Jill Tallman

A legacy is secured…and it only took 30 years

October 27, 2011 by Jill W. Tallman, Associate Editor

The brand-new air traffic control tower at Memphis International Airport has a name. It’s the Omlie Tower. Omlie, for Phoebe Fairgrove Omlie.

Omlie was the first woman to get an aviation mechanic license, as well as the first woman to earn a commercial certificate. She flew a Monocoupe Warner in the very first Women’s Transcontinental Air Race in 1929, competing against pilots like Pancho Barnes, Amelia Earhart, and Louise Thaden. She was one of the charter members of the International Organization of Women Pilots (the Ninety-Nines).

What’s great about this story is not that a building was named for Omlie (although that is a pretty neat thing). It’s the backstory–the story behind the story. According to the University of Memphis Department of History, the campaign to get some local recognition for Omlie began more than 30 years ago, when aviation enthusiast James Kacarides initially proposed in 1971 that the city name the downtown Memphis airport for her. (They didn’t.) * And later he suggested that the reveloped Millington airport be given her name. (It wasn’t.) Kacarides then proposed that the existing KMEM tower be named for her, but was told that it would take an act of Congress because the tower was federal property.

Kacarides went to Congress and somehow, somewhere, someone listened; President Ronald Reagan signed a bill permitting the change in June 1982. Guess what happened next? The air traffic controllers went on strike; President Reagan fired them; and in the turmoil that followed, “the FAA suddenly had other priorities,” as the University of Memphis puts it in what may be the understatement of the year.

At any rate, the plaque–if one had indeed been ordered–never arrived and the tower was never dedicated. But Kacarides didn’t forget. (See now why I love this story?) He and University of Memphis Professor Janann Sherman, who has written a biography of Omlie, helped to jumpstart the effort. A brand-new tower that went into service in June was officially dedicated on Oct. 20–and Kacarides and Sherman were there to see it. (Thanks and a tip of the flying helmet to Heather Taylor, producer of  the documentary “Breaking Through the Clouds,” for alerting me to this article.)

*Edited to fix reference to General DeWitt Spain airport. Thanks to reader Maurice!

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4 Responses to “A legacy is secured…and it only took 30 years”

  1. Maurice Crouse Says:

    There’s a slight misstatement in the article. The proposal that Mr. Kacarides made in 1971 was not to name KMEM for Phoebe Omlie — the proposal was for the small airport north of the business district that became the General DeWitt Spain Airport (FAA LID M01).

  2. Jill Tallman Says:

    Thanks Maurice, fixed it!

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