Flygirl

Loretta Sincora loves airplanes. A pilot for almost 50 years, she has a lifetime of memories to share

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By LAURA STUART

As far back as she can remember?"and further back than that, she guesses?"Loretta Sincora wanted to fly. "I don't know why," she admits. "I've always been different. I was always crazy about flying."

Now 77 years old and a resident of the Oak Park Arms Retirement Community, the former Brookfield resident offers this early memory by way of explanation: Riverview, an amusement park on Chicago's North Side that was an earlier generation's Great America, had a parachute drop. Visible for miles, the attraction hauled riders attached to a parachute to the top of a tower, where the parachute opened and dropped them back down. "I must have been 6 or 7 and I wanted it so bad. They wouldn't let me go, but my mom talked some young fellow into taking me and he did," she says.

She doesn't recall the actual ride. It's the feeling of wanting it that she can't forget.

Sincora grew up in a blue-collar family in Cicero, with two working parents and a sister more interested in art than aeronautics. They were all supportive of self-professed "tomboy" Loretta, and encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

"My mother's attitude was, 'You can do anything you want if you want it bad enough,'" she says.

Sincora listened to her mom. She had her pilot's license before her 20th birthday, flew planes as a member of the Civil Air Patrol, and is a longtime, active member of The Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots. Although marriage, children and a full-time job intervened (she was the first female foreman at the Hotpoint plant in Cicero in the 1970s), Sincora continued to fly with her pilot husband until his death in 1985. Since then, she's also flown a glider, helicopter and blimp, and at age 61, strapped on a real parachute and jumped out of a plane.

Sincora walks with difficulty now, but she has a steady, friendly gaze and a no-nonsense way of expressing herself. If it wasn't for heart bypass surgery, kidney dialysis three times a week and painful arthritis, you can bet she'd still be flying.

Getting off the ground

Sincora was what we'd call a "jock" today. She played kick-the-can and baseball with the neighborhood boys, and by seventh grade was on a high school girls baseball team. She preferred playing with the boys, though.

"I hated to play namby-pamby girls games. Swing the bat like you mean it," she says, with some heat.

A probable shoe-in for the women's league made famous by A League of Their Own, she missed the try-outs. But baseball wasn't her passion anyway. Flying was.

"At first I wanted to be a stewardess," she recalls. "But then I found out they didn't fly. Forget that."

For her 16th birthday, a friend paid a flight instructor at a private field in Lombard to take Sincora for a ride in a Piper Cub. Up for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, "I was hooked," she says.

In her senior year at Morton High School, Sincora took an aeronautics class available to those who'd already had three years of science. Through that class she was able to join the United States Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol, a civilian group that offered aviation classes and military drills and, during World War II, performed actual coastal patrol and search-and-rescue missions. She also passed the written test for her pilot's license.

Sincora loved it, loved the military. In one month she was a flight leader. In three months she was a girls training officer. "I found my niche," she says.

After graduating in 1945, "I had a choice: go to college or learn to fly. I wanted to fly." So she stayed in the Civil Air Patrol, based at the old Harlem Airport at 83rd and Harlem avenues in Oak Lawn, got a job to support herself, and started looking for ways to get the hours of flying she'd need for a pilot's license.

"Six months out of high school, I gave myself an ultimatum: put up or shut up. By the middle of January I started flying," she says.

One of only two females at the airport, Sincora spent her Saturdays "gassing and propping the airplanes." That translates into climbing a ladder to reach the gas tank on the wing and filling up the tank, then?"in the days before electronic ignition?"grabbing ahold of the propeller and pulling to start the plane.

"You'd swing your right foot up, pull down and swing your foot back. If you got hit you could lose your hand," she explains. "But at age 19 or 20, you don't think of what could happen."

In exchange for a long day's work, Sincora would earn an hour of flying time. At the controls of a plane for the first time, she found "I was pretty good at it. Once I started, I didn't want to stop."

By 1947, she had her pilot's license. In the Civil Air Patrol, she was an assistant squadron commander, attended encampments at various bases, flew search-and-rescue, and was one of nine pilots to fly an L-16 Aeronca from San Marcos Air Force Base in Texas to Illinois. She was featured on an early television show on Civil Air Patrol members and was interviewed for a Chicago Sun-Times feature on teenage fliers.

She also fell in love.

Russell Sincora had been discharged from the Navy after the war, and was in a Civil Air Patrol unit at Harlem Airport. He'd earned his pilot's license in high school by saving his lunch money for lessons and forging his mother's name on the paperwork. He and Loretta were a matched set.

Loretta had planned to join the Air Force and become an aeronautical engineer, but it required a four-year commitment and she couldn't see making Russell wait that long. They married in 1949, had two kids, Craig in 1950 and Carol in 1952, and settled in Brookfield.

"Sometimes I wonder what would have happened, but I never regretted [my decision]," she says. "I had a good life, good kids. I have four grandchildren."

Boss and co-pilot

To help support the family, Loretta went to work at the Hotpoint plant in Cicero. Starting as a "coffee girl" in 1953, for the next 34 years she worked her way through off-line assembly, line assembly, inspection, production control, the secretarial pool and personnel. In the 1970s, in response to pressure from the EEOC, she was selected as the first female foreman at the plant. All of a sudden, she had 80 men working for her.

"They were all resentful, but I won them over. You can't force people?"you have to respect them. There was animosity between blacks and whites then, too. I played it cool. The biggest thing was to be fair to everyone," she recalls.

Russell was her biggest supporter, even when she started earning more money than he did. He'd used the GI Bill go earn his instrument, multi-engine instructor and single- and multi-engine seaplane ratings. He worked as a freelance charter pilot, corporate pilot, flight instructor and broker of used aircraft. (He managed to work full-time, but there wasn't much money in it, Loretta notes.) Before his death from cancer at age 59, he'd logged 35,000 flight hours.

"He could get in any plane and fly it. It was like an extension of his right arm?"he was a 'seat-of-the-pants' flyer," she says proudly.

And whenever he could, he took Loretta with him. On the weekends, she'd go along on his charter jobs. "He wanted me to fly as much as I could. He got me in the different planes he had, and he'd put me on the insurance," she explains.

She'd take the "left seat" (the pilot's seat) and Russell would teach her. With him, she logged more than 150 hours in multi-engine aircraft like the Piper Aztec C, Ryan Twin Navion, Piper Apache, Cessna 310, Twin Beech D-18S and even a converted B-23 Bomber.

His methods were a bit extreme, but she never doubted his motives. In the B-23, he walked up and down the plane, upsetting the center of gravity so she'd have to adjust. Once he shut a fuel gauge off, making one engine quit and forcing her to fly on the other. Learn it when it's not an emergency and you'll do fine when it is, he believed.

In 1963, with Russell's encouragement, Loretta joined the Ninety-Nines. An international organization of licensed women pilots from 35 countries, it was formed by Amelia Earhart with a total of 99 charter members in 1931. Loretta has been an active member in the local chapter for all these years, raising money, attending meetings, traveling to air shows and conventions.

In 1998, the North Central Section of the Ninety-Nines presented Loretta with the Governor's Service Award for "outstanding devotion and service." She was also nominated for induction into the International Forest of Friendship, a memorial to men and women involved in aviation and space exploration in a forest in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart's birthplace. Loretta accepted the nomination with the condition that Russell be inducted with her.

"He was so supportive of me the whole time," she says. "It wouldn't have happened without him."

Five life goals

Way back when she first earned her pilot's license, Sincora had decided there were five things she wanted to accomplish: fly a glider, a helicopter, a hot air balloon and a blimp, and do a parachute jump. She started working on them in earnest in 1989.

The first three were pretty straightforward. Getting a hold of a blimp was a bit problematic. In 1997, at an experimental air show in Oshkosh, Wis., with the Ninety-Nines, a friend arranged for her to get a ride in the Fuji blimp.

"I got to fly it for six minutes," she says, proudly. "It was really fun?"it has a great big wheel like a bus wheel. 'Slowly she turns ....' It takes a long time."

But the parachute jump topped them all. At the age of 61, she told herself, once again, "Put up or shut up," and decided to go for it. Not long after, she found herself at 8,500 feet in a little Cessna, waiver signed, cramped in with a pilot, two students and two instructors (novices jump with instructors).

"There's a piece of wood on the wheel. You have to go out on that. I looked out the window and 'what the hell am I doing here' flashed through my mind. But then it was gone and I got busy," she recalls.

They fell at 125 miles an hour before pulling the ripcord at 5,000 feet. "It was absolutely beautiful. You can see for 30 miles?"the farms, the streets. People drink, take drugs. This was a natural, perfect high."

These days, Sincora keeps herself busy with her children and grandchildren, bingo at the Arms, number puzzles, and watching DVDs starring her favorite actor, Tommy Lee Jones. She owns all of his movies. A big Bears fan, she stood in line for half an hour a couple weekends ago to get Dan Hampton's autograph.

And she still attends Ninety-Nine functions when her health allows, proud of the strides women flyers have made. "Women have it so much better now. There are female shuttle pilots," she says.

"I would have liked to go into space," she adds, musing. "Maybe I'd get nervous, but I get stubborn, too. Say I can't do it, and I'll do my darndest."

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