Alma Heflin: Flying Over the PA Wilds
You’d think that seeing a plane make an emergency landing wouldn’t exactly inspire you to fly one yourself. But that wasn’t the case for Alma Heflin, America’s first female test pilot. Not only did Alma fly planes during World War II, she was another one of the fascinating historical figures who lived in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Alma was born on September 2, 1910, the only child of Irvin and Nora Heflin of Missouri. They moved the family to Washington when she was a baby, and that was where she saw a plane make an emergency landing on the lawn when she was eight. The plane had a broken oil line, and the pilots had to stay with the family for several days while repairs were made. This fascinated Alma, and she decided right then that she was going to be a pilot one day.
Alma grew up to work as a teacher, writer, and secretary, but she trained to fly as a sideline. In 1937, she visited Lock Haven, Clinton County, in the I-80 Frontier of the Pennsylvania Wilds. She made a trip to Piper Aviation, which had very recently relocated to Lock Haven after a fire destroyed their Bradford plant. While buying a Piper Cub, she met William Piper, the founder of the company, and he was so impressed with her that he hired her on the spot.
Photo: A Grasshopper plane (one kind that Alma Heflin test piloted) at the Piper Aviation Museum.
Alma settled in Lock Haven, buying a house at 608 East Main Street and attending church on the corner of West Main and First Streets. The March 10, 1938 “Folks You Should Know” column in the Clinton County Times said,” Miss Heflin says she likes Lock Haven better than any other town she knows of, and in view of the fact that she has traveled in every state but the New England States and Florida, besides living in several different states, that statement has definite significance. She has had her church membership transferred to Trinity Methodist Church and intends to make this city her home.”
She worked as a secretary for a few years, also dabbling in welding and other mechanical work. Then, when America entered World War II, Piper was short on test pilots because every available man was fighting the war. So Alma was promoted, and became America’s first female test pilot.
She was featured in the cartoon column “Strange As It Seems” by John Hix, similar to Ripley’s, which stated, “As far as is known, charming Alma Heflin is the only woman test pilot in the country. She tests the tiny Grasshopper planes manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation for use in Army liaison work.”
The Piper Grasshopper was a military version of the Piper Cub, painted drab green with extended windows for better pilot view. It was named for its ability to take off and land in small, grassy spaces.
Photo: The “Strange As It Seems” cartoon column featuring Alma Heflin, courtesy of the Ross Library.
In 1942 she made a flight to Alaska with a friend, Margie McQuin, and then wrote a book about the experience. Alma’s book, “Adventure Was The Compass” was published by Little, Brown and was described as “a handful of good reading.”
Alma died on April 24, 2000, and is buried in Arlington. The little girl who once dreamed of flight grew up to be a significant piece of history, and contributed to the fascinating story of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
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