Pilots

Iris Critchell

May 1, 2005

Iris Critchell began a 65-year-long exciting and successful career in aviation in 1939. She was one of the few women, nationwide, accepted into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at the University of Southern California. When she graduated from USC in 1941 with a degree in physical sciences she had also completed the CPTP primary course, earning her private pilot certificate, completed the CPTP secondary aerobatics course, and acquired all of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) ground instructor ratings. Critchell volunteered for the Army Air Corps in December 1942. After the training phase, she was assigned to the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), based with the 6th Ferrying Group of the Air Transport Command at Long Beach, California. The WAFS pilots had been ferrying aircraft for the U.S. Army for nearly a year when they were absorbed into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

Critchell piloted North American P-51 Mustangs, Curtiss P-40 War-hawks, Bell P-39 Airacobras, and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, as well as the twin-engine Army airplanes, Douglas C-47s, North American B-25 Mitchells, Douglas A-20s Havocs, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. "A majority of the WASPs were assigned to training, maintenance, testing, and target-towing jobs. In this latter work they towed sleeve targets behind their airplanes for live target practice. There were considerable risks and it was most remarkable that there were relatively few casualties," she remembers. "Overall, 38 WASPs lost their lives in service. Since we were civilians, with no military benefits, we had to take up collections among ourselves to send the bodies of WASPs who died serving their country home for burial."

In December 1944 when it was deemed that the need for these women to fly military airplanes no longer existed, the WASPs were disbanded. Critchell returned home and helped establish the USC College of Aeronautics at Santa Maria, California. In 1961 she and her husband, Howard, brought the Bates Aeronautics Program to the prestigious Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Critchell, as a faculty member, developed the academic and flight curriculum there. "Many of my students chose careers in aviation, ranging from aero and astronautics engineers and scientists, to two astronauts, to many airplane owners and active flying enthusiasts," she says.

Critchell, as an Olympic swimmer, represented the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. She believes that her athletic training and a good education played a very significant part in her life and in her pursuit of an aviation career. She is still an active pilot. In 2000 Critchell was inducted into the National Association of Flight Instructors Hall of Fame.