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High Flyer Broke Records—and Barriers

Joann Osterud ’68

She flew high. She flew low. She did loops, spirals, hammerhead turns, tailslides, and tumbles. A magnificent woman in a flying machine, Joann Osterud broke world records as a stunt pilot,  shattered gender boundries as an aviator, and survived a harrowing crash during a notorious stunt known as the Ring of Fire.

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]. “I couldn’t be more positive about my time at Reed,” she said, “I went there to become educated, not trained.”

Joann had always dreamed of flying as a child, but her first experience in the cockpit came during her senior year at Reed, when she took flying lessons from a female instructor at Hillsboro Airport. She continued taking flying lessons after graduation, then 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.”

She earened her pilot’s license in 1969 and soon began aerobatic flying. 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. In 1975, she became the first female pilot to fly for Alaska Airlines, and only the sixth female commercial pilot in the country.

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. In 1989, she broke the record for flying outside loops at an air show in North Bend, Oregon. The previous record of 62 loops had been set in 1931 by Dorothy Stenzel, who encouraged Joann to break the record. Joann chalked up 208 outside loops in in her Sorrell biplane Supernova


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.

But her most spectacular stunt was the Ring of Fire, in which she repeatedly flew her plane through a gargantuan circle of flames. On her last pass, she would cut a ribbon stretched across the runway while flying upside down. She performed this maneuver dozens of times, but one evening in Yuma, Arizona, in 1997, she flew straight toward the setting sun before her final pass, and became disoriented. She crashed into the runway while upside down, but walked away from the wreckage 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.”

After retiring as a stunt pilot, Joann worked as a Boeing 727 flight engineer for United Airlines in Los Angeles, and put the rest of her time into Osterud Aviation Airshows. 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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