Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Faribault renames airport honoring WASP Liz Wall Strohfus, who proved that girls can fly June 22, 2017

SHE WAS AN AVIATION PIONEER for women, an advocate for female veterans and an inspiration to many. And Saturday afternoon, local celebrity Elizabeth “Betty Wall” Strohfus will be posthumously honored with renaming and dedication of the Faribault Municipal Airport as Liz Wall Strohfus Field. She died in March 2016 at the age of 96.

 

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

 

Strohfus served as a Women’s Air Force Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II. In that job, she trained infantry gunners for battle, taught instrument flying to male cadets and ferried warbirds around the U.S. After her service, she lobbied and succeeded in getting active military duty status for WASPs and burial rights for these service women at Arlington National Cemetery. She is best known perhaps, though, for her inspirational talks primarily to students in 31 states over nearly three decades.

Commercial pilot Cheri Rohlfing, who was inspired by Strohfus, will be among several speakers addressing attendees during a 2 p.m. program at the Faribault airport. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, with whom Strohfus worked on WASP veterans’ issues, will speak first. Others scheduled to talk are Strohfus’ son Art Roberts and Terry Baker, who worked on restoring a BT-13 like the one Strohfus piloted. That plane will be on-site at Saturday’s 1 – 4 p.m. event. Eventually the bomber will find a permanent home at the National WASP Museum at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where Strohfus trained.

 

Faribault based Brushwork Signs designed and created this sign gracing the newly-renamed Faribault airport. Image is courtesy of Brushwork Signs.

 

The Faribault American Association of University Women, prompted by retired educator Gloria Olson, initiated renaming of the airport and has been planning Saturday’s tribute. “It fits our (AAUW’s) mission—recognition and support of women and girls, along with education of women and girls, which was important to Liz as well,” Olson wrote in an email.

In addition to the airport renaming and placement of new signage honoring Strohfus, a sculpture by renowned Faribault woodcarver Ivan Whillock has been completed just in time for the June 24 dedication. It will hang in the airport lobby.

Family activities and music are also part of Saturday’s celebration along with a display—including memorabilia, photos, posters and a continuously running video telling Strohfus’ story. After the airport event, the Village Theater in historic downtown Faribault will feature two free showings (at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.) of local filmmaker Steve Cloutier’s documentary, “Betty Wall: Girls Don’t Fly.”

Strohfus proved she could fly, joining the Faribault Sky Club and becoming the first woman to solo fly at the Faribault airport in 1942. She acquired a bank loan to join the club by putting her bike up as collateral.

Such tenacity impresses me as do this aviator’s numerous accomplishments. Among her many awards are two Congressional Medals of Honor and induction into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

 

Liz Wall Strohfus. Photo courtesy of Gloria Olson.

 

AAUW member Olson shared the importance of renaming the local airport in honor of Strohfus for “all her military accomplishments, what she did for women veterans, and women and girls in general, inspiring youth to follow their dreams, all her honors, Faribault icon, everyone’s friend, and…first local site of any significance honoring a woman.”

Strohfus will receive one more posthumous honor. The Faribault City Council recently passed a resolution designating June 24 as Liz Wall Strohfus Day in the city of Faribault.

Memorabilia donated by Strohfus’ son will be added to an exhibit on the aviator already in place at the Rice County Historical Society.

For a woman who was once told by a local banker that “girls don’t fly,” all these tributes prove she could. And she did. And on Saturday, Strohfus will be recognized in her hometown for her many accomplishments in the field of aviation.

FYI: Northfield-based KYMN radio (95.1 FM) will rebroadcast an interview with Strohfus at 10 a.m. Friday. The interview with radio personality Wayne Eddy originally aired on May 30, 2014.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos are courtesy of Brushwork Signs and of Gloria Olson

 

Faribault renames its airport in honor of WASP, Elizabeth Wall Strohfus March 4, 2017

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

ELIZABETH WALL STROHFUS traveled the country for nearly 30 years sharing her story of flying fighters and bombers for the U.S. military during World War II.

She served as a parade grand marshal, participated in panel discussions, talked at schools, visited museums, gave countless interviews. But not until now has she been permanently honored and recognized in her hometown of Faribault. This week the City Council approved a resolution renaming the municipal airport as The Faribault Municipal Airport—Liz Wall Strohfus Field. That resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration for final approval.

What an honor for a woman who faced many challenges (simply for being a woman) before and after becoming a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. She will be the first WASP to have an airport named after her.

That’s quite an accomplishment for Strohfus, who convinced a local banker to lend her $100 to join The Sky Club at the Faribault airport. The then 22-year-old used her bike as collateral and subsequently proved to the “women don’t fly” banker that he was wrong. She could fly. And fly she did, training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, with the first class of WASPs to earn their wings. Strohfus went on to train infantry gunners for battle, teach instrument flying to male cadets and ferry B-17 and AT-6 warbirds around the country.

But when the war ended, the WASPS received no recognition for their service to country. Eventually Strohfus, after retiring as an air traffic controller in the late 1980s, began efforts to correct that. She traveled the country sharing WASP stories in her signature down-to-earth storytelling style. She successfully lobbied for the WASPs to be recognized as active military duty and for burial honors at Arlington National Cemetery. This strong and determined pilot also received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

Yet, despite all the accolades, all the efforts, Liz Stohfus valued one thing above all. “Her favorite thing to do was to encourage kids,” son Art Roberts revealed at the City Council meeting. His mother repeated that in the many interviews she gave, telling youth that, “The sky is not the limit.” They could, like her, do anything.

Elizabeth “Betty” Strohfus Wall died on March 6, 2016, at the age of 96. Although she did not live long enough to see her hometown airport named after her, her legacy will live on in Faribault. In addition to new signage naming Liz Wall Strohfus Field, renowned local woodcarver Ivan Whillock is creating a woodcarving to be placed inside the airport. And Roberts will be donating items belonging to his mother.

It’s a wonderful thing my community, led by the American Association of University Women—Faribault Branch, is doing in honor of Strohfus. She embodies a strong American woman who always believed she could fly.

FYI: To view an interview with Liz Strohfus, check out Faribault Community Television and its 1855—Faribault History documentary series produced by local high school students Logan Ledman and Samuel Temple. This is top-quality professional. Click here.

Of additional interest is this story from the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Click here.

Click here to read a story about how Strohfus and other WASPs were honored at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, via a theatrical production.

Learn more about that play, “Censored on Final Approach” by Phylis Ravel, by clicking here. Perhaps a Faribault-based theatre company or the History Theatre in St. Paul could consider performing that play.

Finally, click here to learn more about the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas. What an honor this would be to Strohfus’ memory to bring the museum’s traveling exhibit, “The WASP: Untold Story, a Photographic Exhibit,” to Faribault.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A crop dusting photo essay August 27, 2013

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Frame 1

I’M NOT NECESSARILY a fan of the end result of crop dusting—some chemical sprayed upon a field with the residue sifting into the air and upon the earth.

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Frame 2

But watching a crop dusting plane at work does fascinate me.

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Frame 3

On a recent Saturday afternoon, while traveling Minnesota Highway 28 en route to Morris, I was entertained by a crop duster spraying a cornfield near Westport.

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Just ahead of the van in which my husband, son and I were traveling, the plane skimmed across the highway before completing a sharp turn to pass back over the roadway and across acres of corn.

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Frame 7: How low do you think this plane is flying?

I am no aviation expert, but it seems to me that special skills and a dose of daredevil courage are required to fly a crop duster.

Frame 8: Just the tip of the plane visible above the cornfield.

Frame 8: Just the tail and wings of the plane visible above the cornfield.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Same day, same highway 50 miles apart: Plane lands, cattle truck crashes January 7, 2012

KNOWN AS A NOTORIOUSLY DANGEROUS roadway along some stretches, U.S. Highway 14 in southern Minnesota Thursday grabbed headlines again with two separate crashes about 50 miles and 12 hours apart. One involved a cattle truck, the other a small plane.

This time though, only cattle, not people, died.

I know this road, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, well as it’s the route my family travels back to my native southwestern Minnesota.

I shot this image along U.S. Highway 14 east of Lamberton several weeks ago.

Around midnight Thursday, January 5, a semi truck pulling a cattle trailer left Highway 14 just east of the Nicollet County Road 37 intersection near New Ulm and rolled onto its side in the ditch, according to news reports. The driver suffered only minor injuries, but some of the 35 cattle were killed in the crash or had to be euthanized.

About 50 miles west and some 12 hours earlier, Highway 14 east of Revere in Redwood County became a runway for a Lakeville pilot who was forced to make an emergency landing, according to news sources. He managed to land his plane on the road before it went into a ditch and flipped.

As in the cattle truck accident, the pilot escaped with only minor injuries.

When I first heard and read about these accidents, I was simply thankful that the truck driver and pilot survived. I was thankful, too, that others traveling along Highway 14 were not involved.

Then I started wondering exactly how many vehicles travel along these sections of Highway 14 each day and how those counts and the timing and locations of the incidents affected the outcomes.

According to the most recent statistics I could find from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Transportation Data and Analysis, the 2009 annual average daily traffic count was 8,000 for the Highway 14 area where the cattle truck crashed.

See how the outcome could have been so much different had this occurred during peak daylight travel hours? Anyone who’s driven Highway 14 between New Ulm and Mankato realizes just how unsafe this narrow, arterial road is with its heavy traffic, county and other roads intersecting the highway and few opportunities to safely pass.

Fortunately, 50 miles west, the traffic count drops considerably as the population decreases and the land stretches flat and wide into acres of fields punctuated by farm sites and small towns.

Near Revere, where the pilot landed his plane on Highway 14 before noon on Thursday, MnDOT lists the 2007 annual average daily traffic count as 1,550. Odds of putting a plane down without hitting a vehicle were definitely in the pilot’s favor.

And given trees are sparse on the prairie, luck was in the aviator’s favor there, too.

Fortunately, the emergency landing also occurred outside of Revere, in the 3.5 miles between the town of 100 residents and Highwater Ethanol and not too dangerously close to either. The ethanol plant, of which my middle brother is the CEO/GM, is situated along Highway 14 between the crash site and Lamberton.

Viewing a 1994 plat of the area, I spotted a landing strip just to the north and east of Revere. I could not verify whether that still exists and it really doesn’t matter given the pilot claims he had to make a snap decision to put his failing aircraft down Thursday on Highway 14 at a speed of 90 mph.

I’m thankful that on January 5, 2012, U.S. Highway 14 in southern Minnesota didn’t rack up more fatal statistics. It’s already had too many.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribault’s famous (formerly forgotten) flier May 4, 2011

LAST WEEK DALE “RED” JACKSON joined aviators Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, Charles Lindbergh and some 150 others in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

If you’re like me, you are surprised to hear that our state has a hall of fame for aviators. I only recently learned that when Jackson was about to be inducted.

So who are Jackson and Strohfus and what qualifies them for an aviation honor?

They are two famous aviators with roots in my community of Faribault. Strohfus, who was inducted into the hall of fame in 2000, was a member of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots during World War II. She taught instrument flying to male cadets and later ferried B-17 and AT-6 warbirds around the country, according to the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame website. Today she is a noted speaker.

As  for Jackson, he was a stunt pilot and barnstormer during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In July 1929, Jackson and St. Louis flyer Forrest O’Brine circled the city of St. Louis for some 420 hours, refueling 48 times in flight. That broke an aerial endurance record. Later they remained in flight for 647 hours (27 days), setting their second record.

On January 6, 1932, at the age of 25, Jackson was killed while stunt flying over Miami. Nicknamed the “Flying Fool,” Jackson had apparently been warned not to try stunts in the tiny Curtiss Teal amphibian he was piloting on that fateful day. As he tried to straighten the plane after a loop and dive, a wing tore off. Jackson died in the wreckage, reportedly with one hand hooked into the ripcord of his parachute.

When Jackson’s body arrived in Faribault by train from St. Louis, where an earlier memorial service had been held, an estimated 3,000 people gathered at the Rock Island Depot, according to a January 11, 1932, article in The Faribault Daily News.

Jackson is the single word on a tombstone marking the Jackson family graves in Section K, Lot 61, at Maple Lawn Cemetery in Faribault.

I nearly missed this in-ground marker for Dale Jackson, which lies about 12 feet from the family gravestone. I had to pull back the grass to reveal his first name and middle initial.

Dale Jackson's marker lies flush to the ground about a dozen feet from the Jackson family marker, between two cedar trees. I had expected a more opulent and noticeable gravesite.

Dale Jackson is buried here along with his parents, Henry and Josephine, and his wife, Selma. The Jackson family headstone stands between the two cedar trees to the right in this photo.

Given Jackson’s national and international notoriety in the aviation world, I wondered why I had never heard of him before last week. He was born in Iowa, moved here with his family and graduated from Faribault High School.  Faribault has not, as far as I am aware, shone the spotlight on this daring stunt pilot since his barnstorming days and untimely, sudden death.

Why?

I think he would be worthy of more than a marker, half covered with grass, in Maple Lawn Cemetery. I’m thinking tourism possibilities here.

For now, his Minnesota remembrance comes via that Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame induction last weekend. That’s a good start.

I wondered where this museum of sorts is located. After substantial googling, I discovered that an actual museum doesn’t exist. Rather the hall of fame consists of plaques honoring the inductees. Those hang in a secure section of the Duluth International Airport in an area inaccessible to the general public. Huh?

But that’s not all. Once a terminal renovation is completed at the Duluth airport in 2012, the plaques will need to be moved.

The Albert Lea City Council, in a motion passed in late January, has expressed an interest in bringing the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame to its community. No commitment. Just an interest right now.

In the meantime, if you want to check out aviators like Faribault’s Flying Fool, Dale “Red” Jackson, who have made it into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, you best do that online or visit Maple Lawn Cemetery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling