Pursuing a purpose

Thomas receives award for 50 years of safe flying

-Messenger photo by Dawn Bliss
Joan Thomas, of Rockwell City, has had a lifelong interest in aviation and continues to be an active pilot as well as building and restoring planes. She is currently helping to repair an 11A Aeronica Chief belonging to Lee Phillips, of Otho.

ROCKWELL CITY — Find a purpose.

That’s the advice Joan Thomas, 85, offers while bolting pieces into place on a frame of an airplane she is helping to rebuild.

“I really feel youth need a direction, a path,” she said. “There’s too many kids out there without an idea of what they want to do or how to do it.”

Maybe it’s college, maybe it’s a skilled trade, maybe it’s military service, or maybe it’s as simple as an interest or hobby. Whatever it is that catches your attention, she said, find a mentor, a club, or organization and pursue it.

Aviation is that purpose for Thomas. In fact, she recently was given the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, a special recognition from the Federal Aviation Administration for more than 50 years of continued skill, expertise and contributions to furthering the cause of aviation safety. She was presented the award in a ceremony at the Fort Dodge Municipal Airport in September.

Technically, Thomas said, she has been flying for more than 60 years. She soloed in 1952 on her 16th birthday. She was taking lessons from Don Saucke, who ran an agricultural sprayer service. In exchange for the flight instruction, Thomas babysat for his family and helped him while he crop dusted by serving as a flagger marking points on the ground. Then as a surprise for her birthday, Saucke flew them down to the airport in Des Moines, got out then told her to land it on her own a couple of times.

“I had no idea he was going to get out and leave me alone in that airplane,” she said.

Thomas landed it once, on the grass rather than the concrete runway. Grass was what she was used to, she said. When she got home, she told her parents she was now a pilot. Her dad, Dale Hildreth, told her he was ready for a ride right then but Thomas suggested he wait a bit longer while she got a few more hours of experience.

“My dad was my inspiration,” she said. “He was always fair and always there behind me, supporting me.”

Her father was the one that set up her lessons with Saucke in the first place, Thomas said. She hadn’t really thought about flying until he suggested it, but it quickly sparked an interest that went on to shape her life.

“It was something different,” Thomas said, “and at that point I didn’t know what to do at graduation. It helped me to figure out what I liked and didn’t like. It helped me find a purpose.”

After graduating from Lohrville High School, Thomas joined the Air Force and served as a flight attendant during humanitarian airlifts in 1957. Known as Operation Safe Haven, thousands of Hungarians were brought to the United States after the failed Hungarian Revolution against the Communist regime and Soviet Union policies. Thomas, then stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, made 17 crossings of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the airlift efforts.

She served for three years then attended Colorado University before marrying her husband, Truman Thomas. Aviation continued to be an influence, even as she established her family and volunteered in the community.

She is a long-term member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 214, a group of aviation minded people from diverse backgrounds. They usually meet once a month and try to fly together. The EAA is how Thomas had access to courses on restoring and tinkering with airplanes.

“Building something, I really like to do that,” she said. “I learned a lot from it.”

She is currently helping Lee Phillips, of Otho, rebuild the 11A Aeronica Chief, a two-seat plane produced between 1945 and 1950. But in the past she assembled and flew a tube and fabric Weedhopper Ultralight before building a single-seater Stolp Starlet airplane. She eventually went on to have a two-seat Cesna 140, followed by a Cesna 152. Thomas doesn’t own a plane of her own right now, but she does still fly with her son, Trea Thomas, of Rockwell City.

“I’ve always thought motorcycles were fun,” Joan Thomas said. “Airplanes are so much better. I certainly would recommend it, especially to women. I’m a firm believer that females are just as good as men when it comes to flying. You don’t need strength, just a bit of smarts.”


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