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High Flyer Broke Records—and Barriers

Joann Osterud ’68

She flew high and low over adoring crowds, but she was just warming up. After deciding the sky wasn’t the limit, Joann Osterud turned her plane upside down and began flying with the earth above her head. A magnificent woman in a flying machine, she broke world records and pushed many boundaries.

In 1975, she became the first female pilot employed by Alaska Airlines, and the sixth female commercial pilot in the country. But in addition to flying commercial airlines, Joann became a record-breaking stunt pilot. At an air show in North Bend, Oregon, she broke the record for flying outside loops. The previous record of 62 loops, flown by Dorothy Stenzel, had held since 1931. Joann chalked up 208 outside loops in in her Sorrell biplane Supernova. After seeing Joann perform at an air show, Dorothy had encouraged her to break the record.

Joanne was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where her father taught biology at the University of Minnesota. When she was three years old, the family, which included an older brother and younger sister, moved to Seattle, where Kenneth Osterud taught at the University of Washington.

At Reed, Joann majored in political science and wrote her thesis, “Science Policy: The National Institutes of Health” with Prof. Carl Stevens ’42 [economics 1954–90] advising. “I couldn’t be more positive about my time at Reed,” she said, “I went there to become educated, not trained.” She spent her summers working for future Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In 1968, she began taking flying lessons from a female instructor at Hillsboro Airport. After college, Joann continued taking flying lessons at Boeing Field to fulfill her childhood dream of flying. She briefly attended graduate school at MIT, but found it was a disappointment after Reed. “There were big-name professors with their nameplates on the door, but did but did you ever see one of them?” she said. “At Reed you could go talk to them.”

In lieu of completing a degree in public policy, she received her pilot’s license in 1969. Soon after, she began aerobatic flying, and after a short stint as a flight instructor for Bell Air Service in Seattle she was hired as both a secretary and a pilot for Lynden Transport in Seattle. She became the first female pilot employed by Alaska Airlines,  and flew for them for three years. The fourth woman to graduate from United Airlines’ training school, in 1978 Joann became the sixth female pilot to fly for United Airlines.

But it was her acrobatic maneuvers as a stunt pilot that had crowds staring gape-jawed at the sky. In air shows across the U.S. and Canada she would take her plane straight up into the sky, and then plummet and spiral as if out of control. One crowd-pleasing spectacle was the Ring of Fire, in which she flew through a flaming circle and on her last pass cut a ribbon stretched over the runway while flying upside down.

In 1991, Joann set two records at once: for the longest flight upside down and the longest flight upside down in one stretch—4 hours and 38 minutes over 658 miles up the Fraser River between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vanderhoof, British Columbia. To train for the inversions, Joann attached a pilot’s seat to the ceiling of her garage and practiced hanging for 20 minutes at a time. Her plane was modified with straps to hold her feet to the pedals and a special harness that allowed her to hang upside down. She stood 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 100 pounds—an advantage in coping with g-forces that are six or more times the force of gravity. “Your hand weighs six time what it weighs normally,” she explained. “It’s very physical.” Being inverted caused charley horses in her legs, swelling of her eyeballs resulting in blurred vision, and a runny nose. She once walked away from a crash landing with only a scar on the bridge of her nose.

“Stunt pilots don’t pick their line of work to get rich,” she said. “We do it because we love it and because we like to enrich other people’s lives. I really enjoy flying the airplane, but I also like making people happy and maybe forget all their problems for just a little while.”

Joann would work three days a week as a Boeing 727 flight engineer for United Airlines in Los Angeles, and put the rest of her time into Osterud Aviation Airshows, based in Oxnard where she lived. She was married and divorced twice, and concluded that she was too busy for romance. Her siblings, Allan Osterud and Grey Osterud, survive her.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2017

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