Iris Critchell Learned to Fly at USC. She Then Taught Hundreds of Others.

Omar Lewis

Iris Critchell, née Cummings, earned her wings in 1939 at USC. In 1943, she was assigned to the 6th Ferrying Group at Long Beach, California.

On September 11, 1928, 7-year-old Iris Cummings waited with her parents in the grandstands of Mines Field, now known as Los Angeles International Airport, for the Three Flying Musketeers — the U.S. Army Air Corps’ stunt flying team — to dazzle the thousands of fans in attendance at one of the first National Air Shows. Unbeknownst to them, one of the pilots, Lt. John Williams, had been killed in a fatal crash the day before.

“The announcer in the stands said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have the Three Flying Musketeers,’” Iris Critchell, now 103, recalled. “‘We lost the leader yesterday. Now, I want you to notice … Charles Lindbergh.’

“I will always remember that moment.”

The air show took place just a little over a year after Lindbergh completed the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Young Iris watched in awe as the pilots performed breathtaking aerial stunts — and set her on a course to USC and to a life in the clouds.


From the Olympic Pool to the USC Engineering Program

Critchell’s upbringing was far from ordinary. Driven by a love of sports, her father assumed officiating roles at track and field meets and swim events. Blending his medical knowledge as a doctor with his passion for sports, he helped to establish what is now widely recognized as the field of sports medicine. Her mother was a high school teacher. Both raised their daughter with the conviction that her potential knew no bounds.

“I happened to have an unusual background and unusual education, both physical and academic, because my father brought me up in physical activity, moving in the ocean and doing swimming competitions and so forth,” said Critchell. “And my mother was unusual because she was a college graduate and a teacher, and women didn’t do that then.”

By the age of 15, Critchell was already the national 200-meter breaststroke champion, earning her a spot on the U.S. delegation to the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1937, she enrolled at the University of Southern California to pursue a degree in physical sciences and mathematics.

It was at USC that Critchell discovered her true calling: aviation.

“After my first two years at USC, I was old enough to consider my dream, which was to learn to fly,” said Critchell. “My parents would take me to a local airport, and I started to learn to fly a little bit at a time.”

In 1939, she learned about the Civilian Pilot Training Program, initiated by the federal government’s Civil Aeronautics Authority to train civilian pilots. USC was selected as one of the schools to participate, and Critchell seized the opportunity. She was the only woman among 50 students in the USC College of Aeronautics.

The Civilian Pilot Training Program, taught at the nearby Gardena Valley Airport, was an innovative initiative led by USC’s College of Engineering. Under the guidance of engineering professors Sydney Duncan, Earl Hill and Dean Robert Vivian, Critchell honed her flying skills. By her senior year, she had earned her private pilot’s license and completed an advanced aerobatics course. She graduated in 1941 with a degree in physical sciences and math.


War, Women and Aviation

Iris Critchell (née Cummings) was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic women’s swim team.

Upon graduation, she embarked on a career as a flight instructor for the CAA, eventually working with the Navy Cadet Training Program. But everything changed on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

“We were surprised when we came back from flying on that Sunday and the gas boys greeted us with, ‘Pearl Harbor has been attacked,’” Critchell said.

With the United States’ entry into the war, Critchell’s contribution to aviation took a historic turn. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which was later incorporated into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). She flew various military aircraft, including the P-38, P-51 and P-61 Black Widow, becoming an essential part of the war effort. After the deactivation of her unit in 1944, she married military pilot Howard Critchell, whom she had met during her service.


Postwar Legacy

Critchell’s contributions to aviation and engineering didn’t conclude with the end of World War II. In fact, her postwar years were marked by a dedication to nurturing the next generation of aviation enthusiasts and professionals. She was called back to USC, where she played a pivotal role in developing and teaching a curriculum focused on civilian aviation for returning veterans at Hancock Field in Santa Maria. This program evolved into the famed USC Aviation Safety and Security Program in 1952. Now part of USC Viterbi, it was the first program of its kind in the world.

In 1962, Critchell joined Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and, with the support of the Bates Foundation for Aeronautical Education, established the Bates Aeronautics Program. For more than 30 years she led the program that inspired and educated numerous individuals about flight, engineering and aeronautics and science at Harvey Mudd College. Among her students were future astronauts George Nelson and Stanley G. Love.

She continued to teach aeronautics classes until 1996.

Beyond her educational contributions, Critchell was a competitive airplane racer, winning the All Women Transcontinental Air Race in 1957 and earning the top prize of $800 with her friend and fellow pilot, Alice Roberts. Her victories showcased her unwavering determination and passion for aviation.

“The spirit of Iris Critchell is one of doing the next important thing, not knowing where it will lead, but having it lead to really important historic contributions,” said Tom Anthony, director of the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program. “That is the theme of this program here. We continue leading aviation safety, doing the next important thing and having it make a big contribution to aviation overall.”