When Michael Davis reached out earlier this year to donate his father-in-law’s Pilot Goggles, no one anticipated the incredible story these goggles could tell. His father-in-law, Carl H. Susemihl, was not only an award-winning pilot, but opened his own airport and ran a flight school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I had the pleasure of talking with Carl’s daughter Jean and son-in-law Michael over zoom recently. They were able to share about his life and tell me a bit about who he was.
“Carl was one of the youngest licensed instructor pilots in the United States at age 16,” said Mike, “[even] before World War II he had many achievements including checking Charles Lindberg in a P93 fighter.” Serving for his country as a Maj. in the U.S. Air Force as well as a Capt. in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Carl fought for the U.S. in World War II. He also barnstormed with his three brothers across the U.S. performing stunts in his plane, something that professionally trained pilots will do on occasion as a hobby or even as a job, reaching some level of notoriety and fame. Jean proceeded to share a magazine cover he was on, “there were four of them all flying, and we have a cover of [the] magazine,” Mike finished her statement, “Michigan Aviation Magazine.” She remembered the cover saying, “The Flying Susemihl Brothers.” Growing up in South Dakota, he worked on farms with his brothers. Only one of the four brothers didn’t pursue a future in flight, two of them even became commercial airline pilots.
As a child Carl was always fascinated with flight and being up high. “[Carl] always loved aviation,” Jean explained, “It was always something he was interested in even as a little boy.” Jean was born in Michigan when Carl was still involved in the aviation industry, “then he got very interested in law school, and he went to Denver University for quite some time. He had gotten near the end of his law degree and was offered a [car sales] franchise with some import cars that were never heard of in the United States: BMW, Renault, Fiat. Amazing!”
For many years Carl’s passion for aviation went unpursued, taking on many small car dealerships. “He loved selling these small cars and he believed in them.” Jean took both Mike and I back through memory lane reminiscing on her childhood with her father, “he was selling these little cars and people were kind of laughing at him. When I was a little girl my sister, brother, and I used to go to the studio where he advertised the [vehicles], and we’d sit in the cars and giggle while he was advertising [them].” With a huge smile on her face, she told me, “Daddy was just ahead of his time. He just was. But he never stopped wanting the aviation industry, so badly, that he sold his business… and built an airport”
In February 1979 Carl opened Ellicott Flying Service, INC. According to Carl Susemihil’s Memorial Grant webpage, Carl started his flying service after a local farmer asked for flying lessons. “We got a tractor and dragged a strip,” Susemihl said in a previous interview. “I taught him how to fly, and before I knew it, I had a bunch of students.” “[Carl] had to brush up his credentials in order to get his teaching certificate of course, and he had to do that every year, but he was very good at it.” Jean went on to say that at one point he had too many students, so he ended up having to hire other instructors to work alongside him.
Jean was kind enough to share the picture of her dad, shown here. “This tall guy standing up is my father, and he’s signing off a logbook on one of his students, this was at Greenville Aviation. And do you see how young he is in this picture,” she asked me, “he was probably in this picture, 18 [years old and] he was already an instructor pilot teaching many gentlemen older than he was, as you can see.” Mike continued his wife’s thought with, “we don’t know the guy who he was signing off.”
A few years later, Carl bought land which housed the Ellicott Airport in 1986. The privately owned Ellicott Airport was entirely built by Carl and his passion for aviation. In 1987, they changed the airport’s name to Springs East Airport, INC. Jean recalled when she had her first solo flight on the dirt runway at just 16 years old. “it was kind of the one that you had to shoo cows off of it in order to go in for the landing… it was pretty archaic in the first years, but the one now is much nicer.” Springs East Airport includes multiple runways, hanger building sites and residential sites and the site offered fuel, parking, flight school, pilot supplies, pilot lounge, restrooms, and camping.
In an article written about Carl and the airport in November of 1996 Carl shared enthusiasm about expanding the airport’s facilities. He hoped to increase the community’s economy by drawing more air traffic to the area, even discussing plans to split up the airport’s property. This would allow him to sell individual lots as the site for hangers. His goal, which he hoped to complete by 1998, was to build an entire new terminal which would include a bar and a restaurant inside. “He was a visionary, he really was.” Mike told me about his father-in-law, “instead of looking down he looked out.”
While he unfortunately never was able to accomplish everything due to a few different reasons, including financial restrictions as well as simply growing older. The people who bought the adjacent land, intended for the hangar sites, ended up eventually purchasing it when it was put on the market. For years, before it was sold, Carl owned the airport with his companion Darlene and a third business partner. As years went by, other shareholders joined the business including Mike and Jean. While they no longer associate with the airport , they were both at one point active board members.
In March 2005 Carl received the National Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Denver Flight Standards District Office of the Federal Aviation Administration. There is also an ongoing memorial grant in Carl’s name helping cover the FAA Private Pilot Knowledge Exam Fees for those who need assistance. When asked about the memorial grant, the couple looked at each other confused before Mike said, “We’re surprised! We didn’t know about this.” After describing what the scholarship was for, he thanked me saying he will have to look into who created it in his name.
Carl passed away February 3, 2007. Shortly after his passing, his partner Darlene sold the rest of her shares to the owners of the hangar sites. When Michael found out that GoggleWorks Center for the Arts was located in the old Wilson Goggle factory, where his father-in-law’s pilot goggles were made, he knew that he wanted to donate them. Michael and Jean still live in Colorado Springs near the Springs East Airport, a fond reminder of a great pilot’s legacy.
If you would like to learn more about the history of the Wilson Goggle Factory or GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, visit goggleworks.org/about/history/ or stop by and take a tour of the building and see the Willson History Project Museum. The museum features details dating back to 1871 when Dr. Thomas A. Willson started his safety goggles company, one of the first in the US to manufacture optical lenses. In 2002 the manufacturer closed the Reading, PA factory making way for GoggleWorks Center for the Arts to welcome the public daily for creative and transformative experiences.