“Where Professionals Connect”
Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter—Selling The Sky
By Mark Martel
"Few women can claim to be a dancer, a model, a huntress, an aviator, a philanthropist and a pirate. But tonight's honoree, Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter, is one of them.” First Lady Laura Bush spoke those words in 2006 when Mrs. Nutter was given the Ford Theater’s Lincoln Medal. But that description only touches the surface. As a promoter, educator, marketer and commercial pilot Zoe Dell helped make air travel practical and appealing for everyday people.
Zoe Dell received early encouragement in public performing. When her family lived next door to a dance teacher, Zoe Dell Lantis did odd jobs and became her star student, earning enough to strike out on her own to San Francisco after high school. Soon she was dancing for the San Francisco ballet and in nightclubs. After one show, aviation executives approached her about promoting commercial aviation at nearby Treasure Island. If she could spin, flip and jump, she would never get airsick, they reasoned. She thought a moment and agreed. Zoe Dell didn’t realize it, but her new career was already beginning.
The 1939-40 Golden Gate Exposition was being held on the man-made Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The young aviation industry needed to promote air travel in general, and overseas flights to the Orient in particular, via the new China Clipper flying boats based at Treasure Island. Dressed in a pirate costume, Zoe Dell served as the official hostess for the exposition. Soon Zoe Dell had flown 100,000 passenger miles to meet mayors and governors across the U.S., demonstrating the safety and comforts of air travel. One incident boosted her fame.
In the midst of a campaign against burlesque theaters, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia insisted Zoe Dell wear her coat over her skimpy costume in order to be photographed with him. The story took off and soon Zoe Dell was labeled the “most photographed woman in the world,” even appearing in LIFE magazine. [LINK]
World War II ended many plans. Treasure Island became a navy base. After a short film career with Paramount, Zoe Dell joined the USO to entertain troops. Zoe Dell was devastated when surgery ended her dancing career. To cheer her up, a friend suggested she pursue flying along with her first husband, and they both earned their wings. Moving to northern California after the war, she enjoyed flying regularly into San Francisco to go shopping. In 1958 she represented Standard Oil at the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium, and continued to promote commercial air travel around the world. She recalls coining the phrase, “the most dangerous part of flying is the trip to the airport.”
In the early 1960s she took a job with Piper Aviation, one of the main manufacturers of private airplanes. President William T. Piper became known as the Henry Ford of aviation, for making inexpensive simple to operate aircraft. He wanted Zoe Dell to be his spokesperson for general aviation, as she had been for commercial aviation. She demonstrated aircraft and sold flight training for Piper’s subsidiary Monarch Aviation, which operated a base and flight school in Monterey, California. She soon learned to avoid flying over the nearby mountains due to insufficient engine power. This recurring problem was to present an unlikely opportunity years later.
Among her work was to make flying seem so easy that “even a woman could do it.”
One method was to teach women to become “pinch hitters” so they would be able to read a map, handle the radio or land the plane in event of an emergency. Zoe Dell’s work helped improve flight safety and train the burgeoning numbers of private pilots. Also while in Monterey she helped found the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the Organization of Licensed Women Pilots.
When Piper needed a cheaper trainer plane Zoe Dell flew to Dayton, Ohio to evaluate a new plane there. She was assisted by local businessman Ervin “Erv” Nutter, who built parts for the plane. After three trips she turned down the aircraft, but married Nutter, and moved to Ohio in 1965.
Nutter ran Elano Corporation, which made high-tech tubings and engine components for the aerospace industry. Zoe Dell’s flying experience and marketing background complemented her husband’s technical expertise. Soon she was directing promotions of the Small Aircraft Division and serving as one of the company pilots.
One product Elano had developed for General Electric was a stainless steel manifold that boosted the performance of diesel locomotive engines. Zoe Dell thought back to her problems flying over the mountains in California. Could a better manifold give pilots more power in the air? Aluminum manifolds were a notorious weak link. Erv encouraged her to spearhead a project. Zoe Dell interviewed several engineers before hiring John Warlick, working with him to define the problem and see the project through to promotion of the finished product. Despite initial rejections by all the aircraft engine manufacturers, the manifold eventually became standard equipment on many models. Besides adding power when pilots needed it most, the manifold reduced engine maintenance for annual inspections, and enabled a quieter, better-heated cockpit.
As a pilot she logged over 2,000 flight hours, earning commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings. She enjoyed delivering rush jobs for Elano—20 minutes to the airport, ten minutes to preflight, an hour’s flight to Cincinnati and Columbus, and within a couple hours a part could be delivered to Boston, Chicago or Atlanta.
Now an Ohio resident, Zoe Dell joined the Ohio Civil Air Patrol, learning the geography of her adopted state by flying search and rescue missions.
In Dayton, Zoe Dell attended her first Aviation Hall of Fame ceremony in 1966. She realized she knew many of the honorees, having spent over 25 years promoting the industry by then. She saw to it that relatives of the Wright brothers received long-deserved attention. Her involvement with the Hall of Fame grew to become 12 years service as a board member and serving as its first woman president in 1988. She has served on many other charitable, educational and civic boards, like the San Francisco Aeronautical Society.
Besides honoring past greats, she felt it was important to recognize the living and capitalize on the publicity value of celebrity aviators like John Travolta and Harrison Ford. Her involvement with the Living Legends of Aviation came full circle when her 70 years of service was recognized in 2009 with the Bob Hoover Freedom of Flight Award.
In 2010 Zoe Dell still sees the need to better educate the public about flying. Statistically far safer than driving, she believes the higher visibility of air mishaps continues to limit public acceptance. Through her long career, Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter sees her legacy as having made air travel more practical and accepted.