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Remembering the Days — Flying high: aviation at USC

Remembering the Days - episode 75

USC's connections to aviation go higher than you might think. From civilian and military aviator training to the state's only aeronautical engineering degree program, the university has been spreading its wings for decades. One chapter in the story includes a farmboy who flew a plane by himself at age 12.


I’m sitting in a cockpit with Jacob Bootle, a mechanical engineering student at USC who is also president of the Carolina Flying Club. Perhaps because he is young and feels immortal, Jacob thinks he can teach me how to fly a plane.

Jacob Bootle: “So this right here is your yoke. So, if you pull back, you know, the houses get smaller. You push down, the house get bigger. And then this rolls you left, rolls you right. And then there are pedals down here.”

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re tracing the history of aviation at the University of South Carolina.

The story begins more than a century ago, and USC’s ties to flying include links to World War I and World War II, a family with four generations of pilots and a student who started USC’s first flying club.

But, before we take off with all of that, Jacob Bootle wants me to land this thing.

 “Would you like to try landing?

“Um, I think we'll crash if I try to land it.

“No, no, no.”

“I'll try it.”

Along with being an engineering student, Bootle is also an Air Force ROTC cadet at USC, and he is way too smart to let me fly a real plane that he’s riding in. We’re actually in a flight simulator located in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing. The simulator is really cool — it looks and sounds and feels just like what you would experience inside a single-engine propeller plane.

And the really cool thing about the simulator is that it’s a simulator — my attempted landing of the plane was disastrous … Mayday! Mayday! … but no one got hurt. Enough of all that. Let’s strap in for the story of aviation at USC.

George Theodore Latimer of Chester, S.C., was a senior at USC in 1918 when he enlisted to join the fighting in Europe in World War I. The Garnet & Black yearbook states that Latimer made a perfect score on the exam for aviation service and quipped that enemy fighter pilots had better watch out.

I looked high and low in old newspapers and other archives but couldn’t confirm whether Latimer actually became a fighter pilot in what were then the last few months of World War I. What we do know for sure is that after World War I, a lot of people learned how to fly.

There was no Federal Aviation Administration back then. Just about anyone could buy a military surplus open-cockpit plane and learn to fly it by the seat of their pants.

Case in point was Lester Hembel, a Wisconsin farmboy who learned to fly a plane by himself at the tender age of 12. His grandson, Connor Walker, tells the story.

Connor Walker: “Of course, it was not a highly regulated industry at that point. You had an airplane. You could go do whatever you wanted with it.

"My Uncle Dick learned how to fly, taught my Uncle Marvin how to fly, and dared my grandfather, who was the baby of the bunch, to learn how to fly. And learn how to fly means, you know, you pull the one stick back and the houses get smaller. You push it forward and they get bigger and so on. And my granddad soloed on a dare from his brother and his eventual brother-in-law around the Wisconsin farm when he was 12. So he took the airplane up by himself at age 12 and managed to land it. And after that, they all wound up with careers in aviation of one kind or another.”

So, unlike me in the flight simulator, Les Hembel managed to land a real plane in one piece — at the age of 12.

Les became a barnstorming pilot in the 1920s and came to South Carolina just before World War II to complete the Civilian Pilot Training Program at USC. A year later, Hembel was teaching aviation courses at the university as part of a U.S. Navy aviator program. The United States was gearing up for its eventual participation in World War II, and USC would become a training center for naval pilots.

One of Hembel’s fellow instructors was Caroline Etheredge, who came from an industrious family in the small town of Saluda, S.C., and was herself the first woman to complete the civilian pilot program at Carolina — and the first woman in 11 Southeastern states to earn a pilot’s license. She and Les and the other instructors at USC helped teach hundreds of military aviators how to fly — a major contribution to the war effort.

Les and Caroline later got married, and in the early 1960s they persuaded Hughes Helicopter Corp. to move its dealership from Atlanta to Saluda, S.C. They launched a helicopter flight school in the front yard of the big house where they lived, and for a while it was one of the busiest programs of its kind in the country.

Their daughter Helen earned her pilot’s license, graduated from Carolina in the 1960s and taught school for several years before pursuing a career as a commercial airline pilot. Her son, Connor Walker, remembers his mom’s can-do attitude in an era when many women had limited career options.

Connor Walker: “Her university time was important to her, and she wound up kind of — I don't think she intentionally wanted to continue a legacy or anything as high-minded as that — but she pursued her current skill set  with flying, paired with her university degree and that made her competitive for a flying job with the state, as well as an airline position with Piedmont Airlines, eventually US Air Airlines. And her parents, I think, being an aviation family, they were probably quite proud of her. I know I was.”

As a boy, Connor used to hang out at his grandparents’ home during the summer, and with their helicopter flight school in the front yard, it’s probably not surprising that he earned a pilot’s license for flying helicopters and planes by the time he was 17.

Connor has been a commercial airline pilot now for nearly 40 years, and his oldest son is training to become an Army helicopter pilot. So, in that family there are now four generations of pilots — Les and Caroline Hembel as aviation instructors at USC during World War II, their daughter and grandson, both USC graduates and commercial airline pilots, and now a great-grandson flying helicopters for the military.

Another USC alumnus with a strong aviation connection is Robert Sumwalt III. Before I tell you his story, let me mention his grandfather, Robert Sumwalt, who was an engineering professor at USC when he helped bring the naval aviator training program to the university during World War II. Sumwalt became dean of the school of engineering and later became president of USC in the late 1950s.

His grandson, Robert Sumwalt III, likes to say that he got interested in aviation by accident. Here’s how it happened.

Robert Sumwalt: “There had been a plane crash out by the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. And as a 17-year-old, I thought it'd be pretty neat to go see if  I could find that. And I got there right when the coroner was arriving.

"I followed the coroner into the crash site, and I saw it. I thought a lot about it — two fatalities.

"This is the part that actually makes no sense at all, unless maybe you're 17 years old. And that is on the way back from seeing where a plane crashed, where people had died, what do you do? Well, naturally, you drive by the airport and stop into the local flight school and sign up for flying lessons. So I literally got into aviation by accident, but I was immediately hooked on it. I finished my private pilot certificate by the time I'd graduated from high school and entered as a freshman at the University of South Carolina.” 

As a newly minted pilot and a freshman at Carolina in the mid-1970s, Robert wanted to continue pursuing aviation but encountered what turned out to be a temporary roadblock.

Robert Sumwalt: “I immediately realized that we did not have a flying club at the university. And so I marched into the, then it was the dean of student activities, Dean Bob Alexander. I marched into his office and gave him all the reasons why we needed a flying club. And then he sat me down and explained to me all the reasons why we were not going to have a flying club. I  said, ‘Yes, but we have a sport parachute club. We have a sailing club. We have a scuba club. We need a flying club.’ And he said, ‘Nope, not going to happen.’

“And this is literally the way it happened. I got up to leave his office and on the way out, on the way out of the door. I said, ‘Gosh, I just thought since Clemson had a flying club since 1928, I just thought that we needed one here at the University of South Carolina.’ And he said, ‘Sit back down, young man.’ And the rest was history. That was in September. We formed the USC Flying Club. We bought our first airplane in February, just a few months later. So we bought our first airplane in 1975 and we kept it out at what was then the Owens Field.” 

Owens Field is a small airport in the Rosewood neighborhood of Columbia. Its former manager, Jim Hamilton, became a very generous friend of the USC Flying Club, providing students with a small outbuilding and later providing much-needed oversight for the club’s planes and flight instruction for the students.

Mr. Hamilton was also an aviation ground instructor for the Air Force and Navy ROTC programs at USC and, through his Midlands Aviation Flight School, taught many USC students over the years how to fly planes. A very long list of ROTC students got their pilot’s licenses while they were at USC, and some of them went on to illustrious military.

Owens Field is now officially named the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport.

While he was still in his 20s, Robert Sumwalt went on to become the first pilot for the University of South Carolina airplane, ferrying the university president and other university officials across the state and sometimes around the country. Later, he became a commercial airline pilot, flying for the same company, Piedmont Airlines, where Helen Hembel Walker was a pilot.

He went on to become a board member and chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which, among other things, investigates plane crashes like the one he saw when he was 17 and first got interested in aviation. Sumwalt now heads the center for aviation and aerospace safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Interest in the USC Flight Club that Sumwalt started back in the 1970s waxed and waned over time. When Jacob Bootle, the engineering student you met at the beginning of this episode, came to USC as a freshman four years ago, there was no flight club. Jacob met retired USC nursing professor Patrick Hickey, a veteran pilot and aviation enthusiast, who encouraged him to relaunch the flying club. And he did. It’s now called the Carolina Flying Club, and student members are busy rebuilding a single-seat kit airplane that can go airborne at just 40 miles per hour.

With both of my feet planted firmly on the ground, I look forward to watching them launch their plane in the near future.

I’ve introduced you to a handful of aviators with USC connections and pointed out USC’s World War II connections to aviator training. The university’s links to aviation go deeper still. The McNAIR Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research is based in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, and the center’s faculty members conduct research with Boeing and many other aeronautical companies.

In addition, the engineering college now offers the state’s only aerospace engineering degree program.

Even though we’ve cruised through a century of aviation connections to Carolina, I’ve really only scratched the surface. Suffice to say, there are a lot of USC alumni out there who love to fly and have made their own unique contributions to aviation.

This is the last episode of Remembering the Days for the year. The podcast will return in January for the spring 2024 season. We’ll have episodes about the history of the Women’s Quad, the university’s centennial and bicentennial celebrations, USC during the Reconstruction era and much more.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy a great holiday season, and I’ll look forward to meeting up with you again in the new year. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.