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October 29, 2012

CUMMINS: The perils of my Aunt Pauline

FLOYD COUNTY — My “crazy” aunt lived to be nearly 101, and lived her life the way she wanted to. Aunt Pauline Cummins Glasson was born in 1911, eight years after the Wright brothers made the first flight in an airplane. She was born in the hills of Kentucky in a log cabin converted into a home for a family of 10. Twenty-three years later, she made her first solo flight, landing a seaplane on Sarasota Bay. She spent the remainder of her life where she wanted to be, soaring through the skies that set her free.

In 1941, Pauline moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, and with her husband, Claude Glasson, a pilot, too, helped build the airport there. During World War II, she ferried planes for the military and worked as a test pilot. Her other experiences flying included sky-writing, crop dusting, aerial photography, air racing and flying for an air ambulance service, but teaching flying was her primary endeavor and first love.

As a young boy growing up in the hills of Kentucky, I heard many stories about my Aunt Pauline, but saw her only a few times. After the war in 1946, she flew home and landed her two-seat Cessna on a dirt strip in a river bottom. One Sunday afternoon, she took courageous family members, one at a time, on their “first” plane ride. She took me up and we circled over our farm, and what a thrill it was for a 12-year-old country boy.  

Every few years, she flew her plane home again to see the family, and then in 1998, I went to Corpus Christi to see her. I drove down Glasson Drive to the airport and stopped at my aunt’s hanger, which had space for an office, classroom and room for her two airplanes. She was 88 then and busy as a bee teaching her students to fly and organizing the Air Race Classic.

Pauline flew many times in the Powder Puff Derby, an air race for women, later named the Air Race Classic. The competitors zigzag across country making five stops where their times are recorded to determine the placement of each pilot. She emphasized that knowing how to fly in all kinds of weather is critical. During two of the races, Pauline had to ditch her plane due to mechanical problems, one in the desert in New Mexico, which took all day for her rescue. She flew all over the U.S., Alaska and flew in several races to Cuba, before Castro. She met and had dinner with Amelia Earhart, who, in 1929, organized the “Ninety-Nines,” a flying club for women, which Pauline joined in 1938.

As I listened to her fascinating stories, I mentioned that it was rather remarkable someone her age could be flying and teaching flying. She let me know emphatically that it was nothing extraordinary. “Who says I’m too old to fly?” Aging was of little concern to her.

At age 90, Pauline flew in the Air Race Classic, and I met her at one of the stops at Batavia, Ohio, where we had to help her from the plane. The next year during the race, I met her at Seymour, and we had to help her from the plane. Her eyes were perfect and her physical condition excellent, but she had serious problems with her feet. She had been concerned about passing the yearly physical to qualify for her pilot’s license. After the doctor thoroughly examined her, he asked if she used her feet to fly. When she said, “No,” he said, “You pass.”

My aunt taught untold numbers to fly including Girl Scouts and individuals who had never learned to drive a car. Pauline taught flying until she was 91, and during her 71 years flying, she accumulated more than 60,000 hours of flight time, which is equivalent to 2,500 days. She was happiest teaching others to fly, and she taught me a few things, too. She inspired me to maintain that adventuresome spirit, no matter the age. And I understood that one’s spirit is designed to soar, which requires making the effort to “take off” time after time. Lofty ambitions help keep one “crazy” young.  

My Aunt Pauline preferred cruising through the peaceful skies with just the two of them: She at the controls guided by her co-pilot, the Almighty. Her long life on earth prepared her for a direct flight to heaven in perfect weather, with no baggage or delays. She’s flying with the angels now.

Contact Terry Cummins at TLCTLC@AOL.com.

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