Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue: Pilot Ethel Hardee Woolley took to the skies as a grandmother in the 1950s

Ethel Hardee Woolley of Plant City took up flying in the late 1950s. She died April 5 in Plant City. She was 94.

Family photo

Ethel Hardee Woolley of Plant City took up flying in the late 1950s. She died April 5 in Plant City. She was 94.

PLANT CITY — Ethel Hardee was a grandmother when the idea struck her. Her husband hunted in those days, the late 1950s, and the girls were both grown and married. Mrs. Hardee decided she needed a new interest, beyond poetry and bridge.

Then it came to her. She would learn to fly airplanes.

It must have felt delicious, for she decided not to tell her husband right away. He was Clifford Hardee, founder of Hardee Manufacturing Co. and Plant City Steel.

And so, in the fall of 1958, she took to the skies, soaring over the shingles of homes where women dusted black and white TV sets for weekly episodes of Father Knows Best. Down below, somewhere, was her past, that of a Georgia girl who grew up poor, left school young and worked at a Plant City five-and-dime during the Depression.

After her first solo, she told Mr. Hardee her secret. She thought he seemed proud. They found her a yellow and black, four-seater Cessna. She flew it home from Wichita, Kan., then later around Florida, sometimes wearing a dress and heels.

"You get up there and relax and forget about everything else," she told a newspaper reporter in June 1959.

Flying struck her as a useful skill, like driving a car. She felt safer in the air than on the ground — perhaps a solid instinct, for relatives had noted her speed.

"I've been flying with her on the ground for years," her sister Lillian once said. "I might as well go up in the plane."

Once, Mrs. Hardee flew daughter Carolyn Manee to Daytona Beach, declaring, on approach, "Whup, wrong airport." She flew to Anna Maria Island and buzzed the family beach house.

She met other female pilots. They formed a club and called themselves the Grasshoppers, soaring all over Florida. It was happening everywhere. By the 1960s, a swarm of 12,000 American women had found their wings. Men still outnumbered them 25 to 1.

From Mrs. Hardee's new view, she could not help but see the world. She and another sister, Louise Murray in Tampa, hatched travel plans. They started in 1972, with a Winnebago trip to Alaska. By then, the 30-year marriage to Mr. Hardee had ended and she had married Louis Woolley, whom she met while taking dance classes.

She traveled well into her 80s, sometimes with Mr. Woolley, who died in 1989, and often with her sister.

"She'd say, 'If you'll go with me to Singapore, I'll go with you to Russia,' " Mrs. Murray said.

Yet, if asked about her life's richest adventures, she would have talked about grandchildren and strawberry shortcake — skipping right past Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, Indonesia, China, South America and her favorite, Hawaii.

She was 94 when she died April 5 in Plant City. Diabetes had left her blind, but she often said she considered herself lucky.

Until recent years, she went out for lunch regularly with Mrs. Murray. There was a restaurant upstairs at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The two would find a table near the window, and watch the planes take off.

Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

. Biography

Ethel Hardee Woolley

Born: Jan. 17, 1915

Died: April 5, 2009

Survivors: daughters, Dorothy Harkala and Carolyn Manee, both of Plant City; sister, Louise Murray, of Tampa; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Epilogue: Pilot Ethel Hardee Woolley took to the skies as a grandmother in the 1950s 04/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:21am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Fox renewed O'Reilly contract despite knowing of allegations


    NEW YORK (AP) — The Fox News Channel says the company knew a news analyst planned to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill O'Reilly when it renewed the popular personality's contract in February.

    Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly appears on the Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," in New York. O'Reilly has lost his job at Fox News Channel in April following reports that several women had been paid millions of dollars to keep quiet about harassment allegations. [Associated Press file]
  2. Conviction overturned 30 years later in neo-Nazi murder case


    TAMPA — A judge on Friday overturned the murder conviction of Dean McKee now that new evidence has raised doubt about McKee's guilt in a Tampa slaying that occurred nearly three decades ago when he was 16.

    In 1987, a St. Petersburg Times reporter interviewed Dean McKee for a story about young skinheads in Tampa. [Times | 1987]
  3. Experts have some theories on who's carrying out Seminole Heights killings


    The words serial killer tend to conjure an image of a middle-aged white man, likely a loner. He stabs or chokes or strangles, murdering up close for the thrill, straight out of central casting.

    A memorial was set up where Anthony Naiboa, 20, was found shot to death in Seminole Heights. Some experts who have reviewed information in the case say that whoever is behind the three Seminole Heights killings may live in the area. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  4. Late fumble, field goal send Florida State to another loss


    TALLAHASSEE — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher didn't have an explanation for the turning point in Saturday's 31-28 last-second loss to Louisville.

    Louisville's Lamar Jackson gets past Florida State's Matthew Thomas to score in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Tallahassee Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) FLSC102
  5. Funeral starts for soldier at center of Trump fight


    COOPER CITY, Fla. (AP) — Mourners remembered not only a U.S. soldier whose combat death in Africa led to a political fight between President Donald Trump and a Florida congresswoman but his three comrades who died with him.

    The casket of Sgt. La David T. Johnson of Miami Gardens, who was killed in an ambush in Niger. is wheeled out after a viewing at the Christ The Rock Church, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017  in Cooper City, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP) FLMIH102