Flying Solo

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Barry Roal Carlsen

The progress and accomplishments of the university featured in On Wisconsin articles are always fascinating, but I was also amazed by an ad in the Spring 2011 issue that featured Middleton, Wisconsin. It brought back wonderful memories of a simple country town and some high adventures I had as a student.

My recollection starts in July 1943 during World War II, when we had soldiers from Madison’s Truax Field on campus. The war had become part of our lives, since many of our friends had gone off to fight. Even women had become involved in the war effort as transport pilots.

I signed up for two courses that summer: Theory of Flight and Meteorology. They were fascinating subjects to me because I had never flown before. In those days, we mostly traveled by car or train. Then I learned that I could take flying lessons at Middleton Airport, so I asked for permission from my parents to learn to fly. Back then it cost only fifteen dollars per lesson, but I got a job at a department store in Madison to help defray the costs. We flew planes such as Taylorcraft and other two-seaters, and in winter, we landed on the snow-covered runway with long skis instead of wheels. To start the engine, my instructor had to spin the propeller until it caught. Then he would quickly hop in the passenger side (after I had learned how to take off, that is).

Other students were learning how to fly there, too. Young men from Truax, wearing navy uniforms, trained in yellow, open-cockpit planes they called N3Ns.

It was all quite thrilling. I can’t adequately describe the feeling of being on a solo flight. Little old me actually flying, stick in one hand, throttle in the other. Together they made the plane go up and down, and to turn, I just worked the ailerons with my feet. So utterly unreal! In no time at all, I would be at fifteen hundred feet in the bright blue sky, or up above the billowing clouds, looking down at tiny trees or cars on the rolling countryside. It was like nothing else, and all I could hear was the whirl of the propeller.

My boyfriend at the time called me “Ameeee-lia” in honor of Amelia Earhart, the world’s most famous aviatrix. And my friends teased me before I took my first solo flight, expecting that I might land at the wrong airport — just like Wrong Way Corrigan, who became a national hero in 1938 after filing a flight plan from New York to California, but landing in Ireland instead.

The airport in Middleton was really out in the country in those days — literally surrounded by farms. To get there, I had to take an almost-hour-long bus ride to the road along which the airport was located. I never minded the distance, because I was determined to learn how to fly. I’d walk down that road to the small airport entrance, all the while being watched and mooed at by black-and-white cows standing along the wire fence. Sometimes they walked along with me.

I never spent time in town, but I imagine it had a main street and a bunch of houses, farms, and stores like most small towns. So when I saw the modern hotel picture in the ad announcing, “It’s snazzier here in Middleton,” I was charmed by the thought. They had even added a fountain. The airport is still there. Today named Middleton Municipal Airport-Morey Field, it was purchased by the city of Middleton in 1998.

Maybe I’ll go back someday. Then I could stay in a “snazzy” hotel, even though I’d be mindful of that nostalgic time when it was just a sleepy little airport town.

As a postscript, the war ended about the time I graduated, so I gave up piloting and became an American Airlines stewardess instead. I guess I just wanted to hold on to that feeling of being above the clouds as long as I could.

Audrey Waldschmidt Lawler resides in Tampa, Florida.

Published in the Summer 2012 issue

Tags: Alumni, Campus history

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