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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Dorothy Hester, pilot

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: May 25, 2024, 6:05am

As a child, Dorothy Hester chased a hot-air balloon, hoping for a flight. The balloon eluded her, but flying didn’t. When the blue-eyed blonde was barely out of her teens, she became one of the nation’s best stunt pilots and held the women’s record for outside loops for nearly 60 years.

The city of Vancouver leased its Municipal Airport for a day on July 29, 1930. From there, the Pacific Transport Air Tour would visit 22 cities, covering 1,765 miles. The National Aeronautics Association sponsored the tour. Famed pilot Tex Rankin was among those flying the 49 aircraft on the field. The tour’s first day included an exhibition by two women, Edith Foltz and Dorothy Hester. Hester flew her signature outside loops. Each loop puts nearly five gravitational forces (g-forces) on the pilot. Unless restrained by a seat belt, the pilot would fall out of her seat on the downward side of the loop.

Hester’s mentor, Rankin, was a skilled and trophy-winning stunt pilot, so it’s no surprise Hester, guided by him, became a groundbreaking stunt flier. In 1931, Hester flew 69 consecutive outside loops, setting the women’s record. Later in life, she was the first woman to take the U.S. Navy’s gravity test for pilots. The testing proved Hester had an unknown advantage. At a time when six g-forces were considered strenuous on a pilot, she endured 8.6. The Navy’s test revealed Hester’s hidden high tolerance for gravitational force, which gave her an advantage performing her trademark outside loop stunt and helped her clinch the record.

Her entry into flying was humble. Unable to pay the $250 for flight training nor the $25 per flight, the shy 17-year-old turned to parachuting to raise the money because Rankin paid $100 per jump. But when attempting to jump at a Medford, Ore., airshow, she froze. So the pilot hit her fingers with the fire extinguisher to make her jump.

She trained as a pilot on weekends and worked weekdays in a woolen mill. Impressed by her flying, Rankin began teaching her stunts. Hester eventually learned to fly an upside-down figure eight. Despite her fear of crowds, Hester flew every kind of loop at the municipal field — outside loops, barrel rolls and elephant rolls — before audiences of thousands. When asked why she risked her life, she said, “In the sky nobody can tell you what to do. With a good plane there isn’t anything you can’t do.”

In 1932, Hester received her air transport license. She joined Rankin’s brothers, Dudley and Richard, as a flight instructor at the Union Avenue Flying Service, an air taxi service and flying school, but it closed after only a month when Dudley Rankin died. Next, she opened and ran a school in Cornelius, Ore., for two years. She married another Rankin student, Robert Hofer, in 1934. They produced two daughters, and she quit flying. After Hofer’s death, she married Franklin Stenzel in 1970. In 1989, Hester was in the audience as pilot Joann Osterud execute 206 consecutive loops, breaking her 58-year-long record. In 2000, she was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Fame.

Columbian freelance contributor