Woman of the air
Book for sale at the Piper Fly-In, written by Leah Jones, an original Piper crew member
LOCK HAVEN — There isn’t a place more fitting to honor Leah “Mae Coady” Jones, aviation enthusiast and former Piper manufacturing employee, than the Sentimental Journey Fly-In.
Jones dared to new heights, literally, as a woman pilot in the 1940s – in an industry that was, and to some extent still is, dominated by men.
Her memoir, entitled “Flying With A Herd O’Turtles”, detailing her thrilling aviation escapades and life journey, is for sale at this year’s fly-in.
The title refers to the modest cruise speeds of the Piper Cubs that Jones and her fellow ferrying pilots would fly, delivering planes to various airports across the country.
Jones, who sadly passed away Friday, June 14 in Charlottesville, Va., never missed a year of the fly-in and drove up every year from Virginia.
“She truly lived for the fly-in,” said Linda Good, a former archivist and researcher for the Piper Museum and a long-time friend of Jones. “In some ways, she adopted Lock Haven as a hometown, because this is where she did a lot of her flying.”
Leah Jones was born and raised in eastern Long Island, near Westhampton, N.Y., where she first gained her love of aircraft at Suffolk Airport.
She details in her book how she would beg her mom to stop at the airfield on the way back from her dentist appointments, where she would “watch, listen, ask questions and accept occasional rides.”
Jones made her first flight in an airplane in 1939 at the young age of thirteen, in an Aeronca Champion airplane.
In October 1941, Jones began taking lessons at the Aviation Ground School at the same airport, while making beds at a rooming house on the side to afford the $30 cost of the course.
Other highlights of the book include her stories of first learning to fly in the summer of 1941, which she calls a “defining point” in her life.
Jones recalls first learning to do a 720 degree turn, and failing the first time, but due to her sheer determination and love of flying, she went up in the air four more times until she properly completed the maneuver, despite feeling nauseous the entire time.
“She really was a unique lady — independent and dedicated,” said Good.
In 1946, Jones made the move to Lock Haven to work for Piper Aircraft Co., though she first was hired as a cost accountant, much to her dismay.
Luckily, Jones was able to gain flight experience before and after work as a member of the Cub Club, where she could rent a J-3 for $2 an hour.
Finally, on Oct. 10, 1947, Jones officially got her pilot’s license and began working as a ferry pilot for Piper.
This group of mostly young ferry pilots that included Jones called themselves the “Herd O’Turtles,” as referenced in the book title — and they become quite close to each other throughout their few years at Piper.
Ferry pilots were not paid employees, Jones explains in her book, and they received only 7.5 cents a mile to cover all expenses. This was a temporary job for young people, like Jones, who hoped to make a career of flying, helping to “fill the gap” until they found more permanent jobs while racking up experience and hours.
Jones also worked as a manufacturing employee at Piper until 1947, assembling Piper Cubs, some of which she would eventually fly herself.
“A few years ago at the fly-in, Leah got a chance to go up into a J-3, which had one of the serial numbers that fit into line with when she would’ve worked on assembly,” recalled Good. “So, it was probably a plane that she helped put together. That made her whole week.”
Though Jones slowed down in terms of flying when she became a wife and mother, she remained a lover of all things aviation throughout her entire life.
According to Good, who has known Jones for over 15 years, Jones has been compiling notes and stories for many years in hopes of one day releasing a book memorializing her experiences forever.
“Leah used to come to the fly-in and she’d have two large duffel bags of notes and earlier copies of what ultimately ended up in the book. Plus, she had even more stuff at home,” said Good.
Ed Watson, vice president of Sentimental Journey, and other friends and family supported Jones and came up with a plan to prepare a book to be released and sold at the 2019 Sentimental Journey Fly-In.
Ed Watson, Good, Jones’s daughter, Robin, and others worked on editing the drafts and stories for about a month until the final version was ready to be printed.
“The most important part of releasing this book was for Leah to share her experiences with other people in aviation,” said Good.
Good hopes to make enough in sales to cover the printing costs while having enough money left over to feed back into the Leah Jones Scholarship Fund, which goes towards graduating seniors who have an interest in a future career in aviation.
The book is truly an enthralling read for anyone, whether you have an interest in aviation or not — and a chance to learn about the groundbreaking experiences of a female pilot who will forever be entwined in the history of Piper Aircraft Co.
Jones’s book will be for sale for a suggested donation of $25, inside the blue vendor building, through Saturday. For more information on purchasing the book or making a donation to the scholarship fund, contact Linda Good at 570-660-5446.