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Remembering an Aviation Legend
Suzanne Upjohn DeLano Parish died Thursday morning, May 13, 2010 at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, California at the age of 87. Born in New York City on November 13, 1922, she was the daughter of Dorothy Upjohn DeLano Dalton and H. Allan DeLano, and the granddaughter of W. E. Upjohn. Suzanne was a well-known aviator who recently was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her service in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. She was Co-Founder and Vice Chairwoman of the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum (Air Zoo). She was also a member of the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame and the Experimental Aircraft Association Hall of Fame. Suzanne was an accomplished pilot and performed aerobatics at air shows around the country. Suzanne was also an expert equestrian, talented actress and generous benefactor. She loved her family and embodied a zest for life, a passion for flying, a flair for cooking and a candid sense of humor. Suzanne's mother and father, sister, Barbara, and brother, William preceded her in death. She is survived by five children, Barbara E. Parish of Grand Junction, Colorado; Katharine P. Miller of Richland, Michigan; P. William Parish of San Francisco, California; Preston L. Parish of East Jordan, Michigan; and David C. Parish of Seattle, Washington; 14 grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. A memorial service and reception for family and friends will be held at 4:00 PM on Saturday, June 19, 2010 at the Air Zoo. Contributions in Suzanne's memory may be sent to the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum (Air Zoo), 6151 Portage Road, Portage, Michigan 49002, or to the Civic Theatre, 329 S. Park Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007.
Had it not been for a fractured ankle, Sue might never have discovered flying. An avid and accomplished horsewoman at only 18, she was sidelined by a riding mishap. The doctor's orders: no riding for six weeks.
Sue chafed under the constraints. Her mother finally suggested that her cousin might be able to arrange flying lessons as an entertaining sideline until she was back in the saddle.
Sue's instructor was Irving Woodhams, who had a pilot's license issued in 1926 and signed by Orville Wright. Teacher and student first met in mid-1941 at the Austin Lake airstrip, south of Kalamazoo. That first flight was the beginning of a lifelong passion for this remarkable granddaughter of Dr. William Erastus Upjohn, the founder and former president of the Upjohn Company (now part of Pfizer).
Fortunately for Sue, her family moved to a home near Phoenix, Ariz., at the end of 1941. That meant her flying and ground school lessons could continue under better conditions than a Michigan winter would allow.
At the age of 21, she became a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), an organization of female pilots formed to combat the shortage of pilots during World War II. Sue and the WASP paved the way for women in aviation, as they were the first women in history to fly American military aircraft. In 1944, she graduated in the WASP 44-W-6 class.
After graduation, she was shipped to the Army Airforce Instrument Instruction School in Bryan, Texas. While there, she flew the AT-6, the most advanced training craft of the day, with combat pilots who were brought back to the U.S. to learn new instrument flying techniques. In this capacity, she test flew repaired planes to make sure they were safe enough for highly trained (and prized) male pilots. As a WASP, she also served as a break-in pilot for new airplanes to make sure they were operating correctly.
While the WASP were ready and willing for combat duty, they never entered hostile airspace. After the war, the WASP were disbanded. Sue wrote to every aviation company she knew of in search of a job as a pilot. She even approached her uncle, Donald Gilmore, then president of the Upjohn Company, for a job as a pilot. However, at that time, female pilots weren't accepted in the aviation industry.
After marrying then-husband Preston "Pete" Parish, a former member of the Marine Air Corps, and starting a family, the couple began to collect airplanes. It was becoming clear that this airborne couple had a passion for flight, and they were looking for a way to share their enthusiasm about World War II planes with others who also enjoyed these historic flying machines.
Their chance came with a challenge from a friend: Start a museum, and he would donate his Grumman Bearcat. In short, they did, he did, and the rest is Air Zoo history!
During her lifetime, Sue logged more than 7,000 flying hours-quite the accomplishment for a nonprofessional female pilot in the male-dominated aviation industry. One of her favorite planes was a pink Curtiss P-40N Warhawk-an aircraft that she frequently flew in air shows around the U.S. That plane now hangs in the Air Zoo's lobby.
When Sue fell off of that horse in 1941, she was studying to be a veterinarian. Think how different her world, and ours, would've been if she had not taken that tumble.
Click below to see more photos of Sue Parish.