A living legend: Penny Hamilton to be featured in Great Colorado Women series on PBS
Penny Hamilton wasn’t like her heroes Emily Warner or Amelia Earhart, famous female aviators blessed from birth with a spirit for adventure. When she eventually found her way to the skies in her 40s, it was as a point of pride. She’d already gone to school and made a career for herself. But she wanted to fight her way into the somewhat isolated and male dominated world of pilots, just to prove she could.
“Pilots have a tendency to be very insular,” said Hamilton, who lives in Granby. “If you’re not a pilot they don’t think you know anything. I was tired of that. I’m a woman, and I can do this. I already had a degree, a radio show and I was on weekly television. But I was tired of being treated like a nonperson.
“I wasn’t like Emily Warner, who dreamed of flying. I did it more because I knew that if I could accomplish it, others could too.”
Not only did Hamilton prove she could make it as a pilot, but years later, she’s a member of the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, among several other notable accolades.
Hamilton’s achievements will be catalogued in Rocky Mountain PBS’s new series, “Great Colorado Women,” which debuts Feb. 15. Rocky Mountain PBS is planning half-hour documentaries of every member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Hamilton, along with four others, was chosen as one of the five women who will be featured in the series’ inaugural season.
Hamilton was born in Pennsylvania almost 70 years ago. She celebrates her 70th birthday this week, on Feb. 18. She attended school primarily on the east coast, attending Columbia College in Missouri for her bachelor’s degree before heading back to Pennsylvania to attend Temple University.
She met her husband, Bill, in Rhode Island, after he had returned from Vietnam. She was working as a dental hygienist who ran a preventative dentistry clinic, where she met him.
“He matriculated through, as did all the officers,” Hamilton recalls. “That’s how we met. He became my sailing instructor, and quickly decided I needed private lessons. And the rest is history.”
The two married in 1971. They renewed their vows twice, in Las Vegas on their 10th anniversary, and at sea for their 25th anniversary. Through the military the Hamilton’s moved around to Washington, Germany and all over the world, eventually landing in Nebraska after Bill’s retirement from the military.
The two attended the University of Nebraska where Hamilton received her Master’s Degree in adult and continuing education and her Ph.D. in communications. She became a communications professor at Nebraska, and worked with the Sun Newspaper doing lifestyle articles in her free time. She also ran her own radio show, and made weekly television appearances.
The ensuing decades would find the Hamiltons buying, then selling, a newspaper; running a consulting and public relations firm, taking on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as a client; and setting an aviation speed record, in 1991, making the trip from Lincoln, Neb., to New Orleans in four hours and 39 minutes.
“Bill and I co-set that, and it still stands today,” said Hamilton.
Despite her success in the field, Hamilton said she noticed a lack of women in the industry almost immediately. Even today, she noted, only six percent of pilots are female.
Hamilton began taking steps to introduce girls and young women into the aviation industry. She started with youth, creating a character called Penny the Pilot and dressing up as Amelia Earhart, teaching basic concepts of aviation to children’s groups in schools and libraries to try and expose them early. Hamilton still does events as Penny the Pilot, and was even awarded the ABC-Denver 7 Everyday Hero Award for her efforts.
In 2011, Hamilton was awarded a grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund for the Teaching Women to Fly Research Project. She spent the next two years interviewing and surveying people around the country to gather data and determine what barriers are in the way of women becoming pilots, or entering the world of aviation.
“I wanted to know what’s wrong that women are not entering this field,” said Hamilton. “… but we’re not introduced early on. I never knew about righty tighty and lefty loosey. My father never asked me to come into the garage and learn about a motor.”
Hamilton identified a number of contributing factors, including a lack of money for general aviation flight training for women, difficulty communicating between women and male flight instructors, lack of female mentorship and more.
Through the study, she came up with solutions such as creating low-interest loan programs for women through colleges and universities, creating web-based support communities for female pilots and developing female friendly flight training to emphasize different learning styles and strengths.
The study helped to create “Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation,” a textbook in which Hamilton authored the last chapter.
It’s not only the history of aviation that Hamilton has become part of as she’s had her hand in a plethora of projects around Grand County, much of which will be covered in the PBS documentary, from the founding of the Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum, to penning numerous books about the county and the founding of Grand County Pet Pals.
Today, Hamilton still serves as the team leader at the museum as a volunteer for the Grand County Historical Association, and is currently working on a number of new books about life in Grand County and beyond. She is also, unfortunately, fighting her second bout with breast cancer.
“I’m pretty obsessive-compulsive about trying to leave a legacy,” offered Hamilton. “Breast cancer is just another step. Everybody has problems. So as long as I’m here I’m going to keep pushing. I mean I’m in a blessed part of my life.”
The documentary will air at 8 p.m. Feb. 15 and again at 1:30 a.m. Feb. 16 on Rocky Mountain PBS, and will feature a number of Grand County locals and organizations.
“It’s about my story, but Grand County is so much of my history and the people in the county are such a blessing to me,” Hamilton said. “It’s a celebration of our community.”
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