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Shoot the Landing: War and Planes in Owens Valley

Kendra Atleework

Female Pilots Bishop AirportIt is June 1 of 1943, a warm and cloudless morning, when three young women, nine suitcases, and one box of shoes get off a bus in Independence, California. The women have come to learn to fly airplanes. One of them, Jean Barkley Hutchinson, writes an account of the summer. She is told, “Flying is the hardest thing in the world to learn and the easiest thing to do.” She is told, “Take your hands and feet off the controls.” She is told, “The beginner’s god is the wind.”

Harry Ross’s Aeronautics in Independence owns five planes: four Luscombes and one Taylorcraft, all painted blue and yellow and, according to Hutchinson, “very cute.” She and two other women, Bobbe and Janet, want to become pilots so they can shuttle planes from factories to military bases. Hutchinson has never left the ground before arriving at flight school in Independence. She writes of her first flight, riding beside the instructor: “I was petrified. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even swallow.”

He tells her, “I’ll show you some tricks.”

“There are no words to describe what we did,” Hutchinson records. “I saw the earth from angles God never meant anyone to see it from.”

After, “I hopped out and swaggered a little to meet my waiting colleagues. ‘Boy, it was wonderful,’ I said, ‘nothing like it. Oh what fun. I can’t wait to go up again.’”

Training Pilot Bishop Airport Historic PhotoI don’t know much about Jean Barkley Hutchinson, but I do know she needed $500 to go to flight school, so she sold her 1939 Chevy Coup, her “prized possession,” nicknamed the Brown Bomber. In Independence she has no alarm clock, and so an airport mechanic drives by her window each morning at 5:40 and toots his horn. At the end of every day she feels as if she has “been digging a trench…using a shovel with a broken handle,” and once she wondered, “Why didn’t I stay back with my typewriter where I belong?”

But she learns how to take off. She learns how to “shoot” landings. “We had to pinch ourselves to make sure it was true,” she writes. “One day Janet walked into my room and sat down and said, ‘Well, I’ve never lived like this before. It’s incredible.”

Hutchinson writes reams of pages. She writes about her first time flying solo and the instructor who “yelled himself voiceless” to get her there. She writes what it is to be a woman commanding an airplane in 1943. “I tilted the wings and looked down. I took my hands and feet off the controls and stretched. I patted the empty seat next to me…I was carried away with the sense of freedom and power.”

The shadow text, unwritten in Hutchinson’s journal, is the reason she has her job. While Hutchinson learns to fly, a few miles from the airport, more than ten thousand Japanese and Japanese Americans are held at the Manzanar internment camp. Hutchinson must look down from the sky to see the guard towers and the barrack roofs.

All summer long, the pilots-in-training nearly kill themselves and their instructors. They are wracked with nerves. They throw one another into a canal to celebrate first solos. They laugh. They sob. Hutchinson remembers blanking on how to take off: “I just headed for the trees. They kept coming closer and closer and I just sat and waited.”

She is sobbing and laughing and soaring through the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the sinking of John F. Kennedy’s PT boat and the Battle of Kursk and the allied invasion of Italy and Mussolini’s removal from power. And what else can she do? Like a globe full of little people living in wartime, in plague time, in days of unease, she’s expected to rise every morning with the beep of the mechanic’s horn and go to work.

Hutchinson learns to read tachometer, altimeter, air speed. She learns to come down. “Cut your motor at 600 ft., first turn over the courthouse, last turn over the clump of trees, and then straight glide in.” She can’t afford to pause and look too far beyond her runway. If she did, she might not shoot her landing.

Thanks to the Eastern California Museum for access to Jean Barkley Hutchinson’s journal and photos.

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