Eden Prairie News - October 29, 2008
 
 
Eden Prairie News

Micky Axton is still flying high Submitted by Karla on October 29, 2008 - 3:33pm.
Eden Prairie aviator was the first woman to fly a B-29, in 1944, when she was serving as a test pilot.
By John Molene

Dressed in a blue blazer that shows off her proudly won gold Navy aviation wings and a host of other flying honors, Mildred “Micky” Axton apologizes for the mess as she opens her apartment door.

It’s less mess than museum, however. Every wall, and virtually every flat surface above the carpet level, is filled with dozens of photos and awards, old newspaper and magazine stories, medals, uniforms, model airplanes and countless other memorabilia.

And why not? The Eden Prairie resident has been flying high since the late 1920s, and along the way she has managed to pick up an almost limitless supply of flying keepsakes.

Axton was already an experienced 24-year-old pilot when she became the first woman to fly a B-29 in 1944, while serving as an Army Air Force test pilot. She was already 14 years into her flying days when that historic flight occurred.

Her first airplane flight was in a neighbor’s World War I vintage Curtiss Jenny biplane in 1929 when she was just 10 years old. The neighbor would take kids up for $1 rides, and Axton was an eager volunteer.

“We just loved it, my brother and me,” she recalled. “Every time I saw a plane in the sky

I wanted to be up there.”

Born in Coffeyville, Kan., in 1919 where her grandfather was the chief of police, Axton graduated from Coffeyville Senior High School in 1936, took classes in math, science and physics at Coffeyville Community College and went on to major in chemistry and math at Kansas State University, where she graduated in 1940 with a teaching certificate.

Rather than teach, however, it was off to the tarmac and the classroom for Axton. She was selected into the Civilian Pilot Training CPT) program at Coffeyville Community College – the only woman accepted in her class. She taught classes in math, chemistry and aviation ground school and coached the debate team while earning her pilot’s license in the program.

Axton then received a letter from aviation pioneer Jacqueline Cochran, inviting her to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Cochran had convinced Gen. “Hap” Arnold to allow women pilots to serve as ferry aircraft pilots, thus freeing up male pilots for combat duty. Axton leapt at the offer and began flight training with the WASPs in June 1943 in Sweetwater, Texas.

“She knew if she could get women pilots trained, men could be released for combat,” Axton said.
Axton underwent the same training as male pilots. She flew a PT-19 in the primary phase of her training, learning to do rolls, loops and spins. She also earned her instrument rating and learned Morse Code. Axton graduated from flight training in November 1943 and was assigned to Pecos, Texas, as an engineering test pilot. Three of the 10 pilots in her class washed out, but not Axton.

If they were good enough, and she was, Axton and other women test pilots were assigned to conduct test flights on damaged aircraft that had been repaired to ensure they were flight worthy. By filling these roles, the women pilots freed male pilots for combat duty. Axton, however, noted that most of the WASP pilots would have flown combat missions had they been allowed the opportunity.

“We were so happy to help,” Axton said. “I did the war because for a long, long time, we were losing it.”

Test piloting was, and remains, a dangerous occupation. In one test flight, the plane Axton was flying developed engine failure shortly after takeoff. She radioed for the field to be cleared and made an emergency landing in a crosswind on one engine, without damaging the aircraft.
One of her best WASP friends, wasn’t so lucky. The plane Tommy Tompkins was flying disappeared while on a test flight of a P-51 over the Pacific in 1944 and never returned. Some 38 WASPs died during their service, Axton said.

In 1944, Axton left the WASPs and returned to Wichita, Kan., to work as a flight test engineer for Boeing Aircraft. She flew B-29s to ensure systems were operating as required.
On May 4, 1944, Axton became the first female pilot to fly a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine propeller-powered heavy bomber that was flown by the U.S. military in World War II and Korea. It was one of the largest aircraft of its time and one of most advanced bombers of World War II.

Asked to come up and take the controls on a test flight, Axton didn’t hesitate to fly the big bird, piloting just the 16th of the more than 1,600 B-29s that were manufactured at the Boeing plant.
“My instructor said, Micky, why don’t you come up and fly this thing for a while,” Axton recalled. “I was in hog heaven. I felt like the luckiest gal in the whole world.”

When the war ended, Axton returned to teaching, returned to Wichita. Some time after, her family bought a small cottage in Two Harbors, which began her Minnesota connection.

Aviation was definitely in her family’s blood, Axton said.

Axton’s brother, Ralph “Tut” Tuttle, became a World War II fighter pilot serving in the Pacific. He flew an estimated 250 missions and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Silver Star.
During World War II, her husband David Axton worked at an aircraft factory, while her mother and father helped take care of the couple’s baby daughter.

“My mother would have been a pilot, too, if she had a chance to,” Axton said.

Axton has remained very active in regional and area air shows since World War II, and still relishes the chance to speak of her flying experiences at schools, churches and clubs. Her husband died 10 years ago. She moved to Minnesota to be closer to her daughter who lives in the state.

She’s been a member of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) for more than 40 years. The CAF Jayhawk Wing in Wichita restored a PT-23 primary trainer and named it “Miss Micky” in her honor. To her knowledge, she is the only WASP to be so honored.

 
 

 

 

 

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