By Di Freeze and Karen Di Piazza
Julie Clark retired from Northwest Airlines at the beginning of 2004, after 20 years as a captain, and with an accident-free record. The 58-year-old vividly remembers her final flight in October 2003. A big reason for that was the company she had on the flight.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “Nine of my closest friends and family members were on that flight, including my twin, Judy, and Sharon, our older sister.”
The fact that her twin was on the flight was a victory in itself.
“I scared her back in 1974, when I was flying a Navy T-34 Mentor and thought I was a shit-hot pilot,” she said. “So, she’d never flown with me, in all those years. She promised me that she would take my last flight with me, but she truly has a fear of flying. She doesn’t go anywhere on the airlines, because she becomes a nervous wreck.”
For the occasion of Clark’s final flight, she made sure her twin would be relaxed.
“Before we got on the Airbus, we put Jack Daniels in her coffee; our flight left at 6:10 in the morning,” Clark laughed. “Gayle Shurtz, a flight attendant friend of mine, came along. She took care of Judy, who ended up having a blast.”
Shurtz’ presence on the flight was another first. Prior to her 30-year career with Northwest, she and Clark had both been flight attendants with TWA.
“She was always based in San Francisco,” Clark said. “The last 20-plus years, I was based in Minneapolis. So we never flew together on a trip. We have all this on video. It was such a great, memorable flight.”
Clark fondly remembers that when she was coming into the area the day before her last flight, she was allowed to circle over her house, located in Cameron Park, Calif.
“The next day, when I was leaving with my family and friends, I got to circle my house again,” she said. “Since it was my last flight, the air traffic controllers made a big deal. I got that big fire truck salute leaving Sacramento, and they let me circle Mt. Rushmore, in South Dakota. It was a full flight; we had 180 people on board.”
Clark said that Judy was feeling no pain.
“She kept saying, ‘Tell my sister to quit doing those 380s’; she meant 360s,” Clark laughed.
Ernest A. “Bud” Clark flew C-47s in the Air Transport Command and later, as a transport pilot, flew with Mid-Continent Airlines. There, he met Marjorie Johnson, a clerical employee who would become his wife and would give birth to their first daughter, Sharon, in 1945. On June 27, 1948, Judy and Julie, fraternal twins, were born to the couple, in Hayward, Calif.
Julie Clark was too young to remember it, but she knows when she took her first flight. It was with her father. Ernie Clark was a captain at the time for Southwest Airways, a regional airline that was founded in 1946 and would become Pacific Airlines 12 years later.
“I was with my mom and Judy,” she said. “I was three months old. My mom later told me about trying to breastfeed the two of us, on this DC-3.”
Clark does remember a special flight later on.
“I was about 7 or 8, and we were in the Martin 4-0-4,” she said. “We went up the coast to Medford and then hit every little stop all the way back to San Francisco. Dad put me in the baggage compartment and told me he’d come back later and get me. He was flying with Danny Murphy, who’s now well into his late 80s—my dad would be 95 right now. I remember the two of them singing and whistling as we were flying along. And I remember thinking, ‘This is the greatest job in the whole world; I want to fly an airplane for a living!'”
She also recalls her dad’s excitement when he started flying a Fokker F-27.
“When I was about 10 or 11, I went with him to Hagerstown, Maryland, to ferry back these brand new turboprops,” she said. “He thought that airplane was the greatest thing since sliced bread, because it was a jetprop.”
Clark remembers asking why the aircraft had both a jet engine and a propeller on the front.
“He explained to me about reduction gears and what drives the prop,” she said. “He told me you had to reduce the gears to keep the propeller from over-speeding.”
Another one of Clark’s fond memories is her dad helping her put together a model airport for a class assignment.
“When I was in fourth grade, we had to do a three-dimensional project, and mine was building an airport,” she said. “Dad built me this little United DC-6 airplane. We built a little terminal, runways and taxiways. He explained how it all worked, so when I gave my report, I could explain things like what the control tower did. I got an A on the project.”
Her interest in aviation led to a definite difference in how the three sisters spent their time.
“They’d play with dolls,” Clark said. “I made model airplanes.”
Clark describes her childhood as being “picture-perfect.”
“We always had inspirational conversations at the dinner table, which was the hub of our home,” she said.
Clark was usually the one that showed up at the table late, often in torn or dirty clothes.
“I was a tomboy!” she grins.
Another fond memory is of her dad cooking for the family.
“We loved Dad’s cooking,” she said. “He enjoyed doing it for us. I think I take after my mother; I get a panic attack when I walk into the kitchen.”
Clark said she was lucky to have had two parents who were both working professionals. That wasn’t fashionable back in the 1950s.
“My mother was a role model,” Clark smiles. “She was always there for us, but she also worked as a real estate agent. She needed that, just for her. I was never encouraged to grow up and become a ‘submissive little homemaker.'”
Tragically, Clark’s idyllic childhood ended sooner than it should have. When she was 14, her mother, who was 44, choked to death.
“My father was completely devastated,” she said. “It was such a blow.”
One year after their mother died, the Clark sisters also lost their father. The 52-year-old captain was murdered in May 1964, when a suicidal passenger walked into the cockpit and shot the crew. Clark had been filling in for the scheduled pilot.
“So many people say, ‘Your dad was hijacked,'” Clark said. “But he wasn’t. Hijackings were in the late ’60s; everybody wanted to go to Cuba and beyond. It was something that had never happened before. This guy had financial and marital problems. He just wanted to make a name for himself. He purchased a gun the day before and wrote a suicide note. He intended to crash the airliner into the San Francisco Bay.”
The aircraft went down, killing all 44 people on board. The tragedy prompted the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Clark Act” in 1967, which required cockpit doors to remain locked during commercial flights.
“When he died, it was like somebody took away my right arm,” Clark said. “He was my mentor. He was my hero. He would have helped me restore all these airplanes; he would’ve been so into it and so proud. He always wanted his own airplane, but Mom said, ‘No. We have a swimming pool and everything.’ He loved my mom so much; everything he did, he did for her and his family. He was really a very committed father.”
Clark’s aunt and uncle were appointed their legal guardians. She never felt the same closeness with them as she had with her parents.
“My mom’s sister was barely 30 when she took on three teenagers,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Clark continued attending school at San Carlos High School, but spent her junior year in Chile as an exchange student. When she arrived home in 1965, she immersed herself in school activities. She was crowned homecoming queen her senior year and later crowned Miss San Carlos 1966.
Although the death of her father was devastating, Clark still wanted to be a pilot. But that wasn’t a dream her guardians supported. Partially as an escape from home life, she applied to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was accepted. She received a hardship scholarship from the Bank of America and won a monetary award for the vocational arts. Although her guardians wouldn’t help pay for flying lessons, she took an introductory ride at Goleta Airfield and took infrequent lessons at Santa Barbara Airport. Her guardians never questioned why she needed so much money for “schoolbooks.”
But Clark left college in 1968, before she could solo. TWA had hired her as an air hostess. She moved to New York, where she was based for a year and a half. But when she got into a car accident that left facial lacerations, she went back to California for surgery. There, she worked as a ground hostess.
“When I came back to California, I just decided one day, ‘I’m going to learn to fly,'” she recalled of her renewed commitment.
When a man she was dating moved to Fort Rucker, Ala., to be a helicopter instructor, Clark moved to Alabama as well. Although she didn’t have teaching credentials, she found a job teaching Spanish in Enterprise, Ala. She taught there for a year, but couldn’t shake her dream of flying.
In 1969, Clark got her private pilot’s license.
“That’s when I started working on my first rating,” she said.
In the early 1970s, Clark worked several jobs to make ends meet. She was a cocktail waitress at Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse south of San Francisco, performed daily in the water ski show at Marine World and was a purser with San Francisco and Oakland Helicopter Airlines (SFO). She was also a flight attendant for World Airways, a non-scheduled line.
While flying for World Airways, she accumulated the money necessary to obtain instrument, commercial and certified flight instructor ratings. Her marriage in 1975 to Rick Ames, an A-7 Corsair pilot stationed at Navy Air Station Lemoore, would lead to more flying experience.
“He helped me get a job as a civilian instructor,” she said. “I went through the training down in Florida and came back to instruct on an 18-month contract.”
Her Navy connections led to her learning how to fly formation, including how to fly on a lead pilot’s wing and how to hold steady. She fell in love with the Beech T-34.
“They’re such great airplanes,” she said. “When I was shutting down the airplane on my last day, I was sad to think I’d never fly one of those airplanes again.”
She also began learning aerobatics. And she bought a Rockwell Commander 112A and decided to try her luck at air racing.
“I’ve flown in two Powder Puff Derbies and a Palms to Pines Air Race,” Clark said. “I really got involved, but they took a lot of time, and I needed sponsorships. It was fun but not something I wanted to keep doing for a long time.”
Clark’s flying experience expanded when she began flying for Agri-Till, transporting farm equipment parts.
“That’s where I really got a lot of my multi-engine time, because I was landing on unimproved strips, dirt roads and aqueducts; it was treacherous,” she said. “I got about 300 hours of multi-engine time that way.”
She flew for Agri-Till for a year. That job led to one with Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno.
“I flew a Cessna 421 for the hospital,” she said. “I flew incubator babies around.”
She also flight instructed briefly at a fixed base operation and worked for Western Sierra, flying charter flights, including gambling junkets between Fresno, Calif., and Reno, Nev.
Golden West Airlines
When Clark began her quest for a job with the airlines, she said it wasn’t to prove a point for womankind. It was merely because it was her lifelong desire.
“All I ever wanted to do was fly!” she said.
When she found out that Golden West Airlines, a commuter operation in San Francisco, was hiring, she was determined to fly for the airline. On her first call, she was told they had never hired a woman. Still, she called again. This time, she was told that she’d have to attend ground school in Canada, to be able to fly the de Havilland Twin Otter.
“I told my husband that I’d have to take a loan out on the house to pay for training,” Clark said. “The school was geared for Canadian pilots who flew the bush; they had to fly, fix and dispatch their own airplanes. That was back in 1976. It was difficult, but I came back with my certificate.”
Still, Golden West wouldn’t hire her. Frustrated, she applied to 30 different airlines. Knowing that her gender was still a problem, she became creative with her resume and applications.
“I removed my resume photo and wrote down my name as Julian. Also, there’s that box that says, ‘Sex: F or M?’ It’s always a little, teeny square. I’d just skip it, like I hadn’t seen it,” she laughed. “I just wanted them to call me. Nobody would call me, and if I called them, they’d hang up on me. It was very discouraging.”
Clark finally did interview at Golden West, nine months after she first began calling. After that, the airline put “the girl from San Joaquin” through a seemingly endless series of interviews.
“Captain Abe August, the chief pilot, finally told me he’d hire me,” she said. “But first, he said I’d have to cut my hair. I went for two different interviews where my hair went from waist-length to chin-length. When I went for a check ride, he said, ‘The hair still isn’t short enough.’ I was crushed. I came home, told my husband, and then I cut it shorter than his hair.”
Clark hated the drastic change, but knew August was giving her the break she’d dreamed of, and that he didn’t want to give anyone a reason to make waves. However, Clark still wasn’t through the door. In fact, a literal door was standing in her way. She and August had discussed the problem that no women’s restroom was near the ramp area, so she’d have to walk through the terminal to use those facilities. Also, the operations area at LAX included a men’s restroom that didn’t have a door.
“When I went back for that final ‘final interview,’ Captain August said, ‘We still have an obstacle.’ It was that door,” Clark exclaimed. “I leaned over his desk and said, ‘I’ll buy a damn door if you’ll just hire me!’ He said he liked my spunk.”
Clark took her last flight for Western Sierra on June 23, 1977. The next month, she started flying with Golden West. Based in Los Angeles and on reserve, she was the only woman among 110 pilots.
“When I first got hired, newspapers in Los Angeles wanted to do articles on me, but Captain August wouldn’t allow it,” she said. “I didn’t care; I just wanted to do my job. I didn’t want publicity.”
While she was with Golden West, most of Clark’s flying was out of LAX to Ventura, Santa Monica, Ontario and Orange County, Calif. Five months later, Clark received offers from both Western Airlines and Hughes Airwest.
Hughes Airwest, headquartered in San Francisco, had already hired Rick Ames. But that wasn’t why Clark wanted to work there. The airline was a culmination of mergers. Air West was formed in 1968 with the merger of Pacific Airlines—the carrier that had employed her father—Bonanza and West Coast. After Howard Hughes purchased the airline in 1972, he changed the name to Hughes Airwest. Clark was thrilled to think she would be flying with a company that had been part of her father’s airline career and flying the same airplanes he flew.
Clark was based in Phoenix, where she flew an F-27. With her move to Hughes, she became one of the first 20 women to be hired to fly for a major U.S. airline as a first officer. That made the media frenzy worse.
“They hounded me,” she said. “Sometimes it was hard to do my job. One time, in Seattle, I needed to go to the restroom. I was running down this maze of hallways, and I took the wrong turn. I heard, ‘There she is!’ Cameramen and reporters started chasing me. I went into the chief pilot’s office, crying. I said, ‘You have to get these people off me.’ Everywhere I went, on every flight, it was always a big commotion, when passengers saw a woman up there. And it was embarrassing for the captain I was flying with. I got together with the other 19 female pilots once a year, to compare notes on the mayhem that was going on.”
Clark didn’t fly as often as she would have liked, however.
“Back then, captains decided when a first officer would fly,” she said. “Protocol said first officers would fly every other leg, but my captain said, ‘Maybe you’ll fly, and maybe you won’t.'”
Clark took it in stride, and her passion for flight earned her many friends in the industry.
“Anyone who knew me knew that I was there to fly airplanes,” she said. “My attitude was, ‘If you guys want to talk about nuts and bolts and safety wiring, I’m all for it. I don’t need to talk about hair spray and nail polish and the color of my lipstick. I’m just here because I love airplanes, and I love flying.'”
After completing her probation in Phoenix, Clark transitioned into the DC-9, in September 1978, and was assigned to San Francisco. Shortly after Hughes Airwest hired her, Clark encountered a pilot who would share a touching memory he had of her father.
“I was really nervous; I was going to be flying right seat with a pilot named Charlie Craig,” she recalled. “Everybody said, ‘He’s so mean. If you don’t have that over-speed clacker on all the time, he’s going to tell you to speed it up.’ He flew that DC-9 like a hotrod. In one of our first conversations, he asked me if my parents had ever told me that they didn’t know they were having twins until shortly before Judy and I were born. He said, ‘The airline donated a highchair and a crib and all these things, because all of a sudden, your dad was having two babies. One of the high chairs came from me and my wife.’ It was great to find that out then, as an adult, flying for the airlines.”
Because of a strike by the Hughes Airwest ground handlers, both Clark and her husband were out of work throughout most of 1978.
Clark spent her time working on two big projects. She was building a Christen Eagle kit plane. She was also restoring a plane she had acquired shortly after getting on with Golden West.
“I saw a government surplus auction on Trade-a-Plane for two T-34s up in Alaska,” she said. “It was a silent auction.”
Clark needed $1,000 just to place the bid. She borrowed it from Penny Becker, a schoolteacher who was also a pilot.
“I bid $18,000, which was $1,000 over the minimum bid,” she said.
Clark had almost forgotten about the bid, when she got notice that she had won. She still hadn’t told her husband about the aircraft.
“When I did, of course, he wanted to know what kind of airplane it was, and where it was. He wanted to know what it looked like, and I had to tell him I’d never seen it,” she grinned. “That didn’t help our marriage. It was probably the final nail in the coffin.”
Clark took out a loan for the remaining balance. She took off in mid-July of 1977 to pick up the plane in Alaska. She had flown the T-34B before. This would be a little different, since it was a T-34A.
“On the way home, the battery blew up and blew a hole in the side of the airplane,” she recalled. “I lost all electrical after that, so I only had a compass. Battery acid leaked into the cockpit, and I was overcome with fumes, but I was able to land on a gravel strip. I remember thinking, ‘These fumes are going to overcome me; I’m not going to make it.’ Then I’d think, ‘Well, if I die today, it’s OK, because when I get home, I’m going to get killed anyway.’ My husband did have a fit.”
Things got worse when she didn’t have any money to put into the aircraft, which she had named Wally.
“That T-34 looked like hell, and it was sitting outside,” she said. “I was making $475 a month flying Twin Otters for Golden West and couldn’t even afford to fly it.”
After Clark began to work for Hughes Airwest, and was on reserve, she spent a lot of time on her T-34.
“It seemed like I was never flying trips for Hughes,” she said. “So I was always at the airport with my T-34. I’d check out library books on how to prep for painting and how to do wiring and electrical work.”
She admits having to do some things more than once to get them right.
“A lot of times, guys would tell me, ‘That’s not the way you want to do that; let me show you a better way,'” she laughed. “But I repainted, rebuilt and restored this airplane. It took four and a half years. I love it when I run into old-timers who remember me from Morgan Hill, when I had the wings off the airplane. I redid the entire cockpit. I did a lot of the work outside, because I didn’t have a hangar.”
When her husband complained about her projects, Clark ended up selling the Christen Eagle. Before Clark’s Christen Eagle purchase, she had been flying competition aerobatics in a little S2-A Pitts, during her first year of employment with Hughes.
“I enjoyed the competition flying,” she said. “I enjoyed what the Pitts could do.”
However, there was no way Clark was going to sell her T-34. She has nurtured and loved that airplane for 30 years, but her marriage ended in 1979. She laughs and says that many years later, she received a letter from her former mother-in-law.
“It said, ‘You and your airplane sure made it big; who would have guessed?'” she recalled.
Life goes on
In 1980, Hughes Airwest merged with North Central Airlines and later Southern Airlines, to form Republic Airlines. Clark went from flying the MD-80 out of Las Vegas to flying the Convair 580 in Minneapolis. In her years of flying for the airlines, Clark had some wonderful flights and some that she doesn’t necessarily care to remember.
“I hate to say it, but I had a few where something went wrong,” she laughed.
For most, she came through with flying colors.
“I did get some ‘attagirls,'” she said. “I had an engine failure in the Convair 580, flying in a blizzard. We came into Bismarck, N.D., on one engine. I couldn’t see very well, but we landed OK. That night, I was on TV, and I said, ‘It was as normal a landing as it could be.’ The chief pilot, Captain Martin, called my hotel room and said, ‘If you call that a normal landing, you’re something else. But hey, thanks for a great job.'”
In 1982, she was back to flying the MD-80/DC-9. Two years later, she was promoted to captain. She was among the first dozen women pilots to earn that position in the U.S. That didn’t mean that she instantly earned respect, but it did mean that she would be more closely scrutinized than her male counterparts.
“When I was new as a captain, we were just rotating at takeoff, out of Las Vegas in a DC-9-80 (stretch DC-9), when we lost a retread,” she said. “It went through the flap and into the right engine.”
The aircraft’s hydraulics, brakes, flaps and all the fluid were lost on the right side.
“It was a hot day, and we were fully loaded for a nonstop from Las Vegas to Baton Rouge, La., which is unusual,” she said. “Talk about your life passing before you. Judy was pregnant at the time, and I thought I was never going to see her baby. We had to prepare for a crash landing. It was a very challenging flight.”
Clark said all she cared about was getting that airplane safe on the ground again. The next day, when she saw a newspaper headline in Las Vegas, she was exasperated.
“It said, ‘Pilot of Disabled Jet Believed to be a Woman,'” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Who the hell cares? Does that make it a safer flight or not as safe?'”
No one was hurt, but the flight did shake up one person bad enough to change her life.
“One flight attendant did quit as soon as we got on the ground,” she said. “She never flew again.”
Flying the Airbus
In 1986, Northwest Airlines bought out Republic Airlines. Clark continued to fly the DC-9-MD-80 until 2003, when she entered the world of high-tech aircraft. She obtained her type rating in Airbus’ 19, 20 and 21 models, after simulator training.
“Those two months were challenging,” she admitted. “It’s difficult, when you’re older, to switch over to the glass-cockpit concept. I’d never even flown first officer on the Airbus. I was transitioning from a captain on one jet to a captain on a new-age type jet.”
As usual, for her first 25 hours on the Airbus, Clark flew with a captain in the right seat.
“By the time you fly on your own, on your first flight as a captain without anybody watching you, you feel much more relaxed—nobody’s breathing over your shoulder,” she said. “But it was still challenging.”
She recalls still learning the ins and outs of the Airbus during her last flight with the airline.
“The first officer, Bill Gennarelli, said, ‘You go talk to all the passengers, and I’ll program the flight,'” she remembered. “I said, ‘No way! This is my last trip. I want to program this.’ Programming takes 15 to 20 minutes. When they found out it was my last flight, they gave me radar vectors direct to Minneapolis. That airplane is all computer, so you’re not flying an airplane anymore. You’re ‘managing’ this big machine through the air. It doesn’t even have a trimmed feel to it. It’s an entirely different way of flying.”
Because of that, Clark said she’s fearful for pilots who get hired today.
“Airlines don’t require a lot of flight time nowadays, because they need these commuter pilots right out of college,” she said. “These pilots are flight instructed for maybe 600 to 700 hours, and are getting hired with less than a thousand hours. Then they fly airliners their entire careers, with this glass-cockpit concept. They’re not going to be stick-and-rudder pilots, as we know them today. If you asked them to do aerobatics, they wouldn’t know how to do something like that.
“This is the wave of what we’re going to see 20 years down the road; the ‘real pilots’ are going to be flying the little airplanes, because that’s what true flying is. You get into these jets of today, and you’re ‘managing this machine’ through the air; it just happens to have wings.”
Clark likes the feel of flying an aircraft like the Cirrus, even though it has a glass cockpit.
“The Cirrus is still a stick-and-rudder airplane,” she said. “The Airbus wouldn’t start giving you the feel of an airplane until you got below 400 feet for landing. If you clicked it off autopilot and tried to fly it around the pattern—which is what I still like to do, because I like to fly—it was like playing with a video machine. You didn’t feel pull; you didn’t feel control pressures on the stick. And it’s a little, tiny joy stick on the left side—no more big yolk or anything like that.”
Since starting her second career as an air show performer in 1980, Clark had grown tired of trying to juggle two careers.
“I had 27 years in,” she said. “I could have flown for Northwest for four more years, but the retirement pay wouldn’t have changed. I was already fully vested. I thought, ‘Why am I still running around like a maniac and commuting to Minneapolis?’ It was harder and harder to get on these flights. Sometimes, a blizzard would come in, and I’d miss my flight to Minneapolis, where I had a trip the next day. I got sick of worrying how I was going to get there.”
Northwest Airlines has been in bankruptcy for almost two years, but Clark said the company has been good to employees.
“I have a good pension,” she said. “I’m lucky Northwest didn’t walk away from that. The government gave Northwest a 20-year reprieve to get back on track and fulfill its retirement funding obligations.”
After Clark’s divorce from Ames, she turned her energies toward finishing the restoration of her T-34, including the installation of a rebuilt O-470-13A engine. At the time, she was living in Livermore, Calif.
Clark found a kindred spirit in Dick Tews and Ed Messick, fellow members of the Confederate Air Force (now Commemorative Air Force). The T-34 pilots began flying together, under the name of the CAP Falcons.
“We just blew smoke while flying formation,” she said.
Clark had never thought about being an air show pilot, but that changed after she attended an outdoor cowboy wedding in Coalinga, Calif.
“The groom was a rancher, and they were having a rodeo with the wedding,” Clark recalled. “I flew my T-34 in, and Penny picked me up at this little dirt strip, right near the wedding site. When I was getting ready to leave, Penny said, ‘You should put on a little air show.’ She told the guests that I had smoke on the plane. I put on a little impromptu show. A guy who helped run the Livermore Air Show in the Bay Area was there. He asked if I’d fly in the show. I said, ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘Just do what you did today.'”
Clark and the Falcons did perform at the show in 1978.
“I thought it was so cool that we were being paid to fly an air show,” she said.
Soon, they were flying at other shows.
“One of the Falcons paid for my gas,” she said. “Back then, I was just a new-hire first officer; I had been an airline pilot for only about three years and didn’t have the kind of money to run a T-34 around.”
Clark’s T-34, which had a patriotic paint scheme, was called both “Free Spirit” and “Air Force One-Half.” The T-34s lacked an inverted fuel system, making sustained inverted flight impossible. Instead, the three pilots practiced close formation flight, often maneuvering within inches of each other’s wingtips.
The Falcons flew together for three years. Then, Clark voiced to her partners that she wanted to try going solo.
“Lots of luck,” said a skeptical Messick.
In 1980, Clark branched out as Julie Clark’s American Aerobatics. By 1981, she had completed all the exterior renovation of her T-34. That year, she flew her first solo act at the Antique Aircraft Fly-In in Merced, Calif.
For the next few years, Clark juggled her two careers. In 1985, Republic allowed her to have a leave of absence for the entire summer and she concentrated on her second career.
Clark had to commute to Minneapolis from her home in California or from air show performance locations. To bring her two worlds closer together, she decided to purchase a second home in 1988 in Sky Harbor Airpark, in Webster, Minn., 35 miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul. She crisscrossed the country, flying 18 to 20 air shows each season. To keep up with her air-show circuit, she turned down opportunities to bid for larger aircraft or for international routes.
As her air-show career grew, she looked for sponsors. Air show performers have a lot of expenses, including maintenance of their equipment.
“The T-34 is old, and finding parts is hard,” she said.
But, that’s not her biggest expense.
“Employees are my biggest cost,” she said. “To put on the production that I do, I need a lot of help.”
While searching for a main sponsor, Clark discovered Mopar Parts, a division of Chrysler that had extensive experience in motor sports and performance vehicles.
“I chased Mopar for a year and a half before we signed on in ’87,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody in the company, but I pestered them. Nowadays, you can’t just cold-call a company for sponsorship. You’d never get through to the right person.”
When Clark and Mopar signed their first contract, she was told it was for two years.
“Jerry Blake said, ‘Now don’t let us down and don’t go crash,'” she recalled. “I said, ‘I will never let you down, and you’ll never regret making this decision!’ He went out on a limb to give me a chance to fly an airplane with Mopar colors.”
Clark said she kept her promise to Blake.
“To date, I’ve never bent a frame,” she smiled. “Before Mopar came a long, things were tough. It used to be little sponsors and little pay, where I’d have to go out and get the sponsorships. All they could afford was a motel room and fuel.”
The two years came and went. Clark saw three Mopar general managers come and go during their partnership.
“Lee Iacocca was heading up Chrysler when I first talked to them; Daimler wasn’t part of it,” she said. “In 20 years, I saw big changes in that company.”
In 1989, Clark incorporated as simply American Aerobatics. Two years later, she was awarded the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship. Over the next several years, more honors followed, including the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship award, which she received in 1998, and her induction by the Women in Aviation, International, into the Pioneer Hall of Fame, in 2002.
God Bless America
Over the last 23 years, Clark has altered some maneuvers, but her routines are still choreographed to one song.
“I’ve been flying to Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ since 1984,” she said. “It’s well-accepted. People have told me, ‘If you quit flying to that song, I’m going to quit coming to see you.’ I put a poll on my website about using other songs, and the response was, ‘Don’t change.’ So, I’m still flying to that same song.”
Clark explained what it’s like to fly an “energy management airplane.”
“One maneuver sets me up for the next maneuver,” she explains. “Then the end of the second maneuver is setting me up for the beginning of the third maneuver.”
She said airspeed and altitude are her best friends.
“You need altitude to build up airspeed necessary to get back down close to the ground again,” she said.
She fondly recalls Bob Hoover coming up to her one day and saying, “You play the bottom just like I taught you.”
“Hoov is an icon. He and I go way back,” she said. “I’ve flown with him in his Shrike Commander, through a whole air show routine. In a couple of air shows, we did crazy things we still laugh about. He and Art Scholl were my mentors, especially the first year I flew Reno. I was so nervous about this density-altitude thing. I have a big airplane with a little engine, and no inverted fuel and oil. I didn’t want to do something stupid. They told me what to look for, if I thought I might be getting into trouble, or if a maneuver didn’t look good.”
Clark explained that the T-34 is a lot different than high power-ratio airplanes.
“That would be anything that has 300 or more horsepower, and weighs less than 1,000 pounds,” she explained. “Mine weighs 3,000 pounds and has 285 horsepower. It’s not maneuverable. I’m flying a 55-year-old airplane that was built as a trainer. It’s a whole different animal. That’s why I don’t like to follow Sean Tucker or Jim LeRoy in Bulldog.”
Because of Mopar’s sponsorship, Clark’s T-34 is now powered by a “24-karat gold” limited edition, 285-hp Victor engine, coupled to a Hartzell three-bladed prop.
Clark said that although she has red, white and blue smoke, great music and fireworks, a T-34 performing aerobatics may seem “boring” to some.
“I have to turn it into entertainment value, so people want to see more,” she said. “When I return, holding up the American, Texas, Mexican or Canadian flag, they like the theme. They know they’re not just watching me throw my airplane through the air, because my airplane doesn’t do that.”
Clark says she’s particularly pleased with a performance when a certain type of person compliments her.
“I love it when the warbird guys, who know what I’m up against, come up and say, ‘I love the way you fly that airplane; you just wear it,’ or ‘You’re so smooth,'” she said. “The warbird pilots really appreciate what I’m doing. Warbirds are so heavy on the controls and non-responsive. It’s like flying a slug; sometimes, it’s not pretty.”
People who weren’t enthusiastic when Clark first began talking about doing a routine in her T-34 shake their head in wonder.
“Every time I see Dick Tews, who’s now in his 70s, he says, ‘I can’t believe what you’ve done for the T-34 community and what you’ve done in a warbird!’ I had a lot of bumpy roads along the way, but I kept doing it, because I loved it,” she said.
Clark is proud of what she’s done, especially considering her history.
“I just built a program that became something people loved,” she said. “I’m not like Patty Wagstaff, who has won three national aerobatic competitions. I give her so much credit, because she stuck it out. Her accomplishments made her a popular air-show figure.”
A fatal T-34 crash in April 1999 in Georgia affected every T-34 owner in the U.S. After the National Transportation Safety Board reported that the crash was “preceded by an in-flight separation of the right wing,” the Federal Aviation Administration issued an airworthiness directive. It placed airspeed and G-load limitations on all T-34s and halted aerobatics in the plane. From May to September 1999, American Aerobatics suffered excruciating loss.
“That really set us back,” Clark said. “Other T-34s lost their wings in combat schools, and the FAA said, ‘The airplanes are old and unsafe.’ It’s taken us eight years to prove that’s a myth.”
In May 2000, the FAA published a proposed AD that mandated a recommendation by Raytheon for wing spar inspections. In July 2002, the FAA issued a special airworthiness information bulletin listing approved alternative methods of compliance and extended the AD compliance deadline.
Clark was at the forefront of the battle, making visits to former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and her successor, Marion Blakey.
“My airplane was one of the ‘originals,’ because I bought it from the U.S. government in 1976, and I’ve never lost a wing,” she said. “It wasn’t one that was restored. B-model wings weren’t put on an A-model fuselage; wings that were involved in a crash weren’t restored and snapped onto another fuselage. Mine was born with the appendages it has. But I still had to respar the airplane to satisfy the FAA, to the tune of $51,000!”
Clark has another airplane, and although she loves it, she says her North American T-28C Trojan is the real killer, when it comes to maintenance.
“My T-28 Trojan burns 55 gallons an hour,” she said. “It’s huge, and it’s old. It’s got 1,500 horsepower and a big nine-cylinder round engine; people love it. Everywhere I go, people look at it. But it’s so expensive to operate. I can’t perform in it. I charge about $8,500 a weekend to do an air show in my T-34. If I used the T-28, I’d have to almost double that rate.”
Clark named her T-28 Top Banana, in honor of Hughes Airwest, “Top Banana of the West.” She flies her bright yellow T-28 for fun and sometimes uses it for formation flying.
“I always keep current in the F.A.S.T. program,” she said. “I’m F.A.S.T. and league-qualified in both airplanes.”
She doesn’t just keep current in the F.A.S.T. program. She helped found the Formation and Safety Team. Members of the T-34 Association, focused on safety and successful formation flying, developed the program in order to fly formation at FAA-sanctioned events under waivered airspace.
“I was on the ground floor of that 10 years ago,” Clark said.
Clark acquired the T-28 in 1996 in exchange for another aircraft that no longer fit her style.
“I had this really nice Bonanza Debonair; I put a smoke system in it and painted it like the T-34,” she said. “This fellow in Healdsburg, Calif., had a T-28 and wanted to exchange it for my Bonanza. All he wanted to know was how many golf bags the Bonanza could carry. I said, ‘If you take out the smoke system and pull the back seats out, you could carry six golf bags!’ So, we exchanged planes.”
The T-28 hadn’t been flown in four years. Clark recalls the first night she brought her T-28 home.
“I remember thinking, ‘What the hell did I just do?’ I really had buyer’s remorse,” she laughed.
But she began to feel better as she brought it back to flying condition.
“It was yellow already, and I put all the military markings on it,” she said. “A friend helped restore it. It didn’t even have a back cockpit. My friend had all the instruments refaced and helped restore the back cockpit. It’s a nice airplane, and it’s fun. It’s just so expensive to operate.”
Clark definitely is a warbird lover, through and through.
“That’s my true love,” she said. “And World War II is my favorite era.”
She’s not in the market for another plane, but she does favor another warbird.
“I’ve flown a P-51, and I used to be partners in a T-6,” she said. “The T-6 is nice, but there are so many out there. I would love to fly the gull-wing F4U Corsair. That’s such a beautiful airplane. I used to watch Black Sheep Squadron, with Robert Conrad, who played Pappy Boyington. It was on Monday nights. That was my favorite show.”
From losses to mentoring
Over the years, Clark has faced many losses. They include the death of her mother, her father, two fiancés and countless pilot friends, as well as two failed marriages. Her history has led her into a third career, which is motivational speaking. The fact that she wants to help others is directly related to how she looks at her life. Those experiences have given her strength, and she hopes that relating them will inspire other women.
“It seems for every two steps forward, I’ve had two steps back,” she said. “Grief can do amazing things to your soul. It’s all a part of life.”
Clark is candid about the men she loved who died too soon. It was “love at first sight” when Clark met Tony Olivera, a chicken rancher/pilot, at Morgan Hill Airport. However, the relationship tragically ended several months later. In May 1980, as they flew in formation, with Olivera positioned on her wing, he suddenly disappeared.
Clark circled around and spotted a fire, not far from the ranch’s airstrip. She frantically landed on the airstrip, and farmhands held her back from running into the fire to save her fiancé.
She sank into depression; staying inside, she refused to see anyone or do anything. But then Bill Hughes came by and told her that what she had experienced was just another “chapter” in her life. He said that although that chapter was a tragedy, she had to go on.
“He was the chief captain of my airline,” she said. “He had been a friend of my father’s. He told me I needed to start living again. He reminded me that my father wouldn’t want me to give up my airline career.”
Clark lived through another tragic chapter six years later. She met Gary Loundagin, a mechanical engineer, in the late 1970s. He had just purchased a T-34 and she helped him learn to fly it. Years later, the two began dating. By that time, Clark had moved to Cameron Airpark, in northern California. In 1984, the couple became engaged. In 1986, Loundagin performed at Mammoth Lakes Airport. It was only his second air show appearance and he crashed doing a loop and died. Clark doesn’t think it would have happened if he had allowed himself time to gain more experience.
Clark’s losses, however, led her to tell people that they have a couple of choices, when tragedy befalls them: they can either wallow in self-pity or use the tragedy as a tool to move forward. She has definitely done the latter.
What losses don’t seem to do is affect her performance. Perhaps that’s because she shares the cockpit with a calming spirit.
“I talk to my dad when I’m getting ready to perform,” she said. “I always say, ‘OK, Dad, don’t let me do nuttin’ dumb.’ I get that from Ralph Royce. When he gives us briefings, he always says, ‘Don’t do nuttin’ dumb.’ It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment; you have to let that go and stick to what you’re doing. I’ve had air shows where I’ve had other things on my mind. I’ll never forget when my divorce attorney came to see me fly at Oshkosh. When I landed, she was crying. She said, ‘I can’t believe you fly like that after what you just went through.’ I said, ‘I know; it was tough.’ But when you get in that airplane and get that engine running, you don’t think about anything else. You have to concentrate on what you’re doing.”
Clark has been able to rise above her many losses and she now comes to the aid of others who need help, often at speaking engagements.
“I’m really into mentoring,” she says passionately. “After I give talks at places like the annual conference for Women in Aviation, International, or at the Eagle Academy in Oshkosh, people call me. I hear about young people who need scholarships. We need to get them the education they need.”
Clark didn’t have financial help in her early years learning to fly, but she was able to get by. These days, however, she’s concerned that flying is becoming too cost prohibitive, with fuel costs and rental prices.
“When I washed planes or when I was a professional water skier, or waited on tables, I used all that money for another flying lesson,” she said. “Nowadays, though, I don’t think that would cover the cost it would take to get a pilot’s license.”
Clark books most of her speaking engagements between November and April. Years ago, Patty Wagstaff wrote an article about her good friend and titled it “Julie Clark in 3-D.”
“I had never thought of it that way,” she said. “I liked that. Now I tell people that if they’re going down a road that’s challenging, three things will form their lives: desire, dedication and determination.”
Clark said that if she can overcome, prevail and do what she wants, others can too.
“That’s my motto,” she said.
Clark’s speeches vary, depending on if she’s speaking to an aviation or non-aviation crowd, men, women or children. If she’s speaking to adults she’ll often add two others Ds: divorce and death.
Clark’s future without Mopar
Clark’s most recent loss has been of a different nature. She recently separated from Mopar Parts. That loss was deeply felt. Clark flew for the last time with Mopar sponsorship in October 2006, at a Commemorative Air Force air show in Midland, Texas.
“Mine was the longest-running program Mopar ever had, and I feel very fortunate” she said.
In fact, Clark had the longest-running sponsored act in the air show business. Now, she’s working diligently to get other sponsorships.
“We’re trying to make it work, but it isn’t easy,” she said. “At least 10 out of the 20 shows I did every year were Mopar-sponsored. They wanted me in that market, so they paid me to be there. Now, so many air shows say, ‘We want you doing our show, but we can’t pay the performers.’ I can’t do it for free.”
Clark was happy with her relationship with Mopar, but now that she’s looking for a sponsor again, she’s intent on teaming with aviation companies.
“Mopar treated me great,” she said. “They still do. Mopar liked the numbers I could give them; three car programs couldn’t match my numbers for one weekend air show at March Air Force Base, for instance. They’re willing to talk to people and have already written a couple letters on my behalf. Mopar’s big thing is drag racing; that’s such a different world. I did a lot of drag-racing events for them, but the people who attend those events couldn’t care less about airplanes. On the other hand, people who attend air shows and love airplanes also have interest in drag racing cars and jet cars. Cars are popular at air shows.”
Clark knows that going into a new relationship isn’t going to be the same, at least not right away.
“I left Mopar at a very high level, but it took twenty years to get to that $1 million mark,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen again.”
Knowing the air show industry as she does, she knows that sponsorship is needed. Today, she says, air shows don’t have the finances to pay all the performers.
“They want sponsors to pay them; that’s become the norm,” she said.
She says that experienced pilots today can’t demand prices they deserve, especially since newer, younger pilots, seeking to break into the industry, choose to perform for free.
“Some of these new pilots say, ‘Just give me fuel and oil, and I’ll fly an air show for you,'” she said. “That knocks out the people who have been doing this for 30 years, and have established acts. We need to be paid; we have employees that help us. Instead, air shows hire people that do it for no charge.”
Clark is working diligently, because if she doesn’t get sponsorship soon, she could have to downsize.
“We’ve gone to Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii,” she said. “It’s hard to do that without sponsorship support. I might have to pass on certain shows or scale down.”
Because of her sponsorship loss, Clark is presently booked for only half the shows she’d normally perform. Those scheduled include Sun ‘n Fun in Florida and, closer to home, the California Capital Air Show in Sacramento.
On the ground with Julie Clark
Julie Clark has made many friends over the years. Each friendship is a little different. For example, when she gets together with Phil Boyer, the president of AOPA, they talk about “the good old days.”
“I’ve been a friend of Phil’s since he used to do ABC’s ‘Wide World of Flying,'” she said.
Clark was featured on “Wide World of Flying” twice, in the early 1980s.
“One show was how to organize your cockpit, and one was how to perform the perfect loop,” she said.
Clark said she thought the second theme was amusing, since she hadn’t perfected the “perfect loop.” She didn’t question the first theme at all, because it fit her well. All her friends know she’s a “neatnik.”
“People who come to my hangar can’t believe it’s a working hangar; it’s very, very neat,” she said. “I can’t stand clutter. When I’m interviewing ground crews, I have somebody go out and check out their cars, to see if they’re a mess. I think the way people keep their cars reflects back on them.”
She laughs and says her crew understands that; she couldn’t ask for a better group.
“I have a great crew,” she said. “They’re starting their fourth year with me. They keep everything neat, because they know how important that is to me. And they treat the equipment like they own it.”
Clark reveals other attributes that are important to her: how people drive their cars, and how they treat animals and children.
“If they’re good on all that, then they’re my friends,” she said.
One of those friends is her “Minnesota Mom,” Gladys Hood, who often takes care of one of Clark’s adopted dogs.
Molly, her Yorkshire terrier, used to travel with Clark on the air-show circuit, but hasn’t lately.
“Now, she’d rather stay home,” she said. “She stays with Gladys in Minnesota in the summer, and when she’s in California, she stays with Kristin, who runs my office.”
But Clark does have company on the road.
“Bernie, my Lhasa apso, travels with me,” she said.
Clark’s life should be in a book, and in fact, it is. She recently collaborated with Ann Lewis Cooper to write her story. “Nothing Stood in Her Way,” published by Women in Aviation, International, is a “tell-all book.”
It hasn’t pleased everyone, including her teenage guardian, but “tell-alls” usually don’t.”
“I was brutally honest,” she said.
The woman who was named as one of aviation’s Top 100 Women of the Century, by Women in Aviation, International, says she wrote about things “as she remembers them.” She says some people might not like that, but she can’t change the “chapters” in her life, or the fact that she made those chapters public. She does hope that people will react to the book, which focuses on her strengths, but doesn’t avoid the “rough spots,” the same way she reacts to circumstances.
“I don’t hold a grudge,” she says. And, she hopes she can help others by relating her experiences.
For more information about Julie Clark, visit [http://www.americanaerobatics.com]. “Nothing Stood in Her Way” is available at that website and at [http://www.wai.org].