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Pioneer of Flight Lends Expo an Air of History

July 11, 1999|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

CARLSBAD — Pioneer aviator Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout learned to fly "out in the sticks," soaring over apricot trees and walnut groves in a sparsely populated land with few houses.

It was the late 1920's, and that land was the San Fernando Valley around what is now Van Nuys Airport--then known as Los Angeles Municipal Airport.

The Van Nuys Airport Aviation Expo next weekend will pay tribute to Trout, 93, one of the most prominent women in aviation history.

"All women in aviation, myself included, owe Bobbi a debt of gratitude," said Debbie Harvey, a former commercial airline pilot and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. "She opened a lot of doors and we can have pink skies and tail winds because of her."

In what she predicts will be her final public appearance, Trout will return to those same "sticks" to mark the 70th anniversary of a series of flying records she set in 1929, including several at Van Nuys.

From an air-conditioned trailer to be supplied by friends and supporters, Trout expects to sign autographs and regale visitors to the two-day show with stories of her early flying adventures.

The show is scheduled Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Trout will be honored at opening ceremonies at 10 a.m. Saturday.

"When you get to be my age," said Trout, the fifth woman to earn a transport pilot's license, "you remember things from long ago better than you do yesterday."

And vivid her memory is, scented with the aroma of lemon blossoms wafting from Valley orchards and painted with the hues of sunset on her first record-setting endurance of flight.

Sitting in her retirement condominium in this seaside resort community, surrounded by mementos of a career she gave up more than a half century ago, Bobbi, as everyone calls her, can tell stories about the stories in history books.

One flier, she said, pointing a gnarled finger to a page in an aviation journal, was never a member of a famed aerobatic team as the book reports. "She was such a pain to deal with, [the instructor] said he would never attempt to teach another woman to fly."

Another, she remarked while turning the pages, won a title by default, because her supportive competitors knew she needed the fame and fortune for her livelihood.

Still flipping through the book, Trout stopped at the name of another pioneer, offering an aside. This one, she said, along with a passenger, fell to their deaths when an airplane in which they were not strapped in took an unexpected roll.

Names such as Amelia Earhart (envied for her wealthy backers, Trout says), Orville Wright (who signed her pilot's license) and Charles Lindbergh roll out of Trout's memory bank as if she had met with them yesterday.

Trout is the sole survivor of the original Powder Puff Derby, held in 1929, in which 20 women pilots undertook a grueling eight-day, cross-country trip from Santa Monica to Cleveland. Fourteen completed the trip, including Trout, though she had four major setbacks along the way and arrived just before the final celebration dinner.

Trout admits there is some fiction in her 1987 biography, "Just Plane Crazy," but she said friends say the embellishments make the story more interesting.

Born Jan. 7, 1906, in Greenup, Ill., Trout spent much of her childhood moving with her family around the country, staying with various relatives.

"Mother wanted me to have an education and Dad wanted me to travel all over," she said.

Trout was living in Seattle during World War I when she studied a manual of firearms and mastered a .22-caliber rifle. She was in a field shooting one day when she looked up at the sound of an engine overhead.

"Ohh," Trout sighed, clasping hands over her heart, lifting eyes toward the ceiling. "Over went an airplane. I said, 'That's what I'm going to do some day.' I just knew it."

The family settled in Southern California in 1920. Trout remembers trying to get into manual arts training courses "with the boys".

"But school officials wouldn't let me," she said. "Instead, I had to make hamburgers. Boy, did that ruin my feelings, having to take a sissy course like cooking. That broke my heart."

She as a student at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles when she persuaded her parents to buy a service station for her to run. "I always did fine with mechanics. I was good at taking things apart and putting them back together again."

Soon, she said, the service station was doing so well that her father had to quit his job with the telephone company to help run the business.

At age 21, Trout was earning enough money to afford flying lessons. With great detail, she described her first crash.

She disobeyed an instructor's orders to make a turn because she said she feared the plane was flying too low. The instructor took the controls to demonstrate and immediately crashed, knocking both of them unconscious upon impact. Trout pointed to her cheek where she suffered a cut from her goggles.

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