The Smith College Flying Club, founded in the 1930s, was the first club of its kind at a women’s college. In its time, it co-hosted the first intercollegiate competitive air meet, educated aviatrixes during a time when such training was not readily available to women, and helped train students for the war effort during World War Two.
The Flying Club was initially conceived in November 1934.1) As the Northampton, Mass. Gazette reported, “The meeting [of the fifteen interested students] came as the outcome of a joint session of the Amherst College Flying club and group of ten students at Smith who…have been enthusiastic over the possibility of forming a club similar to that at Amherst.” 2). Leading in the creation of the club was Mary F. Kimball ’34, who was an avid aviatrix and personally held a private pilot’s license. 3) The stated purpose of the organization was the following: “The club is composed of students who are interested in a knowledge of the practical side of flying…It now functions as a ground school and has arranged for its meetings a series of lectures and domonstrations [sic] on the technique of flying, plane construction, commercial aviation, and other phases of the subject.” 4)
The initial reaction by the Smith community to the club was one of both enthusiasm and doubt. The college administration was concerned about the safety of the students. The administration maintained that students could only fly if their parents signed a permission form. A press release states, “Listed in the booklet, ‘Rules and Regulations,’ Smith College, under the heading ‘Regulations for Safety,’ one finds the official college rule: ‘while they are under the supervision of the College students may not ride in airplanes unless written permission from the parents has been previously received in the Office of the Warden.’” 5) Although the Flying Club started out with fifteen potential members 6), only two could obtain the necessary written permission. 7) However, this minor setback did not prevent Smith College from helping to set up, and participate in, the first intercollegiate air meet in 1935. An air meet is a flying competition, in which participants compete in events that center around flying skill. In this first event, hosted jointly by Smith College and Amherst College, Smith was the only woman’s college to compete. 8))
With this strong start, the Flying Club continued to gain popularity throughout the 1930s. The support of the club became of a much more practical nature with the approach of World War II. As tensions increased in Europe, the United States encouraged students to gain training in aviation, through such organizations as college flying clubs. Such interest had been expressed in regard to Smith College as early as 1935 9), and the Civil Aeronautics Authority, founded in 1938, began the Civilian Pilot Training Program, in which it would provide training to students. 10) In 1939, the United States Government tried to involve the Smith College Flying Club in the CAA’s training programs for pilots. As a memo from Mrs. Scales to Mrs. Morrow states, “My impression is that while many of the men’s colleges have gone into the program, including Harvard and Princeton, and also some universities including the women, that as yet, no women’s colleges have taken part in the plan. The Government is very eager to enroll Smith College.” 11) The idea was continued in an article published in the Daily News, where it was noted that “Airminded students at Smith college [sic] plan to participate in the Civil Aeronautics authority’s [sic] student training program…Aviation interest at Smith has been keen, according to college officials, and a flying club…has been campaigning for Smith’s participation in the program.” 12)
A number of Smithies did use their experience from the Flying Club during World War Two. The most well known alumna in this regard is Gloria Heath, who served as a WASP during the war. 13) The Flying Club did its part in the war effort, providing training “in weather, radio work, navigation, service and maintenance of airplanes, but also military drill work and plane spotting” to interested student to help the war effort. 14) The club also undertook such projects as removing navigational aids to thwart enemy aircraft. 15) Additionally, the Flying Club acquired its own airplane, the Bird of Paradise, which was jointly owned by 15 students and was operated from 1942-1943. 16) Unfortunately, a fire occurred at LaFleur Field, the airport, in February of 1943, destroying the Bird of Paradise’s engine. This forced the Flying Club to sell the plane, as the engine could not be repaired due to unavailability of replacement parts for civilian aircraft. 17)
After the end of the war, the Flying Club began to decline in popularity, despite its rental of a Taylorcraft airplane in 1947. 18) This decline was compounded by the administration’s prohibition of the Flying Club from competing in air meets, one of the primary activities of the club. This restriction came in 1950, following a decision to enforce college policy barring intercollegiate sports, such as air meets. In a rather terse letter from Mrs. Cook to the then Flying Club president Nancy Mazur, it was stated that,
The Flying Club may not take part in any intercollegiate meets. Therefore, it seems probable, in the light of what you told me of the plans you had in mind, that Flying Club no longer will wish to continue. If its stated objectives, according to the constitution in my hands, to promote active interest in aviation, can be achieved only by taking part in meets then obviously it will have to disband.19)
Despite the setback, Mazur wrote in reply that “The Flying Club had decided to continue as before except that we will not take part in any competitive meets. However the college’s ultimatum on competition will not change the plans of the club to a large enough degree to warrant any extensive change in the club.” 20) She further argued that
“The flying club does not come under the Athletic Association. It differs vastly from the sort of thing that does come under the A.A. The A.A. forbids inter-collegiate [sic] competition. but [sic] since the Flying Club is not in the A.A. category this does not necessarily apply…” 21)
Unfortunately, the combination of the end of competitive flying and decreased interest after the war proved insurmountable to the organization, and by 1951 the Flying Club was no longer listed as an organization.22)
The first club of its kind at a women’s college, the Smith College Flying Club, in its twenty years of existence accomplished many amazing feats. From flying in the first intercollegiate air meet to training pilots during World War Two, it has a proud legacy at Smith College.