Nose dive into a legacy

Former Piper employee reflects on her life as pilot

JORDAN SLOBODINSKY/THE EXPRESS Leah Jones, left, poses with her long time best friend Joyce Hostrander as the two caught up on what’s been happening in their lives since the last Sentimental Journey Fly-In. Hostrander and Jones remain in contact and enjoy the Sentimental Journey Fly-In yearly.


LOCK HAVEN– There isn’t much connection between a dentist’s office and an airport. Cleaning teeth and flying planes seem to be almost polar opposites to the majority of the world.

Yet Leah Jones, 90, of Charlottesville, Va., found a connection when she was just a little girl. And she’s glad she did.

When she was growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Jones hated going to the dentist as a child. She made a deal with her mother that she would not complain at the dentist’s office if she would take her to the airport afterwards.

And it worked.

“The dentist used to hurt like Hell. I told my mother I would stop fussing if she took me to the airport. That’s how it all started,” said Jones.

From that point on, Jones knew that she wanted to get involved with aviation in some way.

By the time she graduated high school in 1943, she had decided that she wanted to work for Piper Aviation. She said that a friend of hers who was a lawyer wrote a letter of recommendation to the owner, William T. Piper.

“They invited me down for a test with the factory and thought I had the ability to handle numbers,” said Jones.

At only 17 years of age, Jones was hired by Piper Aviation in a record keeping position, which was was by no means the position she desired. A pilot since she was 13 years old, Jones was not satisfied with a simple office position.

“Two weeks of working that position, and I told them that I did not come down here to fly a desk,” she said.

Luckily for Jones, the J-3 line in the Piper factory had an open position, which she quickly took. Jones worked as an inspector with two other employees to check parts of airplanes and make sure they had been manufactured correctly. Jones also kept track of workers and made sure they were keeping up their work.

“I was a pain in the neck,” she said with a chuckle. “I knew the names of every person in that factory.”

While she worked the night shift as an inspector, Jones was also part of the Piper Club. She was able to fly the J-3 model for $2 an hour as a student pilot. Ted Burke, an established pilot for Piper saw the determination in Jones. Jones says that Burke pushed her to become a better pilot.

“He and I had a great time. The day after I was laid off, he invited me to take a delivery with him down to Memphis. He was a really nice guy,” said Jones.

The delivery to Memphis Tenn. was to be taken by aircraft and Jones says she was more than happy to take another flight. Jones says she remembers that flight fondly. Jones and Burke flew to Ohio in order to fly south, but were immediately met with harsh weather.

Jones saw it as another learning experience.

“I got my good instruction on how to handle a plane in bad weather. Rain, thunder and lightning were what we were dealing with. I couldn’t let him know that I was scared,” she said with a smile.

This year, the Sentimental Journey Fly-In will be handing out a $1,000 scholarship in honor of Lea Jones.

Tyler Rispoli, of Altoona Area High School, won the award after Jones and other judges read his letter. Jones says that she is honored to have it be in her name and says that Rispoli is very similar to how she was at his age.

“To read his words, it was like duplicating my feelings. It was great,” said Jones.

Jones worked for Piper Aviation from 1946-1951 and spent a lot of that time flying. She said that flying was like leaving all the problems in the world behind her.

“I felt free, and no matter what the weather was, I was free. I came to the conclusion that a lot of people I talked to flew for travel. Flying was emotional for me,” she said.

Jones will be attending this week’s Fly-In every day and will be participating in some activities. She has participated in several Fly-In’s before and says her favorite part is the people at the event.

“I have made some good friends at the Fly-In and I get an enthusiastic reception from them.”