Originally Published: March 21, 2006 4 a.m.
PRESCOTT Irene Leverton fell in love with aviation when she was just a little girl, and, in the early 1960s, became part of "Mercury 13," a group of 13 women who secretly took and passed the same physiological and psychological tests that NASA's Mercury Seven (male) astronauts passed.
But, because they were women, the boys club at NASA dismissed them and they never made it to space.
Leverton faced similar challenges throughout her career as a female pilot. She had dreamt from her childhood of flying airplanes, so she worked hard to make that dream come true.
"When I was 6, I got my first model airplane," the 79-year old Prescott resident said. "I would throw it off the third-floor balcony and it flew."
Leverton grew up in Chicago and said airplanes always fascinated her because "they were up there," she said, pointing to the sky. "They were in the sky."
Her parents took her to see air shows as often as they could, and "Chicago was an important place for air meets and air shows in the 1930s. My dad worked really hard to take me there."
When Leverton was in high school, she said her school "had an aviation class, but they didn't let girls in. My mom went down there and fought with them and I got in the class."
When Leverton was 17, she said she joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), an auxiliary of the Air Force, and remained a volunteer with CAP, on and off, until about six months ago.
After high school graduation, Leverton said she went into flight training and also worked at Douglas (now O'Hare International Airport) making Navy instruments.
"Every kid from about 12 on had a job," she said, adding that she had her first job at the age of 12 working at a girl's school.
Leverton kept herself busy working at Douglas, but said, "I flew as often as I could. It took four years to fly enough to get a commercial license."
She worked for more than two years at Sky Harbor Airport in Chicago on the ground, and then received her flight instructor rating in 1948.
"I still didn't have enough flight hours to instruct, so I ferried aircraft to airports in the Chicago area, and (during one of her trips) I had my first engine failure. I landed in a boy's military school. It wasn't scary because I was trained to do it."
In 1947, Leverton said she got her first "real paying job" as an agriculture pilot, which she said was unheard of for women, adding that she knew the right people to get this job.
"I was working in western Illinois, and I was dusting and spraying corn and finally getting paid," she said, adding, "I used to sleep in my car because I wouldn't get paid as much as the men."
Leverton had several jobs as an agriculture pilot before, one year, "I got poisoned by the stuff that we were spraying and it almost killed me."
That was her last experience as an agriculture pilot.
Over the years, Leverton said she has worked as an instructor, an air taxi pilot, glider pilot, commuter airline pilot, air ambulance pilot, corporate pilot, ferry pilot, phase check pilot, consultant, Federal Aviation Administration pilot examiner and U.S. Forest Service contract pilot.
When Leverton was in her 20s, "I heard things were good in California, so I said goodbye to mother and headed there."
On the way, Leverton said she stopped in Phoenix, where she met a female pilot who told her she needed to become the pilot of a DC-3 because she had a duel license.
"I said, 'They're not going to hire a female.' He (the man who hired her) said, 'If you can make three take-offs and landings without me touching anything, I'll hire you.'"
Leverton said she had never been in a DC-3 before, but she was able to do what he asked and got the job.
Later, Leverton said she ended up in Portland and got a job at General Airways, and "was accepted by the male pilots."
That was the case until she worked with a certain captain "who had a problem with me. I flew with him twice, and we were at an airport in New Mexico. He wouldn't let me put on my uniform and we had a group of ground troops to pick up. We started the plane and there was something wrong with it."
She said the captain would not listen to her, and "I started a physical fight with him. I got fired because I took over the controls."
Leverton then moved to California's Bay Area and worked for a couple of years as a flight instructor.
It was in 1961 that Leverton heard about the Lovelace Foundation in New Mexico and joined a group of women who secretly took the tests that the Mercury 7 astronauts took.
"It took one week to complete 72 tests," Leverton said, adding that it was a great disappointment to find out NASA would not take them because they were women.
"They just didn't want to see it," she said. "They said it wasn't a standard of the time to let women in. That was the end of that and I went back to Chicago."
She eventually moved back to California and worked for Japan Airlines, which she said was "the best outfit I ever flew for."
She also attended Napa College to get a two-year degree and started a flight school at Angwin College. During her entire career, Leverton also started five or six other flight schools.
Leverton was also very interested in racing and entered the Women's National Pylon Race and became the champion in 1964.
"That was the best time I ever had," she said, adding that she also started the Women's Pylon Racing Association.
Leverton, who has kept her license current, said she lived an exciting life full of adventure and she enjoyed every second of it. Even now, at the age of 79, she is still a flight instructor who teaches every couple of months.
Over the course of her career, Leverton accumulated 25,220 flight hours, has flown more than 20 different types of airplanes and has had more than 200 different types of flying jobs.
Though it was a challenge, Leverton said she held her own during the battles she faced as a female pilot.
"I fought it all over and that's why I moved all over," she said. "I have a very feisty personality."
Leverton said she is working on writing a book about her life, which will include her own experiences as well as stories of the people she has met during her career.
"I've met a bunch of characters," she said.
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