Claire L. Walters dies at 85; flight instructor co-founded Palms to Pines air race


After the model plane Claire L. Walters built failed to fly, she piled all of her dolls into a wagon and pulled them through her Santa Ana neighborhood as she tried to sell them.

She was 3 and longed for the cash to buy an airplane that would soar into the sky.

By 1941, at age 17, she had flown solo and was on her way to fulfilling a goal first declared in grade school -- to become a pilot and teach others how to fly.

Claire Walters obituary: The obituary of flight instructor Claire L. Walters in Monday’s Section A said she logged 40,000 miles in the cockpit. Walters logged 40,000 hours in the cockpit. —

Walters, who ran her flight school for 27 years in Santa Monica and co-founded the annual Palms to Pines Air Race for women, died Jan. 1 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 85.

She died of coronary failure following surgery, said her daughter, Susie Brittingham.

“At a time when women were in the kitchen, and they were not in airplanes, Claire was one of 100 female flight instructors in the 1940s,” said C.J. Strawn, a pilot and fellow member of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots. “She was a dynamo and had such a passion for aviation and women fliers.”

In 1951, Walters won the Powder Puff Derby -- a transcontinental air race for women that she helped re-establish in the late 1940s -- and on the way home married one of her students, a future commercial pilot.

A flight instructor since 1946, she founded the Claire Walters Flight Academy in 1960. Thousands of pilots would eventually graduate from the school at the Santa Monica Airport.

Since 1987, she had mainly flown as a pilot examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration. At 68, she was still climbing into the cockpit to do a job normally held by men about half her age, The Times reported in 1992.

When a former student asked her to establish an air race from Santa Monica to his town of Independence, Ore., she helped start the Palms-to-Pines competition in 1970. The race, which now ends in Bend, Ore., is the longest-running all-female air race, Strawn said.

Walters, who logged 40,000 miles in the cockpit, guided her final flight several years ago, as a co-pilot in the Palms-to-Pines contest.

She was born Claire Lee McMillen in Santa Ana on Feb. 20, 1924 -- 10 minutes before her twin sister, Betty -- to Paul and Beulah McMillen.

From an early age, the twins were obsessed with aviation, Walters recalled in “This Flying Life,” the 1999 memoir she wrote with her sister, who became a sailplane champion.

At 13, the sisters grew corn on the family farm in Garden Grove and sold it at a roadside stand. The proceeds, coupled with money made from raising and selling a pig, bought them their first flight, in a biplane.

“That ride was everything I’d hoped for, and more,” Walters told The Times in 1992.

After graduating from high school in 1941, Walters worked at a cannery near Fullerton Airport to pay for flying lessons.

“You want to know how badly I wanted to learn?” she asked in the 1992 article. “I was making 35 cents an hour at my job, and it cost $7.50 an hour to learn how to fly.”

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a few months later, private aviation within 100 miles of the West Coast was halted, so Walters moved to Quartzsite, Ariz., to finish her pilot training. She earned her private license in 1943 and her commercial rating a year later.

During World War II, she flew as a ferry pilot, delivering military aircraft throughout the U.S.

A veteran of 10 Powder Puff Derbies, Walters co-piloted with her sister in 1948. The year she won, she shared the cockpit with Fran Bera, who would win the race several more times.

Since 1944, Walters had been an active member of the Ninety-Nines and founded the local Palms chapter, partly to oversee the Palms-to-Pines race. In the late 1990s, she also was a driving force, as a fundraiser, behind the establishment of the 99s Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City.

Whether she shared the cockpit with students or exam takers, Walters was known to lighten the mood by telling tales from her past, including the time she ferried a small plane across the Pacific to Australia or ran out of fuel in the desert and used railroad tracks as her runway.

As a new instructor in the late 1940s, she was only allowed to teach women at first, Walters told The Times in 1992.

“Then I got the leftovers, the men that the male instructors didn’t want to fly with,” she said. “Then the students started asking for me, and I got everyone.”

Walters, a longtime resident of Mar Vista, had been divorced since the late 1950s.

In addition to her daughter, Susie, of Tecumseh, Okla., she is survived by her son, Michael Walters of Lake Arrowhead, Calif.; her sister, Betty Loufek of Flagstaff, Ariz.; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

She taught both of her children how to fly.