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From Roaring 20s to Roaring Engines

Joan Swartz from Huron Valley PACE

“They really were the roaring 20s as you might have pictured—girls dressed up pretty with their glittery outfits and dapper men parading around in their amazing cars,” Joan said. “Maybe not quite like The Great Gatsby, but still rather great!”

Joan Swartz was born in 1922—shortly after the “roaring 20s” began. Only her family wasn’t privy to the luxurious lifestyle that some led during that time period. She spent most of her childhood growing up with just her mom, after her dad passed when she was still a school girl. Joan went to school, did her homework, and got good grades. But, on her 17th birthday, something changed.

“My best friend gave me a surprise for my birthday: an hour of flight time at the local airport,” Joan said. “I liked watching planes take off and land, but never thought I would fly one. However, I never thought I couldn’t learn how to fly one either.”

One lesson, and Joan was hooked—being up in the air was where she wanted to be. Like any good mother, Joan’s mom wanted to thoroughly gauge her daughter’s new interest in flying—but just once, and with one question.

“Are you sure you want to do this­? You have to decide what you want to do in life. Just make sure you think about it, because you’re not going to quit once you start.”

Joan’s response was a simple ‘yes.’ And with that, her mother fully supported her and did whatever she could to help Joan afford more flight hours—including renting out rooms in their house. Joan also worked part-time in a drug store to help pay for flight school. It took a lot of time, and a lot of money, but Joan became a pilot.

After completing the first part of her flight school at a small airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., one of Joan’s instructors suggested she take advantage of the education and pay that comes with flying with a special assignment: to help transport manufactured goods across the United States in aide for WWII.

“There was a shortage of men, so women were suddenly deemed as capable as men, and they began recruiting women to become pilots,” Joan said. “But I had the chance to serve my country and make a living—and I wasn’t about to say no to that.”

Regardless, Joan joined the United States Air Force in 1941. She spent the next four years flying across the country, learning how to fly new planes, living in California and helping with all types of transportation and continental flights.

After the war was over, Joan became a commercial pilot, and later, a flight instructor, not fully retiring until she was 80 years old. As the mother of three and grandmother of two, she still calls southeast Michigan home. Her feet may be planted firmly on the ground, but her heart will always be in the sky.

“It’s peaceful up there. Something you can’t quite believe, no matter how much time you spend in the sky. Looking down on the earth between wisps of clouds is so beautiful. It gives you perspective in a way nothing else can,” Joan said.