Walker flew the mail, trained World War II pilots all from the Warren Airport in lengthy aviation career
By all accounts, Helen Walker was living a typical early 20th century life.
She was born in 1907, married a World War I veteran 11 years her senior and there’s no record of anything particularly remarkable about the first 30 years of her life.
That all changed in the 1930s when she took to the skies.
By the time her aviation career came to a close, she had flown mail routes, received a 99ers cup from a significant female aviation organization and, perhaps most notably, trained many young Warren men who would go on to fly fighters and bombers in the skies over Europe and South Pacific during World War II.
King Air Service at the Warren Airport (what we now know as Betts Park was her ticket into the industry.
“Every instructor, mechanic and pilot of the organization is a local man or woman who learned their flying at Warren,” according to a Feb. 20, 1941 Warren Times-Mirror article. “The chief flight instructor, Slip King, has had over twenty years’ experience in the aviation industry.
A Jan. 21, 1972 article in the Warren Times-Mirror and Observer with the “Warren’s Aviatrix” headline told her story after a lengthy interview.
She learned to fly on the Taylor E-2 Cub, the predecessor of the much more well-known Piper Cub.
That report indicates that Walker secured her student license in June 1935 and went solo after just under nine hours of flight time. She earned her private pilot’s license four months later in October.
Per a bio from the Warren County Historical Society Walker specifically remembered high tension wires on the west end of the Warren field.
With the Cub’s maximum speed of just 80 miles per hour “you had to make up your mind right away whether you were going to go over or under those wires. We used to go under them pretty regularly.”
The 50 hours she secured for her license would result in a career that included 2,000 flight hours.
The reporter asked her if the flying she did was ever dangerous.
“‘Never!’ she replied emphatically,” per the article. “You’ve read a lot about the so-called dangers of flying in those days, but in all my flying, the only ‘lag’ thing that ever happened to me was a flat tire.”
Later in the 1930s, with a limited commercial ticket in hand, she was sworn in at the Post Office to fly a mail route from Tidioute to Erie.
She said the cargo was mostly “tiny little things. About a thousand of them in one box.”
In those earlier years of her career, she even parachuted out one day.
“It was great,” she said. “I was up with one of the boys and I said it looked like a good day for a jump. The next thing he knew,” she said, “I was hanging out on the wing strut. When I let go, the plane just seemed to jump up and away from me, getting smaller and smaller by the second. Then, of course, I pulled the ripcord and came drifting down. It was a lovely sensation.”
Her superiors were none too pleased though and pulled her flying privileges for three days.
Then came what would arguably become the most important work of her career.
“In 1940, the Civilian Pilot Training class was instituted at the Warren Airport in order to train pilots for possible military service,” according to the Historical Society. “Walker personally gave flying instructions to more than 200 young men and women during the early war years, many of whom flew during the war.”
From the 1941 Times-Mirror article referenced earlier: Marshall Mathis, chief ground school instructor, is the best in this section of the country. Helen Walker, instructor, and Pilot Bud Maier were also students in the old school…. Through the courtesy of the Warren School Board Mr. King has been granted permission to use a room in the Jefferson Street school for the next ground school. A full-sized plane has been placed in the classroom with all the accessories needed to meet the requirements of the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the new class will start within the next two weeks. All who are interested are urged to sign up at the airport.
She was qualified as an instructor in 1940.
From the 1970s story on her: “Helen’s home life was far from ignored during her flying days. Although her husband… Henry Walker, never went so far as to get a license, he used to encourage Helen’s aerial work to the fullest. Many was the time when little Helen Annette, the Walker’s daughter, would be playing in the backyard during the afternoon when she should have been taking her nap. A low- flying plane, with a throttled engine, would glide over the house and little Helen would hear from the sky: ‘Helen Annette! You get into bed!'”
“I took my last flight physical on Oct. 25, 1950,” Walker said, “and a year or so later I gave up active flying.”
But with family in Europe, she made at least eight round trip flights in the ensuing decades.
“I like to sit as far back in those big jets as I can,” she told the reporter. “You get more of the sensation of flying back there.”
The reporter’s walk-off question was a good one: Would she do it all over again?
“You bet I would,” she said. “It makes everything else seem so tame by comparison.”
It appears Walker died in her mid-70s in the 1980s and is likely buried at the Pine Grove Cemetery.