Pioneering Female Chemist and Aviator Still Finds Joy in the Blue Skies of Northeast Ohio: Women’s History Month

March 21, 2023
Luhta learned to pilot a plane at the now defunct Casement Airport in Painesville, and earned her pilot’s license in 1962 at the age of 31 despite the fact that she had learned to fly without knowing how to ‘trim a plane.’

CONCORD, Ohio – For Caroline Naumann Luhta — nicknamed Connie — “nothing was ever forbidden.”

Growing up in Painesville in the 1930s — the only child of a father who longed for a son — she was showered with gifts of baseball bats and mitts and electric trains. So, when she approached her father about attending college in an era when few women did, he didn’t bat an eye and encouraged her to pursue a degree in chemistry.

“I blame it all on my father. Whatever I asked to do, he agreed. So, I learned to do everything,” Luhta said, sitting in the common room at Concord Airpark as she gazed out onto a snowy runway of the small airfield she owns. “He never once said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, so I grew up believing I could.”

Luhta put her chemistry degree to work at Standard Oil’s (SOHIO) research laboratory in Warrensville Heights from 1952 to 1968, where she developed tests for petroleum products and was often sent to the refineries to teach the male workers how to perform them. She has published multiple papers on her work in industry journals.

Paid $15 an hour less than her male counterparts, she often exacted payback by waiting at the lab door with heavy equipment until one of her “gallant co-workers would hold it open for me. It was fun.”

When she was invited to fly with a friend in a small plane to Canada, Luhta took along sandwiches. At lunchtime, the pilot asked her to fly the plane while he ate.

“When I said I didn’t know how to fly, he showed me how to keep the plane straight and level, and I was soon asking if he thought I could learn to fly, too,” she recalled. “He said ‘Of course,’ so as soon as we landed, I signed up for lessons. Back in those days, it was a bit of an oddity for women to fly a plane.”

Luhta learned to pilot a plane at the now defunct Casement Airport in Painesville, and earned her pilot’s license in 1962 at the age of 31 despite the fact that she had learned to fly without knowing how to ‘trim a plane.’

“The instructor who taught me had a broken part on his plane, so I never learned what ‘trim’ was (used to maintain a constant pitch — keeping the plane straight and reducing the pilot’s workload). I really had to muscle that plane around to take off and land it. I didn’t know any different, so I didn’t complain.”

Once licensed, Luhta began flying out of Concord Airpark, where she met – and eventually — married Adolph Luhta, who built the 2,200-foot airstrip on 70 acres of an old dairy farm along Concord-Hambden Road in 1954.

The couple was married for nearly 25 years before his death in 1993. She has been running the airpark alone ever since.

Connie ran the aviation operation, while her husband focused on his construction business. When she was not sweeping the floor or fueling airplanes, she gave flying lessons. She also kept the books for both companies.

Their daughter, Cathy, grew up playing in the airpark’s office while Luhta worked.

“Like my dad, Adolph always believed I could do more than I ever thought I could. Since I didn’t want to disappoint him, I just did whatever he suggested I do,” she explained.

With his encouragement, Luhta was soon flying in Powder Puff Derby races — an all-female coast-to-coast race — with her best friend and co-pilot, Patricia Collier. Together they flew in 10 Powder Puff races – including one when Luhta was seven months pregnant.

“I had the full approval of my obstetrician, who was also a pilot. He said he trusted me to fly a race more than he would trust me on a commercial flight because if something happened, he knew I would land and get to a hospital. His only caveat was that I had to use oxygen if I flew above 5,000 feet,” she explained.

“Pat and I wore matching maternity outfits in that race. We thought it was a hoot.”

To lighten the weight of the plane in one race, Luhta and Collier bought four paper dresses from the Scott Paper Company, which was making a line of paper clothing as an advertising gimmick.

“We were always searching for ways to lighten the plane so we could fly faster, and we thought the paper dresses would really do the trick. Problem was, it got hot in the cockpit and when we perspired, the dresses started sticking to the seat, which caused a whole other problem when we landed. We had to wriggle out of those and dress in different clothes before we could get out of the plane and meet the press.”

Luhta said their best finish was third, “which was not too bad since most derbies had 50 to 100 teams in them. I still have that trophy around here somewhere.”

Her father was so proud, he insisted reporters covering her races insert her maiden name in the articles so friends in Northeast Ohio would know who she was.

But Luhta wasn’t satisfied with just crossing the country. She also flew several intercontinental races known as Angel Derbys.

“I got to see so much of the country and the world I might have never seen because of flying in the races because they would land us in so many interesting places,” she said.

But Luhta wasn’t just successful in the air.

She is the longest-serving trustee in the history of Concord Township – including a few years as Chairman — having held her seat for 28 years before retiring because she believed residents might “hold my age against me if I ran for another term. Do you think 88 is too old?”

In addition, Luhta, now 92, served as a trustee for the now-defunct Northeastern Ohio General Hospital in Madison.

Luhta was instrumental in bringing the International Women’s Air and Space Museum to Burke Lakefront Airport in 1996.

For years, Luhta drove from her home in Concord to Centerville, Ohio, to volunteer as a tour guide and gave presentations when the museum was housed in the home of Asahel Wright, the great-uncle of the Wright Brothers. Because space was so tight, Luhta sought out a better location, which could accommodate the museum’s exhibits and lobbied Cleveland’s City Council and the airport’s board for space in the lobby and concourse. She served on the museum’s board of directors for more than a decade.

For her accomplishments in the air, and on behalf of the museum, Luhta was honored last September with its first Lifetime Achievement Award – and was inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizen’s Hall of Fame in 2016, where her only wish was to be photographed with co-inductee, Annie Glenn.

She still owns the airstrip, though the airpark is currently rated as “uncontrolled,” meaning no one mans the radio anymore to guide pilots to the ground. Pilots take off and land at will. The two hangers still house 10 planes for tenants, who each have their own keys to access hangers and the office.

“I get enough revenue to pay the real estate taxes and that is about it,” she explained, wistfully. “That’s why things look a bit shabby around here.”

Luhta has no plans to retire or groom a successor. Neither her daughter nor step-children are interested in taking over. She said it is likely the tract of land that has seen thousands of planes come and go over the years “will become a housing development one day.”

She still longs for her planes, sold when she suffered from a bout with cancer. Her favorite planes to fly were a Piper Cherokee low-wing and a Piper Aztec. She winks when she says “I think I could pass my medical and get my license back.”

“I just feel so lucky,” she said as she strolled across the snowy ground toward the hanger. “I have had a really good life.”

Now, when asked what was her favorite memory, Luhta just smiles and says “just flying, of course.”

“I just loved being up in the air. There is nothing as peaceful as flying over the countryside. I remember looking down one day and realizing that nothing – absolutely nothing – was important if it could be that small from the air. That has given me a lot of peace over the years.”

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