Whirly Girl founder Jean Howard Phelan

The Washington Post

February 5, 2004 Thursday  

Final Edition

Jean Ross Howard Phelan Dies at 87; 

One of First Female Helicopter Pilots

BYLINE: Patricia Sullivan, Washington Post Staff Writer

SECTION: Metro; B06

LENGTH: 932 words

Jean Ross Howard Phelan, a pioneering female helicopter pilot whose life spanned the era from Lindbergh to the space shuttle, died of sepsis Jan. 29 at George Washington University Medical Center. She was 87. 

A fifth-generation Washingtonian, she was fascinated with flying as a girl. When Charles Lindbergh came to town, she watched him sail up the Potomac, then slipped to the balcony of the Mayflower Hotel ballroom the next morning where she could see and hear him during a breakfast given in his honor.   

She attended Sidwell Friends School and went to the old Western High School. In high school, she cut class and, with money saved from Christmas, bought her first airplane ride. She attended Connecticut College, then transferred to George Washington University, where she received a bachelor's degree in history in 1939. She later received a master's degree in history from American University. 

She learned to fly as part of the civilian pilot training program during World War II, giving up an $1,800-a-year government job "which was as dull as dishwater, because I wanted to be in aviation," she told Carolyn Russo for her Smithsonian book, "Women  and Flight." 

Mrs. Howard Phelan worked briefly at Eastern Airlines as a reservations clerk. Women were barred from working in operations, so she then went to a one-person office that sold Piper, Taylorcraft and Aeronca light planes to the Army. 

Inspired by a talk by legendary pilot Jackie Cochran, who was recruiting for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, Mrs. Howard Phelan signed up but washed out because of the strict Army discipline at the Texas base. Cochran, however, asked her to stay on to help run the WASP school. After a year, she returned to Washington, joined the Civil Air Patrol and worked for the Red Cross as program manager for recuperating military men on the Italian Isle of Capri, she told Dawn Letson of Texas Woman's University for an oral history of her life. 

She went to work at the Aircraft (later Aerospace) Industries Association in December 1945 as an administrative aide. She was transferred to the helicopter division, and kept telling the presidents of the companies that the association represented that she could do her job better if she knew how to fly helicopters. It took seven years of nagging until Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft agreed, she said.  

After 18 days of lessons, in 1954 she became the eighth American woman, and 13th worldwide, to receive her helicopter accreditation. She described flying the craft to American Helicopter magazine as like "patting your head and rubbing your stomach" simultaneously. 

Almost immediately, she began to contact other female helicopter pilots, and the Whirly-Girls, an international organization of women helicopter pilots, was born in 1955. The group got its name from Bell's nickname for her, and its financial support from Howard Hughes. Whirly-Girl lore has it that Hughes made only 150 pins for the group, mistakenly assuming that there would never be the need for more than that. Today, the group has 1,265 members in 41 countries. Mrs. Howard Phelan flew in the 1951 and 1952 Transcontinental Air Race.  

Her photo and story were among 38 subjects in the 1978 "Women in Flight" photography exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. 

"We assign numbers according to when you get your rating," she told Russo. "Their numbers are kind of a status symbol. (Kids used to call me at the office and say, 'This is 119' or 'This is 378,' and I'm supposed to know who they are. And I did for a while." 

Mrs. Howard Phelan ran the group, and in appreciation, one member sent all the pilots a square of muslin and asked them to embroider their name, number and country on it. "Some of them wrote and said, 'I'd rather hover in a crosswind than embroider,' " she said. 

But as humorist Dave Barry reported in a 1993 column about learning to fly, "You don't defy a direct order from a Whirly-Girl." 

Mrs. Howard Phelan remained at the Aerospace Industries Association until she retired as director of helicopter activities in 1986. She was also president from 1966 to 1968 of the Washington-based American Women's News Club, based on her work writing news releases and magazine articles about flying. 

She had cared for her mother until her death, and married for the first time after her own retirement, to a pilot she had met at a helicopter convention. A year after the marriage, she had a heart attack at 3 a.m. An oxygen monitor she was wearing reported that she died, but her husband revived her. That led her to tell the Whirly-Girls newsletter, "Don't ever sleep alone or with anybody who doesn't know CPR." 

Donna Kaulkin, who met Mrs. Howard Phelan at the 1985 Paris Air Show, said that a male acquaintance there called the then-69-year-old the prettiest woman there. "She wore this beautiful floral dress and a big hat . . . . he said she was the only one dressed properly for a garden party," Kaulkin said. "She had this enormous femininity and sensuality that went along with her very strong and vivid personality." 

"Whenever she was around, the room was alive," said Jean Rainey, who knew her through the newswomen's club. "She was very unpretentious, but very self-confident." 

Survivors include her husband of 18 years, James D. Phelan of Washington; five stepchildren, Pamela Binkley of Madison, Conn., James D. Phelan Jr. of Orlando, Fla., Michele Currivan of Bridgeport, Conn., Marion Becker of Monroe, Conn., and John Phelan of Huntington, Conn.; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. 

LOAD-DATE: February 5, 2004




Copyright 2004 The Washington Post

 Copyright Patricia Sullivan