JOSEPH — Joseph State Airport is gaining attention in the aviation community as a fascinating destination for vacation travelers. Along with recreation seekers, its mile-long runway attracts larger flight service businesses such as Angel Flight West, which recently added this airport as a pick-up point for its free medical flights.
The expanding aviation education program for Wallowa County high school students is drawing interest from Pacific Northwest aviators and aviation companies who are seeking newly trained employees.
Many are unaware that Bessie G. Halladay, a World War II flight instructor who taught military cadets how to fly, was instrumental in the establishment of this local air-travel facility.
Bessie was born in 1902 at Atlanta, Ga. She took flying lessons and advanced to obtaining her pilot instructor’s license in 1937. As one of the first women in Oregon to earn her license, the following year she opened her first flying school at Swan Island airport in Portland. She taught college students under a civilian pilot training contract. Because of war activities, civilian flying along coastal waters was banned in 1942 and Bessie moved her flying school to Ontario.
In that effort, about 500 Naval aviation cadets were trained. These government contracts ended in August 1944 coinciding with the end of her lease of airport facilities.
Within a few months, Bessie discovered Wallowa County, and the gregarious entrepreneur proposed the idea of a Joseph airport that would support the establishment of air travel and a new flying school. Joseph business leaders led the community in selecting the location and purchasing the property.
Joseph’s new Halladay School of Flying and Air Transport began in May 1945 with Bessie offering aviation ground school instruction while construction of the runway and hangars was being completed. The opening of the airport within a few months was celebrated with a rodeo. This was the beginning of the annual Chief Joseph Days, now planning its 75th anniversary.
With her aircraft from Ontario soon hangered at the airport, Wallowa County men returning from war filled her classes, with the G. I. Bill funding their lessons.
Bud Maxwell, who garnered his pilot’s license in 1946 said of Bessie, “I was amazed that, as a woman, she was so well schooled in the mechanics of what made that plane fly.”
Her flying services included passenger transportation to connecting flights in larger cities, spotting cattle, hunting predators and forest fire assessments.
Bessie had more than 4,400 hours of flying time at the beginning of her aviation business at Joseph Airport. After six years, she sold this endeavor to Ted Grote and then retired. By then she was married to local rancher Alfred Butterfield and remained in Wallowa County until her passing in 1979.
Stephen Locke, a Joseph High School graduate, associate professor at University of Wyoming and education director for the Northeast Oregon Aviation Foundation, speaks well of Bessie’s influence on Wallowa County aviation.
“Ms. Halladay embodies the pioneer spirit that led to the development of the modern day aviation industry," Locke said. "She didn’t flinch when it came to opening and operating Wallowa County’s first official airport in Joseph. She is partially responsible for the creation of Chief Joseph Days and the modern aviation industry in Wallowa County.”