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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Evelyn Waldren

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: October 21, 2023, 6:05am

Evelyn Waldren always seemed on the move, mostly in lightweight airplanes. She began her aviation career as the first woman to fly in Nebraska and ended it as a grandmotherly flight instructor at Vancouver’s Evergreen Airport in the mid-1980s. In her 58 years in the air, she logged 23,700 flight hours. During the 1930s, she flew in and out of Pearson Field. She left three husbands behind.

When the Omaha Bee-News ran an article with a photo of 19-year-old Evelyn Nicholas (her maiden name) claiming her as the state’s first woman flyer, her estranged father of 10 years wrote the newspaper. The Bee-News credited its article for reuniting them again. After they uncomfortably met, Waldren pasted the reunion clipping in her scrapbook, writing beneath it, “he seemed like a stranger.” In December 1928, she soloed after 14 hours of instruction flying a World War I-era Jenny trainer. Back then, she was already thinking about teaching others to fly, and marrying her instructor, Howard Burleson.

After marrying, the Burlesons operated a small airport in Jamestown, N.D. To promote it, Evelyn wrote a local aviation newspaper column about the pilots and goings-on at the airport. Eventually, she managed several airports in California and Oregon, also writing columns promoting them. Her long-running “Wings over the Willamette” column for the Albany, Ore., airport appeared in the Albany Democrat weekly and promoted the airport, what Waldren was doing and who she was instructing during the late 1930s. She also wrote of her experiences in nationally distributed aviation magazines of the day.

In 1941, she began planning a three-country goodwill flight, starting in Vancouver, B.C., and ending in Mexico City. The flight route would be 1,700 miles nonstop in a lightweight plane, something no one had done before. Getting government permits from Canada and Mexico frustrated her, making her announce and cancel the flight several times.

With her permits finally approved, Waldren took off on Oct. 1, 1941. Unfortunately, she’d somehow misplaced the paperwork to enter Mexico. After following beacons all night and encountering fog and rough weather, she landed her two-seater across the border from Tijuana the next day. Her 16½-hour flight was miles short of her goal but still a 1,200-mile nonstop record in a 700-pound airplane.

With England in World War II, Jackie Cochran talked the U.S. Army into allowing women pilots to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Cochran sent out 117 letters to the top women flyers, including Waldren and Edith Foltz. Foltz talked Waldren into going with her. However, in her oral history, Waldren explains her mother and sister threw fits when they found out, so she declined. Instead, she became a charter member of the Civil Air Patrol, training civilian pilots stateside.

Waldren spent her last years teaching students for the Mill Plain Flying Service at Evergreen Airport. Two years before her death, she was recognized as one of eight living women licensed to fly before May 1932. The grandmotherly Waldren was always a promoter of aviation, especially to young women. She gave presentations and encouragement, saying what she had since her first 1928 interview about flying: “It’s a good business.”

Columbian freelance contributor