Joan Irvine takes to skies once more on 90th birthday

Joan “Mickey” Irvine can’t remember the year she made her first solo flight. Yet at 90, she hasn’t forgotten the feeling.

“When I flew to Reno, I didn’t sleep the night before. I felt very comfortable flying,” the Everett woman said.

It’s been about 70 years since she took flying lessons in Winnemucca, Nev., and made that 166-mile solo flight to Reno. During World War II, her goal was to fly military planes. With a shortage of male pilots, who were needed for combat overseas, the U.S. armed forces launched several programs in the early 1940s to train civilian women to fly military aircraft stateside.

Irvine — her maiden name was Joan Johnson — hoped to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots or its predecessors, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.

“That was what I was going to do when I finished flying school. I had visions of flying around the country in a B-17,” said Irvine, a 1940 graduate of Everett High School.

On Saturday, she was back up in a big blue sky.

With her son, Don Irvine, 63, and her 26-year-old granddaughter, Brienne Irvine, she took a sightseeing plane ride from Harvey Field in Snohomish. The hourlong trip over Camano Island, Puget Sound and the Snohomish River valley was a 90th birthday gift from her family. “She didn’t want more things,” Don Irvine said.

Irvine turned 90 on Jan. 19, but the family waited for a perfect day for the flight with Snohomish Flying Service. They also wanted other family members there to celebrate her takeoff and landing.

“I can’t believe it’s finally here,” Irvine said Saturday before boarding the four-seat Cessna 182 piloted by Kyle Artim. “I’m excited and a little nervous,” she added.

Don Irvine, of Lake Stevens, said his mother hadn’t been in a small plane in decades. And her dream of flying military aircraft? It never came true.

“There were no more WASPs,” Joan Irvine said. More than 1,100 women flew with the military program. But at the end of 1944, with the war winding down, the program was discontinued. That left few opportunities for women who had hoped to play a role in military aviation. “She got her pilot’s license, but the program disbanded,” Don Irvine said.

So Irvine never flew for the military, but her flying days weren’t over.

Before being married in the late 1940s, she joined Northwest Airlines as a flight attendant. “She used to fly on a regular route from Seattle to Montana,” Don Irvine said. “There was more turbulence on planes back then, and she remembers other people being sick. It never bothered her,” he said.

A widow, Joan Irvine lived on her own until last year. She now lives in Everett with her daughter, Patty Kumbera. Some of her things are stored away in boxes. Don Irvine hasn’t been able to find her pilot’s license or paperwork from Northwest Airlines. He doesn’t know the exact dates she flew, and she can’t remember.

She does have old photos of the Winnemucca flight school, and of herself in uniform as a flight attendant — then called a stewardess. That career ended when Irvine became a wife and mother.

Irvine has shared with her son her memories of learning to fly. “For her solo flight to get her license, from Winnemucca to Reno and back, she flew a plane that was a little different than the one she trained on,” Don Irvine said. “It wasn’t getting enough altitude. She looked down and hadn’t pushed the stick all the way forward.” Once she did that, she cleared the trees and was up and away, he said.

Don Irvine said his mother had a great time Saturday. “When we landed, everybody was waiting for her at the Buzz Inn. They all gave her a standing ovation. She was properly embarrassed,” he said.

He doesn’t think his mother ever put her pilot’s training to use.

“She gave it up for us. With four kids, she had a lot going on,” Irvine said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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