Martha Woodrum

Flying her top-of-the-line V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza, Martha Anne Woodrum Zillhardt of Roanoke took first place in the fourth annual transcontinental air race for women in 1950.

It was not overnight that Martha Anne Woodrum Zillhardt’s parents accepted the idea that she would be strapping herself into a small aircraft in order to pilot it though the skies over the Roanoke Valley and beyond.

When finally they did understand there was little they could do to quell her love for flight — the young Martha Anne had after all reached her majority by that point — one parental directive continued to hold.

“My grandmother always used to tell Martha that she didn’t mind her flying but that she had to wear a skirt,” the late Clifton “Chip” Woodrum was quoted as saying in his great aunt’s 2002 obituary. “And she always did.”

That was Zillhardt for you, equal parts glamour, pluck, and derring-do.

The daughter of former 6th District Congressman Clifton A. Woodrum, Zillhardt was considered the state’s most prominent pioneering aviatrix and a key figure in the growth and popularity of aviation locally.

Zillhardt was referenced during previous research here on two other lady flyers of the era: Helen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Lawson.

Zillhardt learned to fly at age 23 in 1940. By 26, she was the first woman in the state to earn an instrument rating license and later was thought to be the first woman to run an airport fixed base operation, according to “Aviation in Roanoke” by Marshall Harris and Nelson Harris.

Later married to Dr. Jacob C. Zillhardt, she was young and single when she opened Woodrum Flying Service at the airport then known as Woodrum Field (named for her father). The business started with just one airplane that was lashed to the runway when it was not aloft because she had no hangar with which to store it.

Eventually capitalizing on the post-World War II boom in general aviation, she expanded her fleet to 14 airplanes and employed five flight instructors.

As an aside, it is unclear whether she was connected with the late Katherine Lawson, but given that Lawson was a flight instructor at the Roanoke airport for a time after World War II, it seems possible, even likely she had been a Zillhardt employee at some point.

In any event, Zillhardt enjoyed a stellar reputation in local aviation circles and beyond.

“She was a great person and good pilot,” said the late Wes Hillman in an interview for her obit.

Hillman, who ran a rival flying service, went on to say of Zillhardt that they “were competition, but it was more like we were friends.”

Speaking of rivalry, Zillhardt was a competitor in more ways than one. Flying her top-of-the-line V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza, she took first place in the fourth annual transcontinental air race for women in 1950. She posed beaming with her trophy framed by her aircraft’s distinctive tail assembly in a photograph on page 72 of the Harris and Harris book.

“Glamorous” is the first word that comes to mind for her existing photographic portraiture.

“She was perfectly beautiful,” said Helen Fitzpatrick, who knew her socially after Fitzpatrick’s flying career had ended. “She could have been in the movies.”

That description dovetailed with a story told by Kitty Koomen, who also knew Zillhardt.

“She drove her white Cadillac convertible through the streets of Roanoke and almost stopped traffic wherever she went,” Koomen said.

Such a presence necessitated Zillhardt when she was single to wear an ersatz wedding band during business hours “to keep the men at bay when she was giving flying lessons,” Koomen recalled.

Even so, Zillhardt was down to earth in other respects. Hillman remembered her as pleasant and friendly in addition to being able to discuss aircraft at length.

During the 1950s, Zillhardt expanded her operation to include aircraft sales. She would purchase well-used planes in Europe, bring them to the U.S. to overhaul, then put them on the market.

She eventually was named as first female president of the Virginia Aviation Trade Council.

All Zillhardt did demonstrated courage and strength of conviction. For instance, she knew her dreams of being an aviatrix would meet stern resistance from her family. The day she chose to begin flying lessons on the sly, her father was in Washington, D.C., on congressional business and her mother was vacationing in Florida.

“I knew I couldn’t get their permission, so I soloed while they were out of town,” she was quoted as saying in a 1968 newspaper feature story.

Later, her parents warmed to the idea of having a daughter strapped in the cockpit of a single-engine aircraft.

As long as she was properly attired in a ladylike skirt.

If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don’t forget to provide your full name (and its proper spelling if by phone) and hometown.

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