At age 99, Virginia Hadley has witnessed a lot of history, but she also made some history herself back in the 1940s.
Her husband, Clarence, had purchased a 40-horsepower J-2 airplane and joined the Bureau County chapter of the Flying Farmers. Virginia had shown a passing interest in his avocation, but never thought of becoming a pilot herself.
Then one day he asked her: “If I buy you a plane, would you learn to fly it?” She said, “I guess so,” and four days later, he brought her to Bradford Airport to see her the bright yellow Piper Vagabond two-seater.
A local flight instructor showed her the controls – two foot brakes, the throttle to control the speed, and the stick to guide it. He taxied to the end of the runway and told her to try it herself. She followed his directions and soon they were airborne.
She asked him if she was actually flying it. He told her she was doing just fine, so keep on. The instructor taught Hadley how to turn and circle the airport and then had her bring the plane down on the runway and apply the brakes. It was an exhilarating experience, one she recalls in great detail to this day. She shared her story at a gathering at Oak Crest DeKalb Area Retirement Center recently, along with her son, Bob.
The Flying Farmers organization, made up of private pilots, mostly farmers, was organized in Stillwater, Oklahoma, during World War II and spread all over the Midwest. Virginia was the first woman to become a member in that part of Illinois, and possibly the state. Her story was broadcast far and wide when she was interviewed by Don McNeill on his Chicago-based “Breakfast Club” radio show.
She flew to breakfasts around the state, to the Indianapolis 500 races, and once flew all the way to Pensacola, Florida, with 52 other Flying Farmers to visit an aircraft carrier. She said the men got to go aboard but the Navy considered women “bad luck” at the time, so she didn’t get to join her husband Clarence. She just circled the ship in a small boat.
She had a few close calls: Once, Virginia realized she was running out of gas and landed in a field near a highway. She then had to steer the plane onto the highway to reach the nearest gas station. That must have been a sight for motorists on the road that day.
Another time, she saw storm clouds ahead and landed at a small rural airport where they whisked the plane into a hangar just before it began to hail and a funnel cloud was spotted in the area.
Then there was the time a group of flying farmers transported boxes of bandages for troops from Peoria to Meigs Field in Chicago. As the war went on, the government decided small planes were a threat to military installations. Since their farm was only 50 miles from the Rock Island Arsenal the sheriff came and ordered them to remove the propeller and one wheel and store them in the nearest federal facility, which happened to be the local post office.
All told, Virginia logged about 500 miles over eight years, she recalls, then she and Clarence decided to sell the plane to buy a 160-acre farm of their own. They got a handsome $2,934 for it and made the first payment.
The couple farmed for 48 years, then retired, and after Clarence’s death, Virginia moved into Oak Crest.