Achsa Donnels passed away August 12, 2003, in Laytonville, California, at the age of 99.
Achsa Barnwell Peacock Holfelder Donnels was a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, Inc. Achsa (pronounced “axsa”) was a member of the Bakersfield chapter. Achsa was a respected and popular presence at international and section meetings. Achsa was honored in 1998 at the Southwest Section Spring Section Meeting. She was also the recipient of several lifetime aviation awards. Achsa lived near her grandsons in Laytonville, California.
Achsa Donnels was an amazing woman. She was born in the then small town of Fresno in central California to Robert William and Arah Holcomb Barnwell. She grew up on the Family’s rural San Joaquin Valley 40-acre ranch. An only child, she was taught to believe she could accomplish anything she set out to do, and proved it many times throughout her ninety-nine years.
Achsa had never seen a airplane until coming home from Fresno State College in 1923 when she was 19. There parked in a field were two Jenny (JN4D) aircraft. Ever curious, she noticed that one of the pilots was still in the cockpit. She approached him to ask all about his wonderful machine. When he invited her to take a ride, she didn’t even hesitate. Flying high over the valley, they did loops and rolls. By the time they landed, Achsa’s lifelong love of flying had begun.
“I had no sense of fear. In fact… when they learned about it (the first flight), my family said that I had no sense, period,” concedes Achsa. She received her pilot’s license on March 16, 1928, after she had been flying for five years, and bought her first airplane, a Waco-10, that same week.
When asked about the dangers of flying those early airplanes, whose unstable characteristics gave some of them a reputation for being dangerous, Achsa, in a non-nonsense tone says “Well, you just flew them so you wouldn’t get into trouble.” And coming from her, you know she did just that.
In March 1929, Achsa married charming Ross Peacock and moved to Bakersfield, California. They owned and operated an airline based at Kern County Airport (now Bakerfield’s Meadows Field) and several flight schools. Achsa was one of the instructors. About Ross, Achsa says “This dear Ross was actually the ‘love of my life.’ He was like an illness from which you cannot recover.”
That same year, as one of the only 117 licensed women pilots in the U.S., she joined the ninety-nine other women in the formation of a new aviation organization. They created what is now become the 99s.
Achsa lived most of her life in Bakersfield, though she and Ross lived for a time aboard their boat, “The Four Winds,” and in Mexico, Canada, San Diego, San Gabriel, and Hemet, California. Ross, who was working as a test pilot in 1956, died in an accident while flying to Switzerland. In 1959, Achsa then married longtime family friend Joe Holfelder, in La Jolla. Joe passed away in 1967. Achasa married Al Donnels in 1975. Al passed away in 1984.
Achsa received a number of aviation awards and honors over her lifetime, the most recent in May 2003, when an aviation scholarship in her name was established by The Ninety-Nines in celebration of her ninety-ninth birthday. She had the first Transport Pilot’s license held by a woman in California, and received the third Catherine B. Wright Memorial Award for her efforts in the advancement of aviation, joining pioneers Catherine Wright and Moya Lear. She was friends with a number of other aviation pioneers, including such notables as Jimmy Doolittle and Pancho Barnes.
A true pioneer, Achsa had seen aviation progress from its earliest days when it was considered an exotic mode of travel, to the high-tech and essential presence it is today. “Looking back from my ninety-third year, the tremendous changes are mind boggling,” says Achsa. “One of the biggest changes… was the transition from our wonderful taildraggers to the tricycle type planes. You have more feel of your airplane flying a tail dragger. …Also, there is no comparison between flying an open cockpit plane with the wind surging around your head and flying in a closed plane.”
Her book, Achsa is the story of a life well lived with adventure, tragedy, and triumph. Above all, her story is the strong determination of that young woman who dared to fly despite uncertainly and with humor and a narrative style that entertains and informs.
“Looking back on all the years, I feel that my life has been like a roller coaster with uphills and downhills, and more uphills. The wonderful friends along the way have helped make it very happy.”
Reproduction of book jacket cover and text by permission from Golden Eagle Press, Bakersfield, California. (805) 327-4329. Donations to the Achsa Donnels Perpetual Memorial Scholarship Fund should be sent c/o Lois Erickson, 3577 Bridger Drive, Redding, CA, 96002. The family is donating any profits from the sale of her book to the fund.