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In Rare Air: 94-Year-Old Local Pilot Still Takes To The Skies

Elaine Olney, 94, of Warren, has had her pilot’s license since 1944. Olney piloted a plane out of Brokenstraw Airport on Tuesday, flying over the Upper Reservoir at Kinzua Bay on the way to the Kinzua Viaduct in McKean County. Times Observer photos by Brian Ferry

WARREN, Pa. — All Elaine Olney wanted to do was fly.

When she was young, her father told her to learn to do something no one else was doing.

She tried the piano.

“That bored me.”

She kept looking.

Elaine Olney, 94, of Warren, has had her pilot’s license since 1944. Olney piloted a plane out of Brokenstraw Airport on Tuesday, flying over the Upper Reservoir at Kinzua Bay on the way to the Kinzua Viaduct in McKean County. Times Observer photos by Brian Ferry

As a self-described “goody-two-shoes” high school senior, Elaine cut school one day shortly before graduation to ride to the Warren Airfield for a flight.

“They offered a free ride on a school day,” she said.

That was all it took. No more piano.

“I was hooked,” she said. “Flying didn’t bore me.”

“I just loved the feeling of getting up into the sky and seeing everything — the whole world — from a different perspective,” Elaine said.

Elaine Olney, 94, of Warren, has had her pilot’s license since 1944. Olney piloted a plane out of Brokenstraw Airport on Tuesday, flying over the Upper Reservoir at Kinzua Bay on the way to the Kinzua Viaduct in McKean County. Times Observer photos by Brian Ferry

She was also caught. Her teacher saw her riding her bicycle. When she couldn’t produce an excuse signed by her parents with a reasonable sounding explanation, the principal even reduced her grades.

Those events took place in 1944.

Elaine immediately began training and flew as often as she could.

The requirement at that time was 75 hours of ground instruction.

Then, she was in the air.

“The minute I could solo, I took a lot of people up,” she said. “I had lots of fun. I went up a lot.”

She estimates she was in the air almost every week from 1944 through 1946.

An hour flight cost about $8 back then. Sometimes Elaine didn’t have that much. If she had as little as $2, she would still make the trip from her home on Conewango Avenue to what is now Betts Park. “It was worth it to me to walk two or three miles to go up for 15 minutes,” she said.

Elaine never went very far.

She arrived at Allegheny County Airport without a radio. “It caused quite a stir,” she said.

“To the north, I’ve been as far as Niagara Falls,” she said. “Just to see what it looked like.”

She had to fly at least 75 miles early on as part of her training.

“My episode of cross-country flying was a raging failure,” Elaine said. “I was probably in four different fields that I shouldn’t have been.”

She flew out over Lake Erie, again to see what it looked like, and her floating compass stopped floating. She eventually got back over land.

Her flights were not basic up and down affairs.

“I did a lot of acrobatic things,” Elaine said. “I did a lot of spins… a lot of slips. We went upside-down.”

In a slip, a plane is not pointing exactly in the direction it is flying, she explained.

She learned on a Piper Cub. “It was a much easier plane to fly,” she said. That plane only had four instruments, not even a fuel gauge.

Easier wasn’t what she was going for. “My favorite plane was a PT-19,” she said. “It was bigger and noisy… and wonderful. You had to have a parachute.”

“It attracted a lot of attention,” Elaine said.

And it was able to do things the smaller plane could not.

“The little ones you couldn’t do loops,” she said.

The PT-19?

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

“It was fun,” Elaine said. “Still would be fun.”

One might expect a pilot who is into loops and spins to be immune to motion-sickness. Not Elaine. She just didn’t mind.

“I used to make myself deathly ill,” she said. “I’d kick that door out, tip the plane, and puke. Each time you throw up, you feel better.”

The flight log she uses today contains a record of her first flight training flight — June 4, 1944. “You can’t find a log book older than that,” she said.

There are about 100 entries in that book — most of them from when Elaine was in her teens.

She went off to school in Oklahoma with the goal of becoming a meteorologist.

It didn’t pan out. She had met a man and wanted to get married more than she wanted to continue her education and pursue that career.

She married Dick Olney in 1948.

“I took him for a ride in the PT-19,” she said. “My flaps wouldn’t notch. The handle fit in a notch and it wouldn’t fit. We circled the field nine times.”

“Quite a few people were watching,” she said. “I think they wanted me to go in the river.”

After that, there is a long gap in the log book.

Family was the focus of her life for 50 years and flying was not a part of it.

Then in 1998, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, she told Dick, “I didn’t want a picture of me making a quilt.”

At his suggestion, they had a picture taken in front of an airplane and she went for a flight.

She has been back in the pilot’s seat since and is just as hooked as ever.

She will turn 95 in January and has no plans to give up her passion.

Elaine would like to fly more. “It’s expensive,” she said. “I like to buy other things.”

But, she keeps a little cash reserve with a one-word label on it — “fly.”

On Tuesday, a few months past 77 years after her first flight, Elaine was at the controls again.

With flight instructor and long-time pilot John Terrasi and a passenger, Elaine flew from Brokenstraw Airport to the Kinzua Viaduct in McKean County. She was in control from take-off to landing — all without a hitch.

“The flight today was lovely,” Elaine said. “No high winds. Very little turbulence. The leaves were a little disappointing.”

She plans to go up again next week. “It’s always wonderful,” she said.

Elaine speaks highly of Terrasi. “John is unsurpassed,” she said. “He has never had a student with problems or accidents. He has a record of having a lot of people go through here and having them stay safe.”

“People come all the time,” he said. “They want to get their pilot’s license.”

Often, within a couple hours, they change their minds.

Not Elaine. “She’s got it, 100 percent,” Terrasi said. “She has that smile plastered on her face all the time.”

Sometimes, the smile on her face takes on a different tone — a devious one.

In addition to doing some stunt-flying, Elaine once violated the rules and had her license pulled.

“I buzzed the Watson Home,” she said. “If I could do that again, I would. Even if they pulled my license.”

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