Remembering Jessie Woods, St. Pete’s Daredevil in the Sky

If you had seen this silver-haired senior lady walking around the Northeast Shopping Center in the early 1990s, you would have never guessed she was a famous wing-walker, aerobat, and pilot.

It all started in 1928. Jessie Schultz was bored that summer at her parents’ farm in rural Ulysses, Kansas – that is until she met and eloped with charming barnstormer pilot Jimmie Woods. With just enough clothes stuffed into her violin case, she flew off into the clouds with him and never looked back.

They flew back to Wichita where Jimmy had a job at the Swallow Factory selling airplanes and ferrying them to buyers, but they also made extra income from barnstorming – entertaining crowds with novelty flights. Barnstorming meant sleepless nights on the ground under a wing or cramped into the tight leather-seated cockpit. It was tireless work for Jessie selling tickets, managing passengers to and from the aircraft, and mending torn fabric on the plane.

Jessie holding one of the posters that advertised the weekend show

In the fall of 1928 production had slowed at the factory. They were living in a tiny, unheated flat and it was getting cold. With their meager belongings and a little money, they barnstormed their way to Florida. The weather was warmer, but Florida’s visitors weren’t lavishly spending cash for airplane flights. They lived hand to mouth, sometimes going to bed hungry.

On slow days, if they had enough gas, Jimmy taught Jessie to fly. They were in Lake City, Florida with other barnstormers and their planes when Jimmie, bored with no customers that day, urged Jessie into the cockpit. She made two landings, and they were credible – no ground loops and nothing worse than a bounce or two. She was a pilot. Not bad for a woman, all the men said, teasing her.

Jimmy had been toying with the idea of an air circus for some time. Barnstorming was OK, but it would be more lucrative if customers were lured with daring stunts and thrilling aerobatics. They needed a real attraction. They needed a wing-walker – a woman wing-walker. 

The first plane owned by the Flying Aces Air Circus

Jessie really did not have a choice. She had severed ties with her family by eloping with Jimmy and she did not have enough money to even get back home. She was terrified on that first flight. Jimmy was at the controls of the Swallow; he had showed her where to stand on the wing and hold on to the wires. He tied a rope around her waist and flew directly over the main street of Lake City. The two of them lived through that first wing walk and learned from it. Jessie had a bold demand: If she was going to walk on the wing of an airplane, she was doing it with no rope and no goggles.

For 10 years the Flying Aces Air Circus continued to wow crowds with Jessie performing daring feats of wing walking, parachute jumping, and rope-ladder-hanging from her knees. From 1929 to 1938, the Flying Aces performed over 480 air shows, a minimum of one a week.

Jessie getting into the airplane with her back chute on

The show collected a diverse group of individuals who performed stunts, and people eagerly paid $1 a car to see. Dangerous ground acts included head-on car crashes, and motorcycles crashing through burning boards. Jessie performed parachute jumping with a Switlik chest pack on her back that was too big for her slight frame, and she was often dragged across the rough ground after landing. She succeeded for quite a while on a subterfuge, climbing in and out of airplanes wearing a chute that was clearly visible to any government employee who might see her. Once in the plane she removed it, tying it into the seat belt of the front cockpit during her wing-walking act.

Jessie’s dog, Chandelle, was her buddy in the Cub she flew. Jessie would take off as the pilot in command with Chandelle sitting patiently until they were airborne. Then on Jessie’s signal they switched seats and at the hint that another airplane was passing them, she would dip as low in her seat as she could get, making it look like her bulldog was flying a Cub at 2,000 feet.

The Air Circus played an important part in aviation history and the tremendous publicity given to aviation. Stunts in the 1930s became increasingly spectacular and influenced aircraft designers to create more agile and stronger machines. The circus brought aviation to a rural public that knew nothing of airplanes and, in many cases, had no other opportunity to see them. Pilots and mechanics developed skills and later went on to the airlines and the military. Struggling aviators banded together in flying circuses as they offered regular pay, professional advertising, and proper maintenance of the aircraft.

Jessie waving to the crowd

By 1936, there was no getting around tightening noose of restrictions and the increasingly hostile number of government requirements. They weren’t allowed the dangerous performances of speeding motorcycles through flaming boards. No more dangerous flour bombing of cars by pilots diving toward them. That danger would not be tolerated. The Flying Aces Air Circus came to an end in 1938 with a final performance was in Charlotte, North Carolina. It had been the longest-running air show in the United States.

It was in Charlotte that Jimmy contracted a mysterious illness and died, leaving Jessie with bills and a decision of what to do next. She became a flight and ground instructor and trained the Army Air Corps cadets for military flying. She joined the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, and was their first Governor of the Southeast Section, flying all over the eastern states encouraging women to fly.

Jessie later joined the Civil Air Patrol and donated her time as a pilot

She joined the Civil Air Patrol and donated her time as a pilot. The War Training Service programs became essential to the nation’s defense during World War II and Jessie threw her energies into seeing that the program was successful.

Jessie eventually found her way back to Florida and St. Petersburg, settling down in a one-bedroom apartment in the Old Northeast area. She was always in demand as a featured speaker for the Ninety-Nines and other organizations. In 1991, Zonta International and the Ninety-Nines honored her with an Amelia Earhart Aviation Award with over 100 of her friends present at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Jessie at home in St. Petersburg

Jessie appeared on the Johnny Carson Show and Late Night with David Letterman. She received the OX 5 Aviation Pioneer Woman award in the late 1970s and was inducted into the OX 5 Aviators Pioneers Hall of Fame in 1985. She was inducted into the International Forest of Friendship, Atchinson, Kansas, that honors men and women who have made great contributions to aviation. She was instrumental in getting the OX 5 and the Ninety-Nines a permanent building on the site of the EAA convention and fly-in every year at Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland.

In 1991, at the annual EAA Sun ’n Fun Fly-in, 82-year-old Jessie savored the thrill of one more wing walk. With her pilot friend Steve Oliver at the controls of his 1929 Standard biplane, Jessie straddled the javelin on the right wing and blew kisses to the crowd below while hanging on to the wire. The return to the skies was nostalgic and she loved every minute of it.

In 1991 Jessie savored the thrill of one more wing walk

When day-to-day chores became too much for Jessie, her family brought her back to Great Bend, Kansas, where she passed away in 2001 at age 92. Jessie overcame many obstacles in establishing herself in the male-dominated aviation industry and serves as an excellent role model to young women today. After her death, the Suncoast 99s started a scholarship in her honor for a young girl to attend a weeklong air and space camp of her choice. In 2020, the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame voted in this remarkable woman who was truly ahead of her time…a legend.