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Aviator Elaine McCalley - A Family Thing
by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jeremy Mosier
February 24, 2018

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Parents pass many things to their children: facial features, attitudes, culture and interests. With a solid foundation, a passion that takes root in one generation will last, generation after generation.

However, all it takes is one moment for that passion to take root. For Elaine McCalley, that moment occurred almost exactly 90 years ago.

Elaine McCalley in front of an aircraft April 10, 2017, at Mountain Home municipal airport. She was inducted into the Idaho Aviation Hall of Fame. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Jeremy L. Mosier)
Elaine McCalley in front of an aircraft April 10, 2017, at Mountain Home municipal airport. She was inducted into the Idaho Aviation Hall of Fame. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Jeremy L. Mosier)

“I was about 8 years old when [Charles] Lindbergh flew across the ocean from New York to Paris solo,” Elaine said. “I thought he was such a brave man.”

Lindbergh served as a pilot in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Mail Service. At the age of 25, he heard the announcement of a $25,000 prize for the first person who flew nonstop from New York to Paris. On May 21, 1927, at 7:52 a.m., Lindbergh took off in his custom plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, from a muddy airstrip in Long Island, New York, barely clearing the telephone wires at the end of the runway because of the 450 gallons of fuel in his tank. 33 hours, 30 minutes and 29.8 seconds later, he landed in Paris. Lindbergh had not slept in 55 hours.

This flight sparked something in young Elaine, and at that moment, she knew she wanted to learn more. She began by reading about the pilots in World War I.

“I was interested in reading books about the fighter pilots that were flying in their [German aircraft] against the Germans, and so I use to read a lot of those stories,” she carried on with a smile. “They were paperback of course.”

In 1934, she finally had a chance to do what she had always dreamed about, ride in her first aircraft. After talking her parents into it, they took her to the airport in Gooding, Idaho, where a fleet of Barnstormer aircraft were taking people for rides. Although she did not ride in one of the Barnstormers that day, she was able to ride in a Pitcairn Autogyro.

“I was hooked — the freedom, the exhilaration, being up there in the air and seeing the country from a different perspective was just unimaginable,” Elaine said. “So, from then on, I wanted to learn to fly.”

Although her parents were a bit apprehensive to the idea of her getting her pilot’s license, they never held her from it. She said that they would back her 100 percent in whatever she was interested in and let her find out for herself if it wasn’t for her.

A few years later, in 1938, she took a trip to the Boise Airport with her first check in hand she asked how much for flying lessons. They told her $7.50, without hesitation she said, “When do I start?”

She began her pilot training at the downtown airport, then located where Boise State University is now between Broadway and Capital Boulevard, until crews started constructing Gowen Field in 1939.

Flying at the airport downtown had its own set of dangers: no runway lights, no control tower and no radios.

“You use your eyesight and keep your head on your shoulders so you don’t run into trouble. It was really fun,” Elaine explained.

At that time, they used beacons that would flash at night and concrete arrows spaced every few miles to let them know they were heading in the right direction for their destination.

“I was flying in the horse and buggy days,” she said with a laugh as she shuffled through her photos.

In 1939 she received her private pilot’s license, and who better to be her first passenger than her mother. Mike Berriochoa, Elaine’s son, recalled the story of his mother taking his grandmother up for her first passenger flight.

“While she trusted my mother as a pilot, my grandmother was not comfortable with the thought of flying,” he said. “She overcame her discomfort, however, but only allowed mom to make one trip around the pattern.”

“I could see she was tense, she looked around and she said, ‘can't we just go back and land,’” Elaine said with a chuckle.

A few short years later, Elaine went on to become the first female commercial pilot in Idaho, and was later recognized and admitted into the Boise Aviation Hall of Fame in 1999 for that distinction.

She also served as a secretary for the Idaho Pilots Association. While there, she led a group of volunteers to put on Idaho’s first air show in June of 1940 at the Boise airport.

Although she did not fly in the airshow, she worked heavily behind the scenes in the planning process, from scheduling to aircraft participation.

She explained that they planned for the big entertainment to be a parachute jump by Eddie Dunn.

“He was a distributor for an auto company in Boise and they talked him into it,” she said. “He had never been up and done anything like that before.”

To prepare him for the jump they got him used to heights.

First step, climb to the top of a step ladder.

Second step, climb to the top of Table Rock in Boise.

Third step, jump from an aircraft.

Just like a seasoned professional, he jumped, came soaring in and landed right in front of the crowd – just as they had planned.

“We always laughed at that,” she recalled with a grin. “He never jumped and parachuted before, and I think we still charged him 25 cents to come into the airshow.”

The aircraft hosted at the show were all civilian — Piper Cubs, Taylorcrafts, Stearmons and open-cockpit biplanes — they performed some stunt flying, but mostly consisted of contests: bomb dropping contests and spot landing.

Changes in airshows from then to now have been drastic, especially with military demonstration teams like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

“I think probably crowd control has improved and they are getting more aviation pilots or acrobatic pilots,” she said. “They are all just great!”

Just a few years after the airshow, she would start a new chapter of her life. She would marry a fellow flight instructor in 1943.

After getting married she continued flying and became active in the Northwest Women’s Pilots Association.

“We had chapters in Seattle and Spokane,” Elaine said. “We just encouraged women to fly.”

Living in Idaho, it only made sense to expand more locally, so she started a chapter in Pocatello. She also became president of the Associated Women Pilots, Boise Hangar, later known as the 99s.

“She, along with other women pilots, would often fly out of Boise to other communities in the Northwest to help establish women pilot associations,” Mike said. “That says a lot about her passion for flight.”

One could say it was inevitable that her passion would pass on to her son.

“My mother’s passion for flying influenced me significantly, because she talked a lot about flying when I was young,” Mike said. “She talked about how it felt when the wings grabbed the air and lifted her off the ground, and how open cockpit flying was the epitome of freedom.”

Mike recalled riding in the backseat with his sister while his parents were flying. Although his father was in the pilot’s seat, he would notice his mom doing the majority of the flying. Experiencing his parents' passion for flying and then following in their footsteps lead him to do the same with his children.

“Carrying on the legacy makes me proud and even prouder knowing I have passed that legacy on to my youngest son, Dan, who has served as a pilot in the United States Army,” he said. “If aviation is in our blood then we bleed av-gas.”

Mike continues today to carry on the legacy, but in a different way.

“He has been narrating airshows for the last 35 years now,” Elaine said. “All over the northwest — here at Gowen Field, Tacoma, California, Canada and two at Mountain Home Air Force Base.”

Mike will come back to Idaho for another narrating opportunity — when Gowen Field hosts its show “Gowen Thunder,” in October. Elaine said she's looking forward to hearing her son announce the airshow, and possibly seeing an acrobatic pilot friend of hers.

Despite her hall of fame induction, Elaine stays modest and divulged the key to her success.

“What we did is really nothing compared to what the women are doing now,” she said. “Follow your dream. Yep, follow your dream.”

By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jeremy Mosier
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2018

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