Born to Fly

Maxine Crookston Schmidt, MA '37

May/June 2016

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Born to Fly

Photo: Courtesy Crookston Family

In an interview in the Ventura County Star shortly before her 100th birthday last August, Maxine Crookston Schmidt, MA ’37, said she had always wanted to fly, remembering how, as a child, she would stand on the porch and flap her “wings.” “I’d jump as far as I could,” she said. “Flying was complete happiness to me.” Schmidt earned her master’s degree in classics at Stanford and taught high school Latin, but she also realized her dream of flying, becoming a pilot and the first female air traffic controller in Salt Lake City and San Francisco.

Schmidt died on January 19 in Camarillo, Calif.

At the University of Utah, Schmidt was the women’s singles champion in tennis her freshman year; during her senior year, she was named vice president of her class, treasurer of the associated women students and honorary colonel of the university’s ROTC.

While teaching full time in Salt Lake City, Schmidt trained for and acquired a private and then a commercial pilot’s license, credentials that would have qualified her to fly for the airlines had they accepted women. When World War II started, she became a first lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration. During the war, Schmidt conducted flight simulator training for Army pilots. Once the war ended, she grew interested in air traffic control, a job that required a pilot’s license, and was hired to work at the Salt Lake City control tower.

According to Glenn Fitzgerald, a fellow air traffic controller and a longtime friend of Schmidt’s, “Before the war, the airlines didn’t hire women as pilots. But with all the men being drafted, they were happy to have women working in the control towers. And Maxine had earned the top rating as a pilot.”

Schmidt was transferred to San Francisco, where she became the first woman watch supervisor in the control tower—and in the country at large—an achievement that earned her national recognition for breaking new ground for women in aviation. 

She loved her work and found love at work, when she met Eugene “Gene” Schmidt, whose job was to test the systems in the control tower. They were married at Stanford’s Memorial Church in 1958.

Pamela Crookston, Schmidt’s niece, recalls, “She was a role model in my life as a young woman. Because of Maxine, I always knew I could do whatever I wanted to do. While she didn’t call herself a feminist, I think she was.”

Schmidt was predeceased by her husband. She is survived by her extended family and many friends.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

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