Sue Carroll was more than ready to get back into the air. The 83-year-old could fly a plane before she could drive a car. Nearly 70 years ago Carroll was flying with family friend Earl Sutherlin, at the Crawfordsville airport when he got out to get a drink. He then told her to take the plane and “shoot a couple landings.” This would be Carroll’s first solo flight, after which she rarely touched down.
“The biggest thrill of flying was the first time I went up by myself. There was nothing between me and God. Just clouds,” Carroll said.
Sutherlin, a World War I and II veteran, bought the plane in 1946. Since his wife, Hazel, was afraid of flying, Carroll, who was only eight at the time, became his flying partner.
“Just as a little, little kid, I thought, gee, this is wonderful,” Carroll said. “And he (Sutherlin) took me everywhere he went because Hazel wouldn’t fly with him and he liked to have somebody along and I got such a kick out of it.”
So when Carroll was 15, after flying on her own, she got her pilot’s license.
Sutherlin kept up maintenance on the plane and built a runway on a strip of grass on her family’s farm for her to fly. She would practice trying to get her father’s attention while he was farming. And because he was on the tractor he couldn’t hear the plane above him she would follow him in the field, covering his tractor with the shadow of her plane until he would look up at her.
Both her parents were supportive of her flying, but she did remember scaring her mom once. Carroll would do aerobics and spins over the family’s field and her mom looked out the window one day and saw her doing tricks. Carroll recalled that her mom wasn’t very impressed or happy to see her perform such dangerous stunts. So Carroll’s solution was simple — fly further away from home next time she laughed.
After Sutherlin died in 1956 the plane was sold, temporarily halting Carroll’s flying dreams. She remembers Sutherlin fondly and attributes her love for flying to him, but she also believes a high power was behind her opportunity.
“I could just fly whenever I wanted to. I mean who else would ever have had that opportunity? That was a God thing,” Carroll said.
A few years later she married Jim Carroll and befriended his best friend, Fred Inman who was a licensed flying instructor. Inman eventually talked Jim Carroll into buying a plane and she was able to fly again.
Unfortunately, in 1963 Carroll was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 25, crushing her flying dreams for good. Just weeks after that Inman was involved in a plane crash that killed both him and a passenger. The Carolls stopped flying after the accident and sold their plane.
Then in June, nearly 60 years since Carroll had last been in a plane, her nephew called and asked if she wanted to fly again. While Carroll did pilot the plane for a bit, she said her favorite part was looking out and seeing the same family farm she had once flown over half a century ago.
“It was wonderful to fly again,” Carroll said. “And the only big difference in flying 60 years ago and now was it took my grandson and my nephew and a stepladder to get me in and out.”
For her grandson, Shane Powell, it was just as cool getting to see his grandma pilot a plane. Powell said she was able to rattle off the pilot’s checklist before flying right along with her nephew, never skipping a beat. And for nephew, Chett Clodfelter, flying with his grandma was a bucket list experience he was able to check off.
“I’ll remember that day for forever,” Powell said. “It was just a really special moment and I’m glad I got to share it with her.”
When not soaring above the clouds, Carroll enjoys solving puzzles, reading and spending time with her daughter, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and their friends who all have adopted her as their own “Grandma Sue.”