by Jess Clackum
Micky Axton was born Mildred Darlene Tuttle in 1919 in Coffeyville, Kansas. She developed an interest in flying at the age of five when she first saw a plane. When she was eleven, a neighbor took her for her first plane ride in a World War I vintage Curtiss Jenny biplane.
"...I had my first ride with the Inman brothers in a Curtis Jenny when I was 11, and all I did is open the cockpit, drop cross there, there was no parachute, and I loved it. And he said, "Do you want to loop?" And I said, "Of course." So they looped and rolled and did everything and we -- our brother, we just loved it. So every time they were in town, they took us up first, showed the people the kids weren't afraid."
After graduation from high school in 1936, Axton enrolled in college and studied math and chemistry, earning a teaching certificate from Kansas State University. Soon after graduation, she obtained her pilot's license and attended the Civilian Pilot Training program at Coffeyville, the only woman in the class. While she learned to fly, she taught classes in math, chemistry, aviation ground school at Coffeyville Community College and served as coach of the college debate team.
She joined the WASP in 1943, motivated by the letters she received from her brother when he served as a fighter pilot in Guadalcanal in 1943.
“He wrote about how badly outnumbered they were, about how many in his squadron had been killed, I knew I had to do something.”
Axton's husband Wayne, whom she'd known most of her life, had been very supportive of her desire to join the WASP. He worked with Beech aircraft and though he wanted to be a pilot, he was later drafted into the infantry. Her parents, who agreed to care for her child, understood and appreciated her desire to serve her country. It was difficult for her to leave her husband and baby behind.
"It was awfully hard...to leave my husband that I dearly love. We had known each other from the third grade and we have been in love since we were seniors in high school, but mother and daddy said -- of course they knew how terrible things were for my brother and how they were all getting killed..."
Axton departed for training in Sweetwater which she once called "a godforsaken place". She was thankful that she was receiving free training to do something she loved. The training the women endured was thought to be tougher than that which their male counterparts received.
"We had to pass the Air Force physical, so they knew that they had good people to train and our training was going to be just the same, and I think it was even tougher, because those Air Force pilots did all the -- civilian pilots, men that the Air Force didn't want, they were older, they trained to teach us, and some women pilots were trained to teach us -- they were civilians -- but all our check rides were done by Air Force, and out of six in my bay, four washed out, and I had flown with all of them and I think they were just so doggone scared."
After she completed training, Axton was stationed at Pecos Army Air Base in Texas as an engineering test pilot flying the BT-13, AT-6 and UC-78. Her job was to fly damaged aircraft which had been repaired to determine if they were flight worthy. She told the Minneapolis Post in 2008, “Let me tell you, the men were happy to see us. They treated us like royalty. They didn’t want to have to be the testers.”
Testing planes at the airfield in Texas was extremely dangerous in part because of the strong crosswinds. There was also the issue of the damaged planes and whether or not they were actually safe for anyone to fly.
"...they checked everything really and they damaged the planes quite a bit. I mean, flying crosswind, there were lots of ground loops, and in a ground loop they would tear up the prop and the wing and ruin the engine or they would run into another plane that was landing next to it or sometimes they would forget to put the gear down or they would just have a bad landing, they weren't just little minor things that they tore up, but they could still replace them because they needed the planes. So on this flight, after I had been about 300 feet in the air, I heard the engine sputter and I knew it was going out, the way it was acting up, and all I had time to do is I just did a quick prayer and I radioed the tower and told them that I was losing an engine, the right engine, and we all know that if you are in a twin engine plane and one engine quits, that plane is going to go immediately into a spin, that's just the law of physics, so I know my prayer was answered because if you have altitude, you have a thing that you can wind and trim the plane so you can fly it and bring it back, but at 300 feet I didn't have any time to do that, all I had time -- and I said, "I can't get clear around because I am losing altitude. I have got to come in crosswind and clear the field," so they were yelling, "Clear the field. Plane's coming in," and I could hear the ambulances and the fire trucks and everything, and I held that plane up and it came in. I came in crosswind and landed it and I didn't hurt a thing, and I know my prayer was answered because the laws of physics and everybody, the pilots I talked to said, "You were right, angels saved you."
Axton resigned from the WASP in April 1944 when her mother became ill. She returned home and obtained employment as a flight test crew member for Boeing Airplane Company where she analyzed flight data from B-29s to improve their performance. In May 1944, she made the historic flight as the first woman to pilot a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine prop-powered bomber, one of the largest aircraft of its time.
"...I have the papers to prove I was the first woman to ever fly it, but I didn't fly it the same way they did, but I still was the first woman to fly a B-29, but I don't make a big deal about it because we are the ones that he brought in to show them how to do it properly because they were afraid of it, so many deaths, and it was catching fire and stuff, they just weren't paying attention to do it correctly. He [Chief Flight Engineer] just shamed them into it. I will also tell you that the same thing happened with the really fast B-39 and the B-26, it had real unusual characteristics. Now, you know how to fly but every different kind of plane has different characteristics."
After the war, Axton taught high school aeronautics, biology and chemistry in Wichita, Kansas and she also coached the debate team. She raised her family and spent much time in her later years active in aviation organizations and speaking at air shows and events, educating the public on the history of the WASP and inspiring all through their stories. In 1990 Axton became the first woman guest speaker at a US Navy and Marine pilot graduation and the following year, she found herself in the cockpit of the B-29 once again, flying the restored B-29 known as “Fifi” to the Commemorative Air Force in Wichita.
A Colonel in the Commemorative Air Force and active member for four decades, she was honored when the Jayhawk Wing in Wichita nicknamed their newly restored PT-23 “Miss Micky”.
Micky Axton passed away at the age of 91 in 2010. She was a trailblazer who had a dream and never let anything stand in her way of making it a reality. Her advice to young people was this: “If you have a dream, especially if you want to fly, there are a lot of older people that will point you in the right direction.”
We are grateful to Micky for her service to our country and for her fierce determination and courage. Her legacy lives on!