BOUNTIFUL, Utah – A Utah pilot credited as the first woman to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean is celebrating that trip 50 years after she flew from California to Australia.
Betty Miller, who now lives just north of Salt Lake City, ran a flying school in Santa Monica with her husband and volunteered to pilot a charter plane from Oakland to Brisbane, Australia.
“The days of the leather jacket and the helmet are gone,” she told The Associated Press in 1963. Miller wore crisp, collared dresses on the 7,400 mile, three-week journey.
Friends and family call Miller a fearless adventurer, a skilled navigator and a little-known pioneer for female aviators. Miller says she never much cared for promoting her public image.
Newspaper reports count Miller as the 38th woman to be rated a helicopter pilot out of 51 total. Others refer to Miller as a housewife with a flying hobby, instead of a pilot. She now says she finds that characterization funny.
That trip made Miller, then 36, the first woman to fly across the Pacific without a navigator. The passage won her gold service and international flight medals given to her by presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
May 13 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark journey. Chief among the reasons she accepted the offer, Miller said last week, were that it was a good excuse to adventure and that a woman had yet to fly that route.
“No one had done it yet,” said Miller, now 87. “I was important,” she said. Plus, she added, “Somebody wanted an airplane, and I could get it to ’em.”
Miller’s trip was a reverse portion of the route charted by Amelia Earhart and a navigator in 1937 when they disappeared without a trace.
A good friend had made the trip and suggested she do so on commission from a charter plane company called Piper, looking to raise that company’s profile. Miller made the trip to deliver the American-made plane, a Piper Apache, to an Australian who bought it for night flights.
On the record-setting 1963 flight, Miller’s sole passenger was a miniature troll whose name, she told reporters, was “Dammit.”
Hawaii, Fiji and an emergency touchdown to refuel at an island halfway between the first two were among her stops on that three-week trip. The longest flying stretch was about 20 hours.
Miller felt confident about the journey, she said. But she acknowledges some tense moments.
“The only thing is, what if something happens? It wasn’t built for landing in water. If you had to, you probably wouldn’t be able to get the door open. I had to do a lot of thinking,” she said.
She recalls flying through one storm when lightning bounced off a wing with a blinding flash. Miller had flown through hurricanes, but describes the lightning episode as nerve-racking.
“Betty was actually entirely alone in the plane, with a fuel tank in the back seat. “She had to be the weather man, the navigator, the pilot, the mechanic, everything,” said Kelli Money Huff, a longtime friend.
Miller landed outside the city of Brisbane on the eastern shore of Australia. A crowd of 3,000 broke through police barriers to greet her at about 10:30 p.m. local time, according to newspapers. Photographs from the journey show her posing in front of the plane in a crisp white dress, pearls and sling backs.
After that flight, she continued to operate the California flight school, helped establish fitness standards for female astronauts and freelanced as a helicopter pilot for the Santa Monica police. She flew to Australia a few more times and delivered other planes to such destinations as Paris and Portugal.
She first took to flying, she said, as a youngster growing up near the Santa Monica airport.
Miller most recently flew near her northern Utah home a few weeks ago.
She sometimes brings her parrot, Paco, along for the ride. She plans to become more active in the Ninety-Nines, the women pilot’s organization started by Earhart, and to fly again soon.
“I’m always ready to go. It’s good to see an area from the air. You see where everything’s located” she said, “and how it all fits together.”