Monday, January 19, 2009

Sweet Vibrations: Discovering the First Deaf Pilot: Nellie Zabel Willhite

Way back in the 1920s.... or heck, even up until the 1970s, it was hard enough for a woman to get training to become a pilot at all. Women's roles were pretty firmly fixed and even though they'd proved time and again that they could fly with the big boys, obstacles were placed in their way. (Over a thousand women flew every type of plane imaginable during WWII, as WASP... but could they get jobs as airline pilots after the war? Nope... not until the 1970s.)

So imagine how difficult it must have been to be a woman, and deaf, and want to be a pilot, back in the 1920s. Well, Nellie Zabel Willhite managed it.

I'll be doing an in-depth article for my webzine Winged Victory: Women in Aviation, but thought I'd share this little saga of first discovery with you all.

And here's a book written by a deaf man who wanted to become a pilot in middle age:
A book editor at a struggling big-city daily learned to fly away from his worries, and this cross-continental travelogue is the wonderful result. In previous books, Kisor has written about his deafness (What's That Pig Outdoors?, 1990) and about traveling across America by train (Zephyr, 1994); here he melds the two themes. He tells of an aerial feat from 1911 that inspired him: the first coast-to-coast trip by plane, an achievement that further attracted Kisor because of his affinity with the pilot, who was deaf. Intending to reenact that event, Kisor learned to fly, got a license, bought a Cessna 150, consulted with a prior reenactor, and began his own odyssey. The most tangible quality of the trip is the way Kisor relates sensations of sight and vibration in flight and, once on the ground, his process of communicating with the hearing. Kisor touched wheels as near as possible to the landing spots of that 1911 pilot; as he clambers out to refuel and converse, he collects human-interest stories about the idiosyncratic people who scratch out a living at remote landing strips: fuelers, proprietors, mechanics, cab drivers--a gallery of contemporary characters of Americana. The reader gladly occupies Kisor's right-hand seat, admiring the view, listening to his descriptions and opinions, and imbibing, as Kisor puts it, the "ineffable, almost undefinable impulse to fly." Spouses worried that their middle-aged mates might head for the local airstrip should not let them know about Kisor's memorable journey. Gilbert Taylor

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