by Logan Walker
Years before she set foot in an airplane, Iris Critchell knew she wanted a different life than the kind most of her female classmates were being groomed for. Athletic and tomboyish, her sights were set early on the world of sports, competition, and adventure, areas largely outside the domain of 1920s schoolgirls; however, as her future career would bear out, Critchell rarely failed to achieve what she set her mind to.
Born in December 1920 in Los Angeles, Iris Critchell nèe Cummings was the daughter of a doctor and his Greek/Latin teacher wife. With her fondness for trousers and playing organized sports, she became known as something of a "kook” by other students, but her unusual reputation failed to dampen her passion for athletics. More daunting was the limited opportunities for girls to join a team.
Fortunately, Critchell found a unique ally in her father, who specialized in an area known today as sports medicine. A sports enthusiast and frequent participant in sporting events, her father supported her ambitions and encouraged her to excel. Critchell soon decided on swimming, a sport that women could compete in and her location near beaches and sports clubs could easily facilitate.
By 1933, Critchell had begun entering swimming competitions, her specialty being the 200-meter breaststroke, and by 1934 her training had paid off in several local victories. In no time she was participating in events such as the Far Western Championships Swim Meet along with the likes of future film star Esther Williams. Several competitive wins later she was on her way to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as a member of the U.S. swimming team. Critchell's ascent to the dizzy heights of Olympic sportswoman was heady, but the reality of her situation meant that she still had to strive to reach German soil; Olympic team funding was lacking, as the country was in the midst of the Depression, and Critchell was forced to raise money herself. These efforts, and the ten days she spent traveling to Europe by boat, meant she lost precious practice hours and finished her race in fourth place. Although she was disqualified from competing in the finals, Critchell was left with ample time to take in the rest of the historic events.
During her time in Berlin that summer, Critchell was afforded a front row seat to the rising tide of Nazism that had swept the nation, and the very men she would be helping to defeat in her later role in the war effort. She later recalled, “We saw Hitler, he was right there, and (Josef) Goebbels and (Hermann) Goering. We were so interested because my mother had helped me to understand a little bit more of what was going on… Everywhere you went there were the goose-step police and guards, but they were ordered to be friendly and so they were a little bit less intimidating.”
It was also in Berlin that Critchell began to get more involved in an area that she had long been interested in -- flying. “When I heard that the Germans would be holding a major air show during the Games, I was able to make arrangements to attend," the future WASP noted, adding that "Since Germany had been restricted by treaty after World War I as to how many engine-powered airplanes it could build, this show consisted mainly of gliders. The point is: The Nazis had found a way to train hundreds of young pilots without breaking any laws.” It would be two years before flying took center stage in her life, but the impression of this event would stay with Critchell long after she departed the ominous arena.
After her return to America, Critchell continued as a competitive swimmer for several years, graduating from Redondo Union High School in 1937 and moving on to college studies at the University of Southern California. By 1939 she officially retired from swimming; the shadow of imminent war had begun to fall over the nation, and it was increasingly apparent that larger political events would derail any plans for a 1940 Summer Olympics. Instead, Critchell had turned her full attention to flying, beginning her first lessons at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1939. For 30 minutes at four dollars a session, she scaled the heights above a sun-drenched field in a 40-horsepower Piper Cub plane. A year later she had earned a pilot’s license at just 18 years old, the earliest age that one could be legally held. She enrolled in the first year of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) offered at USC, and typical to her iconoclastic track record, became the only woman in a class of 50.
"Flying, along with getting a college education, was something I had to do," remembered Critchell, who became one of only several women at the time to complete a second, third, and fourth year of pilot training. “By the time I was a senior, I had earned a private pilot's license and a ground- instructor's rating. I had also taken a CPTP [Civilian Pilot Training Program] course in aerobatics at USC that involved 65 hours of open cockpit flying in a variety of biplanes." Following her graduation she began working as a flight instructor, until dramatic events on the world stage intervened. As she explained, “I was busy on my first job doing that when Pearl Harbor occurred. And then our lives were forever changed.”
In the wake of that disaster, Critchell was relocated but continued flight training for a year until she learned that the government was recruiting civilian pilots to join the newly formed WASP program. Eager to sign up, she became one of second class of women to join the organization, graduating from training in May of 1943 as a member of WASP Class 43-2. Soon after gaining her wings she was sent to a ferry unit in Long Beach, California where she flew a total of 18 different aircraft including the P-38, P-51, A-20, C-47, B-25, and the P-61 Black Widow fighter. Reflecting on this time, Critchell calls her days as a WASP a “fabulous experience,” noting, “We were pilots and civilians, but those of us who had enough experience and background were transitioned rapidly into fighter aircraft. I flew all four of the single-engine fighters and all twin-engine bombers in the ferrying division."
The disbandment of the WASP brought Critchell’s days as an Army pilot to an end, but her flying career was far from over. She went on to marry Howard Critchell, an Army Air Corps pilot she had met during the war. The two moved to Palos Verdes Estates, and Critchell went to work at her USC College of Aeronautics, where she helped to develop and teach a pilot training curriculum. Among the courses she was responsible for was the school’s instrument pilot training, a class she explains was notable because “…there were experienced instructors up there from that military school, but they were not experienced in instrument flying. I happened to learn to do instrument flying as part of my experience with WASP. Well, I enjoyed doing that but it was very intense. Again, it was like the wartime experience in which we had no time off- we were going all the time.”
Having experienced both scenarios herself, the program she worked on aimed to help transition war veterans into civilian aviation. For much of the 1950s the former WASP focused largely on raising her two children at home, although she made sure to take the occasional recreational flight. During this time she was also active in 14 of the 30 Women’s Transcontinental Air Races, (also known as Powder Puff Derbies), finishing second twice before winning the race in 1957 (and finishing in the top 10 a total of 5 times). Starting in the early 1950’s she was also a member and supporter of the Ninety-Nines, an organization based around promoting women in aviation.
In 1962, Critchell re-entered the professional world to found the Bates Aeronautics Program at Claremont’s Harvey Mudd College with her husband. The program instructed students in aeronautics and physical sciences combined with practical piloting lessons. Iris ran the program, jointly and later alone, until it was eventually eliminated by the college in 1990. By that time she had helped guide over 700 students to their piloting licenses.
Even in retirement, Critchell continued to teach a small number of aspiring flyers, maintaining partial ownership of a 1970 four passenger Cessna 172 for her personal use. Her impressive contributions to aviation have earned her a place in the halls of fame of the Women of Aviation, California Aviation, and National Association of Flight Instructors. She has also been the recipient of a number of awards, including the FAA Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award.
Today, 96-year-old Iris Critchell lives in Claremont, California. The survivor of an extraordinary life, time has done little to slow her down. She still devotes time to working with Harvey Mudd students and curating the schools Aeronautical Library Special Collection. A tireless advocate of piloting in general and females in flight in particular, her efforts in promoting aviation in her community and beyond continue to this day, and will surely resonate for generations to come.