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Interview with Anna E. Pennington, May 28, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Anna E. Pennington, May 28, 2003
May 28, 2003
The history of New Hanover County Aviation from its beginning as Pennington Flying Service.
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Interviewee: Pennington, Anna E. Interviewer: Parnell, Jerry / Kaylor, Beth Date of Interview: 5/28/2003 Series: SENC Notables Length 44 minutes

Parnell: Today is May 28, 2003 at UNCW Randall Library. We're with Anna Pennington and we're going to talk about loacal aviation. Anna, let's start with I just want to ask you when did you come to Wilmington?

Pennington: I came to Wilmington in 1923 when my family came from Holland where I was born.

Parnell: And why did ya'll come over?

Pennington: I had to come over because of papa's health. He had to come to a warm, sunny climate. His brother in Holland knew the Tinga family in Holland. There's a Tinga Nursery here still operating and he contacted Mr. Tinga here. Mr. Tinga sponsored my father to come over and he worked for Mr. Tinga for a time and that's how we came to Wilmington.

Kaylor: And ya'll lived out near the airport, the northern part of the county. And you got interested in flying how?

Pennington: I can't remember a time in my life that I have not been fascinated by airplanes. Little boys are supposed to be that way, but I was too. My brother and I would take scraps of lumber at the farm and build airplanes. They never flew of course. We didn't know anything about aeronautics, but I was always fascinated by airplanes and flying. When my father bought this particular farm in 1936, there I was just a couple a hundred yards from the airport so I was in heaven. Right by the airplanes. But I was too shy to go over there. I'd ride my bicycle by, you know, and see the airplanes and I was too shy really to stop.

Parnell: How large was the airport back then?

Pennington: It was a very small field, a grass field of, oh, maybe 60 or 70 acres at that time. No pavement, just a hangar and a small office building.

Parnell: What was out there, just Pennington Flying Service?

Pennington: Yes, at that time. Of course over the years, there've been various operators there. When the airport was opened in 1927, the building was started in 1927 and it was dedicated in 1928. My brother-in-law, Warren Pennington came down from Rocky Mount in 1929 and opened Coastal Planes Airways. And over the years he was a partner with different people. In the mid-30's, with the Depression he was not able to continue operating and support a family. My husband was single and living at home so my husband had learned to fly with him and worked with him. So he turned the business over to my husband. My husband named it Sea Level Airways. In 1939 Warren came back, partnered with him and they called it Pennington Flying Service then.

Parnell: How many people took flying lessons back then?

Pennington: Oh, that's hard to know.

Parnell: Was it very popular?

Pennington: It was not as popular as it is today. It was a sport and it was Depression years so people didn't have a lot of money to learn to fly back then, but there were a few people who learned to fly.

Parnell: Well, how did you learn? What got you interested in flying lessons?

Pennington: Well like I said, I'd always been fascinated by airplanes. A boy I was dating was learning to fly and he asked me one day if I'd like to go flying and I said oh yes. But he couldn't take me because he was just a student, you had to have a private license to take passengers up. So he took me over to the airport and this cute little fellow, Skinny Pennington, had an airplane there, he took me up. I was smitten by flying and I was smitten by him too (laughter). That's how I got started and I was 15 at the time. You had to be 16 to solo and I got flying lessons for my 16th birthday. That was the day after Christmas, was my birthday, and in June of the next year, '39, I soloed. And then, in October of 1941, I earned my private pilot license.

Parnell: You told me earlier, you were the fourth person to solo.

Pennington: The fourth girl.

Parnell: And the second one to get your license.

Pennington: The second one to get my license, right.

Parnell: Did you do anything with aviation, did you fly any as a job?

Pennington: No, no it was strictly for pleasure. Strictly for pleasure for me.

Parnell: Did you know the other ladies who were flying at the time in Wilmington?

Pennington: Oh yes. Yeah. Laverne Reader and I were the best of friends, the best of friends, for about 60 years until her death in 1999.

Kaylor: Did you . . . I've been reading a lot recently about women in flight early. With sort of the animosity from men with women flying, did you see any of that here in Wilmington?

Pennington: I didn't and Laverne was accepted. We were kind of like one of the guys (laughter). A couple of the guys, you know. I never noticed it, no. I heard of resentment other places, but we never experienced it.

Parnell: Well after you got your pilot's license and you and Skinny got married and what did you all do then?

Pennington: Well we got married, I think I told you earlier. The Air Corps took over the airport just a couple of days after Pearl Harbor and private flying was grounded so he was out of work so to speak. And he saw an article in the paper that the War Department was looking for experienced civilian pilots to ferry airplanes the military airplanes for the Army and that freed the military trained pilots to go fight. So he applied for that and went to Bolling Field, Washington, took a flight test, passed it and was accepted and stationed in Baltimore, Maryland. They had them to fly as civilians for three months. Kept them three months and then commissioned them after that. He was to be commissioned and to be sent to Long Beach, California. I wasn't about to let that cute little Army Air Corps pilot to go to Long Beach, California right near Hollywood without me so I married him and went with him (laughter).

And he . . .six months he was stationed there. He ferried any number of airplanes, P-38's to B-24's to A-24's to A-28's, a whole lot of various airplanes. They delivered all over the country. Then in October of that year he was transferred to St. Joseph, Missouri to an operational training unit. He was in the Air Transport Command. They had a training base there for training pilots to fly in the Air Transport Command. They didn't train them really, they came out of the schools and some were civilian pilots and some of the women pilots came for instrument ratings and to be checked out in multi-engine airplanes.

He did that until January of '45 when he was sent overseas. He was sent to India and flew the hump, the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. He flew that for a month and then was transferred to China and was the training officer of the China wing of the Air Transport Command. In that capacity, he flew all over China. He got as far down as Hanoi even. And earned an air medal and a bronze star.

When the war was over, he came home. I picked him up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina up at Fayetteville December 31 of 1945. He was back home again. His brother in the meantime had restarted Pennington Flying Service at a little airstrip near Carolina Beach. So he joined his brother and they started up again.

Parnell: When they had to leave the airport and they moved down to Carolina Beach, how did they find the land down there? Was it already laid out? Was anybody else . . .

Pennington: They had laid that out in about 1940, used it in the summer time for just barnstorming passenger hopping. They had laid it out.

Parnell: Oh okay, they already knew about it. Okay.

Pennington: Oh yes. They had laid that out in 1940 and used it for a couple of years, a couple of summers, for barnstorming passenger hopping and so it was just a matter of going back to the same place.

Parnell: What did they do down there besides flying lessons?

Pennington: Oh they would take passenger rides and then there was a time when they delivered newspapers for the Star News up in Whiteville and Columbus County and that area. When they had floods up there in 1945, they flew the photographers over to the flood area and flew officials to look over the flood situation. Anything that came up, but mainly it was just students and passenger rides at that time.

Parnell: Any cargo?

Pennington: Oh no.

Parnell: Nothing like that at that time.

Pennington: The strip was too small for anything but just the little white airplanes. Although an Army A-20 tried to have an emergency landing there in early 1945 and it crashed and killed the pilot. They saw the strip and I guess it was any port in a storm, you know. The strip was just too small for that particular airplane.

Parnell: Around sometime during that time the first commercial flight came into Wilmington. Tell us about that.

Pennington: National Airlines started here in December of 1945. Now National was one of five airlines that had applied to make stops in Wilmington before World War II. Of course when the Army took over the airport, and all civilian flying was banned here. It was put on hold, but National was eventually awarded the route. They had a route from New York to Florida already in progress and they were awarded to stop in Wilmington and started service in December 1945. Wilmington's first commercial airline before that was in August of 1945. The Army Air Corps still had the airport so they couldn't operate off of it then. Southeast Airlines that was started by the Teague brothers, I think they were from Statesville, with war surplus, bamboo bomber they called it and a Cessna, a twin Cessna, five passenger, five place twin Cessna they started operations at the Carolina Beach airstrip. It just an intrust state airline. They went from here to Asheville with intermediate stops. They began service here in August of 1945.

Parnell: And how long did they continue?

Pennington: They continued until about 1947, I think. They moved up to the big airport of course after the Army moved out and commercial flying was allowed there. They moved up to the big airport, but they didn't make it. They were applying for the routes that Piedmont Airlines got. There were four airlines fighting for those routes from Wilmington to the west. Southeast was one of those applying, but they didn't get the route of course so they folded their wings. Piedmont got the contract.

Parnell: When did y'all move back out to the airplane?

Pennington: In April of 1946. You would think we could have moved right away, but it's hard to explain, you know, with the government releasing things and more assets administration, owning things. It took a long time for the red tape to be untangled so we could move.

Parnell: During the war, were there any restrictions on ya'll flying down at Carolina Beach?

Pennington: Oh yes.

Parnell: Was gasoline hard to come by?

Pennington: Oh sure and eventually it was so restricted, that you couldn't fly anymore so Warren sold the airplanes and he went to work as the pilot for a big firm in Charlotte, a construction firm that was building military bases all over the state, Granis, Thegins, McDevitt and Streetor ?? I think the name of the firm was and he flew all over the state in that capacity. Then when construction of course slowed down, he wanted to come back here and he came back and started the little strip at Carolina Beach again in 1945.

Parnell: Well, after the war, ya'll moved back out to the airport with Pennington Flying Service and what did ya'll do then?

Pennington: Oh, a little bit of everything (laughter). When Piedmont Airlines started, we did their maintenance. They had one flight a day in and out of here and it wasn't worth their while having mechanics on hand so we had mechanics so we did their maintenance, gassed them up and cleaned up the airplanes and prepared them to go out again, did any repairs. National Airlines was coming through here. And at that time, the station agent had to sell the tickets and put the baggage on the airplane and gas the airplane and do all of that. So we worked a deal with them that for x pennies a gallon that we would gas the airplanes and it would relieve the station agent, give him more time. So we did that. We did all kind of flying. We started fish spotting, fisheries in Southport contacted us about doing fish spotting. The men hating fishing you know. We did that and a power line patrol. We did a lot of that for Carolina Power and Light Company.

In fact after hurricane Hazel passed by, when the wind was still blowing, they called and said we needed a line checked. In power line patrol, you flew out over like the swamps and desolate areas where their trucks couldn't get to patrol and find breaks in the lines. My husband said the sign, the numbers on the poles were about 3 inches high so you had to fly kind of low and slow to read them when you found a break.

Right after hurricane Hazel, they opened hangar doors and the wind was pretty strong, and he managed to just take off just like that. He found the break pretty quickly, but the wind was too strong to land so he flew up and down the beaches and was the first one to see all the devastation after hurricane Hazel. He waited 'til the wind died down enough that he could land. Of course he radioed in told Carolina Power and Light where the breaks were. But he couldn't land for a while, but he saw all the devestation.

Parnell: And how long were y'all out at the airport, Pennington?

Pennington: He sold out the business in 1966. So, it was from 1946 to 1966 that we were there.

Parnell: Did he stay involved in aviation after that or not?

Pennington: He kept an airplane for a while, but didn't use it enough to make it worthwhile so he sold that and then kept involved, interested, you know, but not active, not active. In fact when the Azalea Festival started and they started having an air show with the Azalea Festival, he was always in charge of the air show and joined different aviation organizations and kept his interest up that way, but not active.

Parnell: When you said he went up and down after Hazel, he didn't by any chance have photos of that, did he?

Pennington: No, no (laughter). He couldn't have taken them anyway if he had a camera because it was so rough. It was all he could do to control the airplane.

Parnell: It seemed one time you wrote a column in the paper too. What was that about?

Pennington: Yes, well that was back in 1939, we had a local organization called the Wilmington Aero Club. All the aviation enthusiasts joined it and we did different things like we studied the requirements to get your private license. You had to study rules and regulations. You had to study meteorology, had to study navigation and pass a written test. So among other things, we did, we studied that and we tried to promote aviation in Wilmington. Somebody, a local person had written a column, an aviation column a year or so before, didn't last long. And the Aero Club decided that we should have an aviation column to stimulate interest in aviation. For some reason, they said you're it (laughter, points to camera). I was just out of high school. I knew nothing about writing or anything, but I wrote it until the war started. I got a little interest in it I think.

Parnell: Was it a weekly column?

Pennington: Yes, weekly. Sometimes it was kind of rough to write because the weather you know, like we've had, bad all week long and even the birds would be walking, the weather was so bad, you know. There was no activity, nothing to write about and you had to stretch your brain [laughter] to come up with something, but I did, I enjoyed it.

Parnell: Did you just write about local events or . . .

Pennington: Local and anything of interest in the state or any national thing, I might comment on it depending on what was happening. It was quite an experience.

Kaylor: How much flying were you doing during these years?

Pennington: Well I didn't do a whole lot. It was just for me, for pleasure. I never did it commercially. It was just for pleasure. So, just as I enjoyed it.

Parnell: What else was going on in Wilmington aviation wise around that time? Who else was involved? What were they doing?

Pennington: Well now we spoke about the airport at Seagate. There was a little airport there and that didn't last until about 1948. I think it closed down about that time. In 1945, a former Wilmingtonian, Carl Dunn, opened an airport about where the Independence Mall is now, in that area. And he called it Wilmington Air Park. He was kind of fashioning it after the . . . oh there was a group in New York in Long Island, Aviation Country Club. You would read about it in the old aviation magazines. The Vanderbilts and all of those you know, were members of that and they would go off for flights for lunch somewhere, that type of thing. He kind of fashioned it after that. But of course there wasn't enough of that activity in Wilmington so he had to have students and passenger rides to make a living that way, and that strip stayed. Carl was killed in a crash, an airplane crash and his two brothers were working with him, Murdock and Bill continued the business and then eventually it closed sometime in the . . . I can't remember now when it closed, but it didn't last.

Parnell: Are there any other airstrips around other than Audubon and Seagate and that one?

Pennington: No, now there is a strip, Pilot Ridge, what they call an aviation community. It's a paved strip down on the Carolina Beach Road. And there are houses along that strip and the people keep their airplanes in hangars. A lot of them are attached to the house. That's been there for a number of years. And then there's a little airstrip in Burgaw, near Burgaw, Stag Park Air Park. That a group of experimental aircraft association has their headquarters you might say there. They had been on the local airport until the little hangar was torn down and they moved up there. I happen to be the secretary of that outfit (laughter) so I had to put a plug in for it. But as far as in New Hanover County, we've spoken of all of them.

Parnell: This is something I wanted to ask you about too. When you interviewed with Sam Bissette, he asked you about one of Skinny's paintings on the wall. (laughter) What is that about?

Pennington: It wasn't a painting, that's misleading. When they would repair airplanes, originally they just painted with a brush. Then they got to where they could afford to buy a spray gun. So he was playing with a spray gun and he wrote his name on the back of a hangar, very pretty script you know (laughter). And it stayed there for years.

Parnell: (Laughter) Okay, that's what it was. Okay, I wondered if he was also an artist.

Pennington: No, I think they had joked about that and that's the reason Sam mentioned that.

Parnell: Who were some other people that were involved in early aviation? You mentioned Carl Dunn and Warren of course.

Pennington: Well it was Albert and Kenneth Wooten, brothers. In fact they and another friend bought an airplane together and called themselves Wooten Betts Flying Service. Bill Betts was the other . . . in fact that's the picture with Margaret Betesky, that's the airplane she's standing in front of. She learned to fly on that airplane. They had it for a few years. Homer Barnes was one of the old pilots. He had a number of airplanes over the years. Curtis Robbins, that far back, you know. And let's see, of the old timers . . . I go blank right now.

Parnell: In this photo, there's another picture here of the Atlantic School of Aviation.

Pennington: Right, that was the black school.

Parnell: African American, right?

Pennington: Local black businessmen, lawyers and doctors set that up. And the instructor had been a Tuskegee airman, Ed Gibbs, was his name, very nice person, very nice fellow. They were teaching pilots to fly, the black pilots to fly under the GI Bill. It didn't last a long time.

Parnell: Was it at the Sea Breeze?

Pennington: Right, it was in the little hangar that we had before the war. That hangar had been moved close to where the big terminal is now. And they operated out of that.

Parnell: Was there a lot of interaction between the black and white pilots at that time?

Pennington: Well, not a lot. We had had an occasional black student over the years. It wasn't that black students had no chance to learn to fly, but we had had an occasional black student, but at that time it wasn't the mingling like it is today. But he was a very nice person and we knew him well.

Parnell: The other people involved in that were Robert and Wade Chestnut.

Pennington: Yes.

Parnell: Did they all fly too or just--?

Pennington: Yes, it's my understanding they did too. They learned, I don't think they flew commercially. I think Ed Gibbs, the instructor, was the only one that was, you know, licensed commercially.

Parnell: Skinny took pictures of Camp Davis that they were building.

Pennington: Right, right.

Parnell: Did he do that for the Army, the Marines?

Pennington: Yes, he was contacted to take aerial photographs. They started when the place was still just a bare swamp and about every two weeks I think it was, he would fly over and photograph the progress going on until the base was completed. And they also did something else too with Camp Davis. Of course that was an antiaircraft training base so they had a contract with the government to fly to act as targets for the guys. In the daytime, Skinny would fly and they would fly up and down the Sears landing area and the gunners would learn to aim the guns on the airplane. They had had no practice experience at all and they would learn to aim the guns on the airplane. Then at night they flew and they aimed the search lights on them. Warren flew the night runs usually.

He said sometimes if they found him with the searchlights, it would be so bright you could read the newspaper he'd say. But sometimes they had to turn the lights on so they could fly the airplane. But they'd be flying up and down with the lights off in the airplane and of course he always wondered he hoped there wasn't an airplane in the area cause they couldn't see him you know [laughter]. That continued on until the early months of the war. Of course the Army eventually took over that practice themselves.

Parnell: Did they do anything else with the military?

Pennington: No, that was it.

Parnell: What else can you tell us, anything we haven't mentioned or anything else you can think of about early aviation? Now, I understand there used to be some barnstorming come through.

Pennington: Yes.

Parnell: Where were those at?

Pennington: Well, they would come to the airport.

Parnell: At the airport?

Pennington: Over the years, the Ford Tri motor airplane, one would come in and they'd do passenger hopping, barnstorming. That was a big deal. Cause that was a big airplane, you know, in those days, a big airplane. Then over the years some famous people in aviation have stopped in here like Douglas Corrigan, remember Douglas Wrong Way Corrigan?

Parnell: Yes.

Pennington: He flew to Ireland thinking he was going to California supposedly (laughter). He stopped in. And Alexander--Major Alexander Deseberski who was a designer of the P-47, that type airplane, came in. Clarence Chamberlain was another famous flyer the old days who stopped in. The most outstanding I think Frank Hawks in 1931. Stopped in here. Now back in those days breaking records was the big thing. Somebody would fly from New York to Chicago say, set a record and the big thing was for somebody else to come right behind him and break that record and they called them speed pilots. Frank Hawks set a record from New York to Havana and returned in one day. He stopped in Wilmington on the way down and on the way back. He left New York at about 5:00 in the morning and stopped here at about 8:00 in the morning for gas and went on down the coast of Miami and over to Havana. On the way back, he stopped in Wilmington again for service. He set a record that day. I don't remember the hours that it took him, but that was a record (laughter). So, of course somebody came along a little bit later and broke that record. That's the way it went with these speed pilots. That was the big thing then. He was quite a famous pilot of the time.

Kaylor: Okay, well thank you for coming by. Been very interesting.

Pennington: Now something does occur to me about aviation and the river.

Kaylor": Yeah, what?

Pennington: That's often overlooked because occasionally airplanes would stop, sea planes would land in the river. I showed you the picture of the sea plane floating it was built, that was used only once or twice, but the big thing in 1927 I think it was, now I'm not sure of that year, the Army sent what they called a good will tour of airplanes down into central and South America and back. Now, these were amphibious airplanes. Five airplanes and not all of them returned. Two ran together and crashed and they replaced one airplane. On the way back, they landed in the river here. They were going to land in a field from here and there was no airport to land on at that time. That was 1927. Right, cause there was no airport at the time. So they landed in the river and this was the Pan American Good Will Tour. You wonder about good will if they send Army airplanes.

Parnell: I know.

Pennington: If that's not a little saber rattling maybe (laughter). They stopped here. On another occasions, a fellow, he was a retired Army stopped in with a sea plane. He was hopping passengers at the foot of Market Street I believe it was. That was quite a thing to fly off the river. Another fellow was flying. He was flying from Sunset Park to Wilmington. He hit an air pocket he called it and fell out of the airplane 100 feet into the river (laughter). Howard Rhinehart is his name. He survived, the airplane was a little bunged up, but he survived it. There has been aviation in the river too. People always tend to think of the land, you know, the airport, but there was action in the river.

Parnell: What about on the beach?

Pennington: Well they did hop passengers off the beach at different times. The strand was real wide then and hard. They could hop passengers in the summertime, you know, when the crowds would be at the beach. They did that.

Parnell: Is it Wrightsville Beach?

Pennington: Wrightsville, yes.

Parnell: What about Carolina? Did they do anything there?

Pennington: I don't recall hearing anything about Carolina Beach, no. It could have been. I just, I have pictures and remember more hearing about Wrightsville Beach than Carolina.

Parnell: Okay, well again thank you very much and if you think of anything else you want to tell us, let us know.

Pennington: (laughter) Okay.

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