A few months ago, I (Pilar Walsh) began writing a screenplay about the Lumina Pavilion that was a major entertainment attraction for over 70 years in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It’s call Lumina Love and I found out about this woman who had received her pilot’s license here in Wilmington, NC. One of the first women. I fell in love with her photo and was using it then realized thru some research, since my script was set in 1928, I couldn’t use it, since her photo was taken in 1941. But I was so fascinated with her and googled her name. I found she was still alive and living near the airport. There’s even a street named after her. I found someone who had just taken her up in a plane and he gave me her phone number. The rest is history. I met one of the most amazing women I had ever met in my life. Here is some more into on her below:
Anna got flying lessons for her 16th birthday and earned her license, authorized “from zero to 80 horsepower,” she likes to say with a chuckle. And six months or so after the United States entered World War II, she married James “Skinny” Pennington.
Three quarters of a century later, at age 90, Anna Pennington still has her head in the clouds. She keeps her membership in Burgaw-based Chapter 297 of the Experimental Aircraft Association. And, just last month, she climbed aboard “The Spirit of North Carolina,” a World War II-vintage A-26C Invader light bomber, operated out of Wilmington by George Lancaster, for a quick spin over the Lower Cape Fear. “That was something else,” Pennington said, grinning with delight. “You have to crawl through this little port to get into the cockpit, and you can just imagine a little old lady like me doing it. But the view was wonderful. Of course, I had been in something similar some years ago, a Coast Guard Albatross.”
Anna Pennington still knows her planes – and always has.
“I can’t remember when I wasn’t fascinated by airplanes,” she said. “When I was 9 years old, there was an article in the paper that said the biggest airplane in the world was going to fly over Wilmington.” That would have been the Dornier DoX 12-engine flying boat.
“I thought it was going to fly over my house, but it didn’t,” she said, still with the wistful tone of a kid who missed the ice cream truck. “Since it was a seaplane, I guess it flew by out at sea.”
Born in 1922 in the Friesland section of the Netherlands, little Anna immigrated with her family when she was just a year old. Her father, Spike Feenstra, was a devoted violinist, but a farming accident when he was a boy deformed one of his fingers and ended his dreams of a professional career. Instead, Feenstra, advised to seek a warm climate for his health, sought work with Eelco Tinga in Castle Hayne, bringing along his wife and their three girls. Anna was the youngest.
Like many Dutch immigrants in Castle Hayne, Feenstra would make a solid living as a flower farmer. (Some of his fields were taken over by the government to expand Bluethenthal Field during World War II.) A few myths have grown up around Anna Pennington. She wasn’t the first woman licensed as a pilot in North Carolina. In fact, she was the third, and the second in this area.
And she was never a WASP, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, volunteers who transported planes, towed targets and handled other flying chores to free up men for combat. Pennington wanted to join badly, but she lacked the minimum flying hours the WASP required. Also, she was underage; WASP pilots had to be 25 or older.
Still, Pennington was an aerial pioneer. When the Army Air Corps took over Bluethenthal Field for the duration, she helped Skinny ferry planes down to a small air strip near Carolina Beach that local pilots used to take tourists for jaunts over the ocean.
These days, in a book-lined living room in her bungalow on Anna Pennington Lane, she treasures her memories. She has two roads named for her in New Hanover County: The other, Anna Pennington Drive, runs by the old Pennington Flying Service hangar, which Lancaster now uses to store his A-26.
Story by Pilar Walsh – firstname.lastname@example.org