The Flying Susies

Closeup of Flying Susie Patch with book in the background. Closeup of Flying Susie Patch

Stephens College Aviation Program and the Flying Susies

By Linda J. Keown

The Stephens College Aviation program began in September of 1941 coinciding with the beginning of World War II.  The program was the brainchild of James M. Wood, president of Stephens from 1912 until 1947. The aviation program was under the direction of Kenneth Newland an educational consultant for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and an accomplished pilot on the Stephens faculty.   Mr. Newland and the aviation faculty were members of the Division of Vocations in the college curriculum. World War II was the impetus for the program as there was a growing need for female participation in the general aviation movement. At the end of World War II, 10% of female aviators in the war had had their initial training at Stephens College. (Missouri Historical Review, July 2000, page 436) The program was the first of its kind in any college in the country. 

The program began with an enrollment of twelve women and grew at its maximum enrollment to 18% of the student body when the college had an enrollment of 1790 students.  Approximately 80 students were enrolled each semester. When the program was discontinued in 1961, at least 700 women had earned their pilots’ license and between 30 and 40 were qualified as flight instructors.  (Stephens Standard, April 1945 and college archive information)

Stephens College had its Aviation Campus across the street from the old Columbia Municipal Airport. (now the site of Cosmo Park) and at the high point of the program, 90-95 students were housed in what was termed Aviation Hall, a building previously named the Allton Hotel built in 1929 and originally opened to house travelers on US Highway 40.  The president of Pierce Petroleum Company, E. D. Levy of St. Louis, proposed having luxury hotels between New York and San Francisco at intervals of every 125 miles. The depression of the 1930s terminated the construction of the full number of hotels. (article entitled The Flying Susies from the Stephens College archives) The former Aviation Hall is now part of the Terrace Retirement Community across from Cosmo Park. 

The aviation campus included lodging for students as well as a tearoom named the Skylanes Tea Room. Students were bused to the main campus in downtown Columbia where they took their regular classes in mathematics, science, languages and the arts.  Students recall changing from their beige aviation uniforms to more traditional college attire before boarding the buses to town. The classes taught at the aviation campus included dispatching, scheduling, passenger handling, meteorology, geography, radio law, telegraphic code, aviation shorthand, drafting, flight training, aviation mechanics and airline traffic.  Eight to ten hours of flying were required before students were able to make their first solo flight. Women who completed the coursework were highly sought employees of the twelve sponsor airlines of the program including American, Braniff, Chicago and Southern, Continental, Midcontinent, Northeast Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Pan-American, Pennsylvania Central Airlines and Trans World.  

As an extension of the curriculum, the college had an active Aviation Club sponsored by faculty members Elinor O’Keefe and Harry Burge.  There were thirty airplanes including Fairchild 24s, Fairchild M62s, Beechcraft and Link Trainers and a faculty twelve to fourteen instructors.  Ground school equipment included six airplane engines, film libraries, charts, books, models and sub-assembly trainers. (Flying Magazine, ‘Air Schooling for Milady’, November 1945, pgs. 39-42, 112)  A summer program was offered in 1945 for seven weeks with training in light planes for $9/hour and heavy planes for $18/hour.  The courses were approved by the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the program enjoyed the support of the Army Air Force which donated much of their surplus equipment used by the college.  In addition to study on campus, students were taken to Kansas City to visit the offices of Trans World Airlines.  

Stephens College has left Columbia, MO memories of the program that recently came to light when a brick façade collapsed on a structure at Cosmo Park revealing a steel beam with the words Stephens College Aviation Department clearly visible. (Columbia Daily Tribune, June 6, 2014)  Perhaps the most illustrious graduate of the aviation curriculum is Miss Mary Wallace Funk, ’58.  Wally, as she is called, was a commencement speaker at Stephens in 2008 and was one of five women selected for astronaut training at Fort Sill, OK.  The Columbia Daily Tribune had an article about Ms. Funk in the May 7, 2006 edition.  Ms. Funk was featured in the Columbia Missourian newspaper in the April 1, 2013 edition.  She is quoted there as saying that in undergoing rigorous tests for the astronaut training program, she even beat John Glenn on some tests!  She was a member of the Mercury 13 crew but President Eisenhower determined that only men could go into space. Her remarks were made to a class of Hickman High School students that day prior to a public address at Stephens College.  Ms. Funk told the students that she has ‘lead a very charmed life in aviation’. 

The legacy of this program is still strong at Stephens College and there is an extensive archives collection including numerous articles, pictures, and memorabilia.  College yearbooks and college course catalogues from the mid-40s were wonderful sources of information about the twenty year history of the first aviation program in the country solely tailored to young, college women.