Wings Over Michigan
Former Girl Scout’s memoir recalls Detroit's postwar heyday as a small airport hotbed
Photographs courtesy of Joseph A. Meinhard
Marilyn Meinhard: “From the air, we had a completely different perspective of God’s earth: the lakes, rivers, trees in their autumn colors, and fields of wheat — all looking like a patchwork quilt.”
In a world where people have grown accustomed to jetting off to all corners of the map and space tourism will soon become a reality, it can be hard to conjure up a time when a simple 10-minute ride aboard a small aircraft was a novelty to be treasured and talked about, over and over again. But not for Marilyn Meinhard.
Meinhard (born Marilyn Moore), was a saucer-eyed 3-year-old when she first experienced the euphoria of flight aboard a neighbor’s small plane at Detroit City Airport in 1935. A couple of generations later, the former aviatrix relives the life-changing moment in the opening lines of the unpublished manuscript she wrote for the benefit of her children and grandkids.
“Although I was very young,” the now 80-year-old memoirist writes, “I vividly remember sitting in the airplane on my mother’s lap, hearing the roaring noise of the plane’s engine, and seeing the ground rushing by faster and faster until, suddenly, everything was smooth as we left the ground and rose into the air like magic. Strangely, there was no real sense of speed — just floating in the air. Looking down, I saw cars and houses growing smaller and smaller, and the people on the ground were like tiny ants far below. This must be what it was like to be a bird, I thought. I loved it, and the seed for learning to fly was planted in my mind.”
Meinhard sits inside her daughter’s Sterling Heights home, sifting through curling photographs and fragments of memory. She looks at a slightly faded color snapshot. It was taken by her husband, also a pilot, during a flight up the St. Clair River to Lake Huron some 60 years ago. “That’s the Blue Water Bridge,” she says. “How different it looks. That area’s all built up now.”
She recalls flying over downtown Detroit in the 1950s, its skyscrapers no more than stacks of Legos beneath the wings, and looking down on the Ambassador Bridge, as well as the Hudson’s building and Briggs Stadium, now-vanished totems of a city in its prime. “There’s just nothing better than taking off on a beautiful, clear day and flying around in a blue sky,” she says. “There’s nothing as peaceful.”
It’s generally forgotten that, in the early 20th century, the men turning Detroit into the hub of automobile production nearly made the Motor City the center of aviation, as well. Even as that particular dream evaporated, personal aviation continued to flourish, with small private airports sprouting in the cornfields outside the city. Fraser’s mayor, a dentist named Otis McKinley, laid out his eponymous airfield on his farm near Utica Road and 15 Mile. Wings Airport opened at 18 Mile and Mound roads in Utica. By mid-century, there were, among others, Krist-Port in Farmington, Big Beaver Airport in Troy, and Joy Airport in Macomb County. This was an era of sod and gravel runways and windsocks fluttering atop barn roofs. Into this world stepped Marilyn Moore, a Detroit teenager with sky-blue eyes and an unfailingly sunny disposition.
It was 1948. Her next-door neighbor and best friend, a fellow Girl Scout named Hazel, told her about a new auxiliary called the Wing Scouts. It was select company. Of 19,000 Girl Scouts in Detroit at the time, only 135 were Wing Scouts. Each “flight,” or troop, had eight to 10 girls in it. Marilyn needed no convincing. She was in, like a flash.
It was rigorous work. When the Amelia Earhart wannabes weren’t washing down planes or staffing the information booth at air shows, they were in the air or in the classroom, trying to master the principles of aerodynamics, meteorology, civil aeronautics regulations, navigation, and airport procedures. A young pilot named Ed Pawelek, who had flown against the Luftwaffe during World War II, was the principal instructor. As they progressed, the student pilots learned about the different types of clouds and what each can portend. They practiced takeoffs and landings and emergency set-downs, learned to correctly read which way the wind was blowing, and were shown how to use landmarks like rivers and railroad tracks for navigation.
Meinhard hitch-hiked from her home in northwest Detroit to Wings Airport in Utica, where Pawelek kept his old Stearman. One day, after Meinhard had accumulated about seven hours of dual instruction in the air, Pawelek simply said, “You’re ready to solo.” It was a surprise, she remembers, but one that she handled with customary coolness. “You were never told beforehand because they didn’t want you to be nervous thinking about it,” she says. “Afterwards, I thought, ‘Great, I have that behind me.’ ” From that point on, Meinhard flew solo when she could, venturing a little farther out each time, gaining confidence in her abilities.
Flying wasn’t for everyone. Hazel barfed from motion sickness and soon dropped out, but Meinhard was utterly fascinated by everything she was learning. “I was fearless,” she says. “And the instruction wasn’t difficult. When you thoroughly enjoy something, the learning is much easier.”
In 1949, the Aero Club of Michigan held a membership contest. At stake was a two-seat Cessna 120 with an 85-horsepower engine. It was capable of cruising along at about 110 miles per hour. The plane’s best feature was that it had a wheel, not a joystick — a major consideration when students still wore skirts, not jeans. Meinhard’s troop sold 105 memberships and won the plane. The girls rented a hangar at Joy Airport on Masonic (13 1/2 Mile Road) between Gratiot and Groesbeck. However, the plane required insurance, gas and oil, hangar rental, and regular maintenance. Meinhard organized a concessions business at the airport, where members took turns selling pop, coffee, burgers, and hot dogs to raise money on weekends.
Today the cost of getting a private pilot’s license can run into five figures. Meinhard remembers paying just $4 an hour for dual instruction; after she soloed and was able to fly on her own, the cost dropped to $2 an hour. To make money, she worked at Kroger and baby-sat. Of all the Wing Scouts who originally wanted to take flying lessons, only Meinhard and two others went on to get their private pilot’s license. When the Girl Scouts put the Cessna up for sale, the three became part of a small flying group that chipped in $125 apiece to buy it. “Anytime one of us flew, we’d top off the tank for the next person,” she says. “We flew whenever we wanted.”
Like most pilots, Meinhard had her share of adventures and close calls. Once she took a required cross-country trip with an instructor who landed their plane on his friend’s farm in the Thumb instead of at the airport. After the pilot enjoyed a couple of beers with his buddy, he and Meinhard flew back in a driving rainstorm. The ceiling dropped to 500 feet. The Cessna wasn’t equipped for instrument flying and it didn’t even have windshield wipers, but somehow they made it through, Meinhard says. “He wasn’t with us long after that.”
The young flier completed her ground-school instruction and earned her private pilot’s license in August 1950, just before the start of her senior year at Cooley High. After graduation, she started dating a young Navy aviator named Joe Meinhard, who flew anti-submarine missions during the Korean War. They married in 1953. Joe bought out the shares of several members of the flying club, giving the newlyweds plenty of time in the Cessna. She describes an early flight to Traverse City: “Joe’s folks had a home on beautiful Glen Lake, near the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, and we flew up on one of those brilliant, haze-free fall days when you can see for miles. From the air, we had a completely different perspective of God’s earth: the lakes, rivers, trees in their autumn colors, and fields of wheat — all looking like a patchwork quilt.”
Meinhard went a lot of places in her plane. But like most women of that era, she never traveled as far as she would’ve liked in the field she loved most. Aside from becoming a stewardess, an occupation she briefly considered, her prospects for a career in aviation were dismal. It wasn’t called “manned flight” for nothing. “Back then was completely different in terms of opportunities,” she says. “Now a girl can grow up and become an airline pilot, fly in the military, fly a helicopter. She can be an astronaut. All those fields were closed to us then.”
After flying practically every Saturday for several years, Meinhard was finally grounded by the demands of a growing family. “We’re the reason she quit,” says her daughter, Renee Williams. Meinhard didn’t bother to get a driver’s license until after she’d had the third of her six children. Even then, the earthbound mother habitually kept her eye on the sky. “I can remember her and my dad always saying, ‘It’s a perfect day for flying,’ ” Williams says. “Even when they weren’t.”
Meinhard became a widow in 1986. As the years passed, she felt the urge to put her experiences down on paper. The result is a memoir titled I Want to Fly. In it, she regrets the loss of the small, rural airfields once sprinkled around metro Detroit, now all “swallowed up by subdivisions and industrial parks.” Most of the fields lacked control towers, she recalls, and a pilot didn’t even need a radio to fly in or out of them. “I guess they were for the old ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ type of pilots. But we sure had a wonderful time.”
THE AIRSHIP CITY
Detroiters caught their first glimpse of an airplane on July 14, 1910, seven years after Orville Wright’s historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Arch Hoxsey soared and swooped over the State Fairgrounds in his biplane, prompting local boosters to tout Detroit as “the airship city.” Like many an early aviator, Hoxsey was destined to die in a crack-up of his fragile craft. But the dangers didn’t deter others from advocating the benefits of manned flight.
Local industrialists, their interest in flying things motivated by a blend of civic pride and commercial potential, were early supporters of aviation activities. World War I was the chief catalyst. Howard Coffin, chief engineer of the Hudson Motor Company, chaired the War Department’s aircraft board. Under his direction, Detroit automakers designed and built thousands of “Liberty” engines and two-seat warplanes. Packard president Henry B. Joy bought and leased to the army a large tract of land (now Selfridge Field) for use as a flying field. By war’s end, Detroit was angling to become the national leader in aviation. The city hosted the prestigious Pulitzer air races and enjoyed regularly scheduled freight-hauling and flying-boat service with Cleveland and Chicago. In 1925, Edsel Ford donated $50,000 and a huge trophy for a 1,775-mile “reliability tour,” an annual competition that began and ended at the Ford Airport on Oakwood Avenue in Dearborn. The world’s first airport hotel was built; it exists today as the Dearborn Inn.
Throughout the 1920s, local newspapers were filled with the exploits of pilots, engineers, and manufacturers like William Stout, Eddie Stinson, and the Buhl brothers. Henry Ford touted a future where every home would have a hangar for a personal one-seat “flivver” plane; meanwhile, Edsel Ford became the principal underwriter of Admiral Richard Byrd’s trailblazing polar flights. In 1926, thousands of schoolchildren donated pennies to help finance George Hulbert Wilkins’ air exploration of the Arctic. The following year, Billy Brock and Ed Schlee gathered international attention with their unsuccessful around-the-world attempt in the Pride of Detroit.
The most famous aviator with a local connection was native son Charles Lindbergh. Although he was raised elsewhere, at the time of his transatlantic solo flight in 1927 his mother was a teacher at Cass Tech and his uncle, John Lodge, was the acting mayor. Legend has it that Lindbergh unsuccessfully approached Lodge about securing local investors to build his little single-engine plane. A little more foresight on the part of Uncle John, and it might very well have been the Spirit of Detroit, not the Spirit of St. Louis, carrying “Lone Eagle” Lindbergh from New York to Paris and universal fame.
Lindbergh’s Paris flight caused an unprecedented boom in aviation. In 1927, Detroit Municipal Airport, the city’s first airfield, opened at Gratiot and Conner avenues. It quickly became the country’s busiest commercial field. (Within 20 years, however, it was too small to handle the larger jets, which instead used Willow Run Airport west of the city. Willow Run, in turn, was superseded by Wayne County Airport, which was expanded in the 1960s into Metropolitan Airport.) In 1928, Lindbergh helped launch the first transcontinental air service, stocking the airline with the reliable 12-passenger Ford Tri-Motor. In 1929, Charles F. Kettering, of General Motors, helped organize the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, with an eye to consolidating various aviation companies into a GM of the sky.
Flush with money and know-how, the Motor City was, by the end of the 1920s, in a position to do for the aviation industry what it had already done for automobiles. However, the Great Depression put the kibosh on that. Automakers retrenched in the 1930s, deciding to concentrate on what they knew best: building cars. Today, no single city can claim to be the center of American aviation. But for a time, Detroit came as close as any.