cow pasture, gathered up the chute, perched on a fence post and waited until the other Flying Aces came to fetch her.
The air show lasted nine years, until the Civil Aviation Administration shut it down when Jessie kept renewing a two-year student pilot’s license rather than getting a regular license.
“Our derring-do didn’t fit in with the idea they were promoting.”
After the show closed in 1939, she got a commercial license and an instructor’s rating and gave flying lessons at an airport in Rock Hill, S.C.
The war came along, and Jessie was drawn into the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She trained young Army cadets who went on to fly fighters and bombers.
Took a Teasing
“I always felt sorry for those young pilots. They took a teasing because I was their instructor. The rest of the instructors were men.”
She was vindicated when two pilots from her first cadet class came back to thank her for “the things that you beat into our heads.”
She quit teaching after the war, took up chicken farming and flew only for fun.
After her husband died, she moved back to Washington to see her parents and became a supervisor in the accident section at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Jessie retired at 65 and later moved to Lakeland, where she lives in a small, neat apartment and helps organize reunions at air shows. She gave up flying six years ago.
Time to Quit
“I wasn’t flying enough to feel good about it. It stopped being instinctive. If you have to think to fly, it’s time to quit.
“And it was just too expensive. I didn’t have a lot of money. It just got to the point where I said, ‘Do you want to keep on flying and live in a tree or do you want to pay apartment rent?’ ”
She is still lively, still spurts out the occasional swear word, still looks at the old pictures of herself in the helmet and a baggy jump suit, standing on her head on biplane wings.
“I’m sorry I don’t fly anymore. But I don’t want to fly in this kind of world, with all this hassle. For me, the fun has gone out of it.”