Local Legend: Iris Critchell

On September 16, 2017, the Western Museum of Flight hosted a day to honor Iris Critchell, a pivotal figure in Harvey Mudd College’s history. Despite being ninety-six years young, Critchell effortlessly recalls the events of the past that shaped her and the college.

Critchell’s career in aviation dates back to World War II, when she joined the Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs) and ferried aircraft from the West Coast to the East Coast. Throughout the war, she piloted a grand total of eighteen different types of airplanes. She spent a brief time during the night discussing her time flying the twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter and how one should fly the airplane when one engine is disabled. She noted that when the P38 suffered single engine failure, it would develop a sudden and dangerous roll. The solution? Lower throttle and gradually increase it. Her favorite plane was the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter. Like the P-38, the P-61 was twin-engined.

Following the war’s conclusion, Critchell remained in aviation through air racing. She participated sixteen times in the All Women Transcontinental Air Race (also referred to as the “Powder Puff Derby”), an annual competition that took pilots from coast to coast. She also worked as a flight instructor.

In 1952, Critchell helped establish the Long Beach-South Bay chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots. During the early 1960s, Critchell and her protege Isabel Bates established the Bates Foundation at Harvey Mudd. The program allowed students to attain flight training at nearby Cable Airport. The program lasted for thirty-five years prior to being discontinued in the 1990s. Many of the Bates alumni have progressed to careers related to aerospace (two became astronauts) and were in attendance to celebrate their mentor.

Critchell continues to fly her aircraft and assist with the aviation library collection at Harvey Mudd. Her legacy can be seen on display in the Aviation Room at the Hoch Shanahan Dining Commons.

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