A winning quest

The Baltimore Sun

Whenever Jane Gardner Birch passed the Grove City, Pa., interstate exit on her way home, she wondered if the old airport she had visited frequently as a child still existed. One day about eight years ago, she took the exit and discovered that the airport was long gone.

The topic of the airport cropped up again in 2004 when a childhood friend visited Birch's Crownsville home and saw a portrait of her father, Gardner Birch, in a military uniform. He asked when her father had been in the military. She told the friend that he had never served in the military, he trained new pilots.

"I realized then that I didn't know anything about that part of my father's life," said Birch, 64, who received her bachelor's degree in education in 1965 from Kent State University.

The old airport in northwestern Pennsylvania and the unexplained military uniform piqued her interest, she said.

She started a three-year quest for answers, which culminated in a recently self-published book called They Flew Proud.

The book is divided into two sections: a history of the Civilian Pilot Training Program that ran from 1939 to 1944 and taught about 435,000 pilots to fly -- pre and post World War II, and an account of how her father started new sessions in 1944 to train pilots after the military program ended.

Birch, a mortgage lender, won a national award for They Flew Proud, which she received in September through the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Pitted against 12 other aviators, authors, filmmakers, and photographers, Birch was the first person who didn't have a direct tie to aviation to win the Combs Gates Award, said Ron Kaplan, executive director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Started in 2003, the award is open to all forms of media and comes with a $20,000 cash prize. It was initiated with funds from Harry B. Combs, an Aviation Hall of Fame member, and the Charles C. and June S. Gates Family Fund, because there was no award for preserving aviation history, Kaplan said.

The award is given to an individual or group completing a project that promotes or preserves America's air and space heritage, he said. This year, the caliber of the entries was high, he said. But Birch's project was significant in that it dealt with the role of aviation during World War II, he said.

"Jane Birch took a regional look at a national program," he said. "The result was a book that fills a gap in military history."

Since meeting Birch, the civilian pilot program has come up several times, he said. Kaplan was interviewed recently for a program on air combat, to be aired on the Discovery Channel. Some of the aviators discussed in the documentary learned to fly in the program, he said.

"There was a roster of prominent pilots who went through the program," he said. "As a result of the program's significance, They Flew Proud has become part of the pantheon of aviation history."

Birch's account of the program is based on her father, who became a pilot instructor for the program in 1943.

According to Birch, her father had dropped out of high school during the Great Depression and took a job as a bricklayer to help make money for the family.

Before the start of World War II, he learned to fly and became an instructor for the program, which operated under the auspices of the Army Air Corps. She said his association with the Army Air Corps explained his military uniform in the portrait.

When she started her research, Birch didn't have any knowledge of the military or aviation, so finding information about the program proved difficult. She couldn't get access to her father's records after he was killed in 1963 in an industrial accident, so she turned to the Internet and first-person accounts.

Her father instructed pilots for about 14 months in the Army Air Corps program, she said. When it was disbanded in 1944, he started his own program at Grove City Airport.

She said she traced the history of the program through wooden boards that her father created to record the first solo flights of his young students.

"Back then, they didn't have ceremonies to celebrate the solo flights. They would just tear off a piece of a shirt the pilot was wearing and write their name and the date of the flight on it," she said. "Then they would hang the piece of cloth on a board of some sort."

Birch took photos of the 2-by-4.5-foot long boards that hang at the current Grove City Airport, she said. Then she contacted the living pilots for first-person accounts of the program, she said.

"The stories I heard were phenomenal," she said. "But I knew it would require a lot of hard work to find information."

She attended a reunion and met several of the pilots, who then gave her leads to find other pilots, she said.

She obtained papers that included her father's licensing documents and a report on the disbanding of the program in 1944.

She published the book just in time for the awards ceremony in September.

"The biggest joy I have ever had is sharing this wonderful ride with about 50 to 60 other people" -- such as the pilots, airport employees and museum curators, she said.

"This book is my father's legacy. It helped me answer the questions I had about his life and what he did at the airport when I was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania."

A book signing will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27 at the Barnes & Noble, Annapolis Harbour Center, 2516 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad