Kay Ackerman Harmon, 88, has been around planes and pilots for a long time. She loves both.
Her husband Ronald flew solo at 16 and the youngest of their four daughters became a pilot.
The Ackerman family has been in San Benito County several generations. Kay was born in Hollister, then lived in Tres Pinos. She also spent a lot of time at the family’s apricot ranch north of Lone Tree Road along Fairview Road.
The man who started the family flying tradition was her father-in-law Elmer Harmon, who was not only a pilot but taught others to fly and eventually became Hollister Municipal Airport’s first manager after World War II.
Kay said Elmer, who was originally from Hollister, was a flight instructor for the U.S. Army Air Corps in California, Texas and Utah. After the war he wanted to continue flying and the federal government said he could move his flight school business from the dirt field to the airport after the Naval Auxiliary Air Station was deactivated in 1946. He made a deal with the Hollister City Council to manage the airport for $1 a year in exchange for using it for his Harmon Flying Services. Many of his students were ex-military who settled into the area and used their G.I Bill for flying lessons. He managed the airport until 1954.
Kay said that between the apricot farm and the neighboring orchard was a 1,900-foot dirt landing strip on the Westin Frank ranch where Elmer gave flying lessons and rides beginning in 1946.
“That’s where I got to know the Harmon family,” Kay said. “I would walk through the orchard after school and watch the airplanes. I met Ronald when we were both 12. He was what they called the gas jockey. He would help refuel and dust the airplanes off.”
Navy planes would fly into Hollister from Southern California using Highway 25 as a navigational aid and this is why it is also called Airline Highway. Kay would watch them fly over Fairview Road headed for the airport. In visiting the airstrip where Elmer gave lessons and watching the Navy planes fly overhead, her love affair with flying and airplanes began.
Kay and Ronald flew together for many years. He was always the pilot and she the navigator. She told BenitoLink she had no desire to be a pilot.
“Around 1965, as the girls grew older and were getting married, he started flying out of the Salinas airport,” she said. “I never wanted to touch the controls. I would look at the charts and landmarks.”
One day in 1972, Ronald made an appointment for Kay to receive her first flying lesson.
“I said I didn’t want to do that,” she said. “I liked flying with him and I didn’t want to learn to fly. He said just do it, I might like it. I took that one lesson and 90 days later I was a licensed pilot.”
By the time she stopped flying in 2000, she had logged a little over 2,500 hours of flight time. They flew together all over the western states and British Columbia.
“We flew a couple of air races together,” she said. “Our youngest daughter [Dianne Harmon Price] and I flew an air race together from San Diego to Concord. We placed 19th out of 99 airplanes and were first of the first-time racers.”
Still active with the 99s, Kay said the club was connected to legendary pilot Amelia Earhart.
“Amelia Earhart started the 99s and there are more than 6,000 members now,” she said. “I thought I wanted to be part of that. It was organized in 1929 when she called together all the women pilots she could get a hold of. The meeting was at an airport in Long Island, New York, and there were 99 original members. That’s where the name came from.”
Ronald passed away in 2007 and Kay is no longer a pilot, but she still supports airports and aviation. She said even though she lives in Salinas, she still considers Hollister her home.
The early days of flight have passed and many of her mentors are gone, but for Kay, the thrill of flight is still alluring. “No. I don’t fly anymore, I just jump out of airplanes,” Kay said. “I plan my third skydive over Marina from 15,000 feet in two and a half years, on my 90th birthday.”
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