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Renaissance woman flew high in the skies in the 1930s
Gainesville resident recounts her adventures as a pilot in Tennessee
Gladys Lacey Jones of Gainesville is the last living charter member of the Tennessee chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots started by Amelia Earhart. - photo by Andrew Akers

“Well, I was always eager to learn something new,” the 103-year-old woman said without further explanation.

This simple sentence may not sound like the words of a pioneer, but that is exactly what Gladys Lacey Jones is: a pioneer.

The current Gainesville resident first learned to fly 75 years ago, in a time when it was considered unusual for a woman to drive her own car let alone pilot an airplane. Today, she remains the last living charter member of the Tennessee chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots famously started by Amelia Earhart and 98 other women.

Jones’ adventures in flying started in the 1930s when the newly established Civil Aeronautics Authority sponsored a training program aimed at increasing the numbers of pilots in the United States. A ground school was offered near Elizabethton, a small town in East Tennessee where Jones worked and graduated from high school. The prize for the top 10 men and top two women who took the final written test was 50 hours of flight training.

“I took this ground school course with my friend because she wanted to learn about flying because her boyfriend was really interested in it,” Jones said. “Then, of course, I became interested in aviation and having 50 free hours of flying time, I couldn’t resist that. I was hooked on it.”

Jones said she had many adventures during the years she flew. One, however, sticks out in her memory.

One day during a practice flight, fog rolled in. Unable to see, Jones was forced to fly above the clouds. Eventually the fog dissipated, but Jones was forced to perform an emergency landing in a field because she was running low on fuel.

She chose an empty field and successfully landed her plane. Her low approach took her over several men who were repairing the roof of a barn.

“The man came down from that barn after I landed in that field and said ‘if I had known it was a woman in that plane, I would have been scared to death,’” Jones said.

Learning to fly wasn’t the only unusual thing Jones did during her life. In the 1930s she began working as a secretary for the plant manager of the Bemberg Rayon Plant in Elizabethton. She learned German to help her German-born boss to write letters in English.

In addition, she was also the first woman in her rural Tennessee community to own and operate a car.

“Mom stepped out before it was even possible for a woman to learn how to fly or drive a car,” said Jones’ daughter, Bette Noble. “She did what was unusual for woman in her age group to do, and yet she was a wonderful mother.

“She is a Renaissance woman, a generation or two ahead of her time.”

Jones graduated as valedictorian from her high school in 1929, and today she can still recite poetry she memorized. Her favorites include “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Jones’ love of flying seemed to branch into her love life. She married another pilot, Hubbard “Cotton” Jones Jr.

His work schedule often took him away from home, leaving Jones to raise her daughter and son by herself. During this time, Jones chose to forego flying to be a mother.

Despite all of her accomplishments, it was Jones dedication to her children and their education that is most memorable, Noble said.

“She took us to church and Sunday school every Sunday regardless of whether our father was in town and had to sleep because of a late-night arrival or was away on a flight,” Noble said. “That is the most important thing for which I admire our mother.”

Today, Jones lives with Noble and her husband in Gainesville. She celebrated her 103rd birthday recently, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

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