Iris Critchell

My friend and colleague, Iris Critchell is a great-grandmother of 6 and a truly remarkable woman.   I hope to catch up with Iris soon to collect one of her amazing stories for this blog.  Even at 92, she’s so quick and sure-footed I have to run to keep up with her!


Iris C. Cummings Critchell was born December 21, 1920.  Though heading toward aeronautics from a early age, she also was a swimmer and a member of the U. S 1936 Olympic Swimming Team in Berlin, (competing in the 200 m breaststroke. She was U. S. Champion in this event 1936-1939).

Iris started flying in 1939 at Mines Field (now known as LAX) as a Sophomore at USC in Piper J-2 Cub planes.  She finished the Private Pilot and Advanced Acrobatic Courses in Waco bi-planes in 1939 and 1940 on the first Civil Pilot Training program at the University of Southern California.  She graduated from USC in Physical Sciences and Mathematics in 1941.

In 1941 Iris taught on the Civil Pilot Training program at Brackett Field in La Verne, and in 1942 for the Navy Cadet program for Stockton Junior College at Carson City, Nev. IN Dec 1942, Iris reported to Houston for Army Air Corps training and was then assigned to the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron), later known as the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots).


Until Dec. 1944, she served as a civilian ferry pilot with the Army Air Corps, Air Transport Command , 6th Ferrying Group at Long Beach. During this time, Iris flew more than 20 types of military airplanes as pilot in command including each of the WW II trainers, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-40 War Hawk, P-39 Air Cobra, P-51 Mustang, C-47 Transport, B-25 Mitchell, A-20 Havoc, P-38 Lightning , and P-61 the Black Widow.

From 1946 -1948 for the University of Southern California College of Aeronautics at Santa Maria, Iris developed the curriculum, taught the classes for Primary, Instrument, Commercial and Instructor courses, and gave all the Instrument Flight Instruction in Vultee BT-13 trainers.

From 1950 on she flew in the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race (Powder Puff Derby) 15 times!  She placed first twice and in the top ten seven times.

In 1961, Iris and her long time pilot husband were asked by Isabel Bates to establish a special aero program for the Bates Foundation for Aeronautical Education. Iris developed this unique program to use the airplane as an educational tool for enhancing the total education of three age groups of young people. Junior High, High School, and College. The College program began at Harvey Mudd College in 1962.

From 1962-1990 Iris served as Director of the Bates Foundation’s Aeronautics Program, as Lecturer in Aeronautics on the Harvey Mudd College Faculty, and as Chief Flight Instructor for the Flight Training phase of the program. The College’s alumni and graduates of this program now include many distinguished scientists, aero engineers, aerospace researchers, and two astronauts.

In faculty Emeritus status Iris taught Aeronautics for five more semesters at Mudd and continues to assist on student aero projects and serve as curator of the Aeronautical Library Special Collection at Harvey Mudd College.

Iris has been granted many national honors.  In 1972 The Ontario (CA) FAA District named Iris Flight Instructor of the Year.  On Nov 10, 2000 she was inducted into the National Association of Flight Instructors Hall of Fame in an elite ceremony at Oshkosh,

WI. On Oct 7, 2006 Iris was honored by the FAA with the Wright Bros. Master Pilot Award. She was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame 2-17-07. She was honored as an Eagle at the USAF Air University Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Field June ’08. In 2008 the Federation Aeronautique International awarded her a “Nile Gold Medal” for her contributions to Aerospace Education.  She was a Flight Path Learning Center at LA Airport honoree February 24, 2013.

Iris is a current pilot and holds many pilot ratings through Glider, Single and Multi Engine, Airline Transport and Flight Instructor ratings. She served as a FAA Designated Pilot Examiner for 21 years. She has been A Ninety Nine for 62 years, a member of numerous aviation and professional organizations and is referenced in many books, oral histories and documentary productions.

Here’s Iris at her 90th birthday party.


Dann Mallet chimed in over Twitter all the way from Brisbane:

my favourite landlady!  lived w/ iris & critch back in 04. I was swimming (poorly) in her pool. she gracefully slides in, smashes 20 laps while I did 4!

Here’s Iris on Wikipedia.

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4 Responses to Iris Critchell

  1. Pingback: Blog Celebrates the Grandmothers of Science, Tech, Engineering, & Math | The Hearth

  2. Pingback: Ursula Franklin | Grandma Got STEM

  3. Hello. I am a filmmaker trying to reach Miss Critchell for an interview on the 1936 Olympics. Please email us if you can connect us. Thank you

  4. Hi there, I’m founder of The Grit Project and would love to interview Ms. Critchell if she’d be willing! I’m also working with the FlyGirls miniseries on a series of podcasts and would love to include her stories if she’s willing! Please send an email shannon at polsons dot com.

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