Women’s History Month: Remembering Roanoke’s pioneering aviator

Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 2:24 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - In 1940, the first runway at Roanoke’s airport was just being paved for aircraft.

It was at the same time that Martha Anne Woodrum was paving a way of her own.

“To make her way in what was a man’s world, she had something else going for her than just being a pilot!” chuckled Tom Woodburn, Chair of Virginia’s Aeronautical Historical Society.

Martha Anne was born in 1916 to parents Martha Lena Hancock and Clifton Alexander Woodrum, also known as Congressman Woodrum.

Martha Anne Woodrum attended Jefferson High School in Roanoke City as well as Gunston Hall School in Washington, D.C. and later Hollins College.

At just 20 years old, she went on to manage her father’s re-election campaign and for several years, she worked as a receptionist for WDBJ radio. But her sights were set beyond the airwaves and into the air itself.

“The fact that there were so few women doing what she did is some indication of how accomplished she was,” said Woodburn, himself a retired commercial pilot.

He said Martha earned her private pilot’s license but didn’t stop there. This, even though her parents weren’t keen on her flying at first, according to the Colonel William Preston Chapter of the National Society of the American Revolution’s book “Notable Women West of the Blue Ridge 1850-1950.” The Woodrums came around, and Clifton Woodrum earned his own license, but Martha’s mother insisted that though she didn’t mind her flying, she had to wear a skirt!

Martha Anne Woodrum earned an instructor’s license and commercial license, and was the first woman in Virginia to earn an instrument rating.

“And in the case of the instrument rating,” Woodburn explained, “It allows you to operate the airplane in the clouds.”

That was a lofty feat, considering instrument navigation in those days was far more difficult than it is today. Before this rating, pilots would be navigating largely by sight.

It was a technical accomplishment by itself, never mind the fact that aviation then was largely a man’s game.

“She would walk into an airport and the place was full of men,” Woodburn said of the era. “And she may not have been taken seriously initially. But as she gained her licenses, as she gained her ratings, she would have been taken seriously.”

She took business seriously, too. She established Woodrum Flying Service, a flight school and charter service at Roanoke’s Woodrum Field.

The air field was named in honor of her father, who’d worked to bring airmail service and federal funding to the small airport.

And so it was here Martha made a name for herself as businesswoman and flight instructor. She also bought used airplanes in Europe, refurbished and sold them. She’s believed to be the first woman to run an airport fixed base operation.

“The fact that she ran the business of a fixed base operation at Roanoke, that set her apart and set her up to be able to be a role model,” Woodburn explained.

But Martha’s list of accomplishments goes on.

“You put them together and she was formidable,” Woodburn said.

She produced the first All State Air Show with the Roanoke Jaycees in 1949. The next year, she won her division in the Ninety Nine Transcontinental Air Race (Poweder Puff Derby). She was a member of the Roanoke Airport Advisory Committee. She was also the first female president of what was then known as the Virginia Aviation Trade Council.

In 1981, she received a certificate of recognition by the Virginia Department of Aviation for her contributions in the 1940s and 50s, and in 1985 was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.

“I wish I met her!” said Woodburn. “Martha’s one of those people I wish I’d been able to interview.”

Martha died in 2002 at age 85.

The next year, the General Assembly passed a resolution to recognize her as an outstanding Virginian and the Commonwealth’s most prominent woman aviator. And you will find her, along with trophies and a wooden propeller, featured prominently in the aviation section of the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.

“To do what she did,” Woodburn said, “it just, I think, was amazing.”

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