This 94-year old pilot earned her wings

By on April 11, 2018

A worker let Jessie Eckhart, then 14, take off alone by mistake. She taxied the plane around the airport and landed with a ‘big grin’ on her face

Ninety-four-year-old Jessie Eckhart amassed a wealth of stories and wisdom gleaned from years of flying planes, raising children, and living life to the fullest.

However, one of her favorite topics of conversation is Lititz, where she has lived since she was a child.

Jessie’s father, Jesse Jones, established the first airport in Lancaster, a privately owned operation in the early 1930’s located on Manheim Pike. Then, in 1934, he became the manager of the Lancaster Airport in Lititz.

“He did it all,” Jessie recalled.“He’d fix planes, give flying instructions, crop dust. Everything.” Her father, who’s pilot license was signed by Orville Wright, taught her and her sisters to fly and hunt — activities that were not the norm for women then.

Jessie recalls when she was 14 and a worker let her take off alone by mistake. She taxied the plane around the airport and landed with a “big grin” on her face. Once, Jessie remembers flying a plane up West End Avenue and passing the Hamilton Watch Factory. When she waved to employees in the windows, she realized she was flying far too low and hurried back to the airport to put the plane back in the hangar before her father found out.

Growing up, Jessie remembers spending long days at the airport but she also has many memories from Lititz. Her mother would take Jessie and her two sisters to Lititz Springs Park when they were children. The Jones family banked at the Farmers National Bank in town and Jessie remembers travelers flying into the airport and staying at the Sutter Inn. She also fondly remembers a “5¢ & 10¢ store” store where a woman named Mrs. Faust worked, and going to the 35-cent movies to see the first-rate pictures that came to the theater after they played in Lancaster.

“I think Lititz is wonderful,” she said.

Jessie Eckhart, a 94-year-old Lititz resident, stands with a model of the plane she used to instruct World War II soldiers to be pilots at Lancaster Airport.

Jessie–an accomplished artist–attended Penn State University for a year, planning to get an art degree, but when World War II broke out, she returned home to take on a new role.
She became an instructor, teaching World War II soldiers how to fly airplanes at the Lancaster Airport. All of her students were young men, preparing to go off to war, but though it was a time when teaching flying was an unusual role for a woman, Jessie recalls that her students all respected her, in spite of her young age and gender.

“Very few civilian women taught World War II men to fly,” explained Jessie’s daughter-in-law, Bonnie Eckhart. “And she was wearing pants instead of a dress long before many women in the area. One pilot called her many years later to thank her for everything she taught him.”

In 1947, Jessie married Howard D. Eckhart, an oral surgeon and a “good pilot.” She enjoyed taking their children to Lititz Springs Park, a favorite of hers growing up. Flying continued as an Eckhart family tradition. Her father not only taught his daughters to fly, but also Jessie’s three sons.

Sometimes, Jessie does more than just fly in the sky. At the age of 53, she parachuted out of an airplane, along with her son, Howie, who loves parachuting and has made over 1,000 jumps.
Jessie still loves to fly and age has done nothing to dampen her enthusiasm. Her apartment is adorned with old airplane propellers, family photos from the airport, and pictures she’s painted of her travels and planes over the years.

“It was the golden age of aviation,” Jessie said, recalling her days spent at the airport. “It was a wild, wonderful time to be alive.” She estimates that she has accumulated between 10,000 and 11,000 hours of total flying time, and her flying has earned her recognition over the years. Her name is on the National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor, and she received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. But, in spite of her awards and achievements, Jessie appreciates how fortunate she was and most of all continues to focus on the simple things.

“I was so lucky,” she said. “I had the best parents. I got to learn to fly and spend my childhood at the airport. And I’ve always loved Lititz. After all, love and your family is what’s really important.”

Aubree Fahringer is a staff writer for the Record Express and Ephrata Review. She can reached at afahringer@lnpnews.com. 

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