Enthralled by Amelia Earhart’s exploits, Hembel decided to be a pilot at a time when female pilots were a novelty.
Pioneer aviator. Hembel was born in Saluda on November 12, 1918, the daughter of Rodney Hammond Etheredge, a farmer and lawyer, and Ora Padget, a housewife, on the family plantation. Enthralled by Amelia Earhart’s exploits, Hembel decided to be a pilot at a time when female pilots were a novelty. She attended Furman University from 1937 to 1939 and then the University of South Carolina, where she graduated in 1941. After entering the fledgling Civilian Pilot Training Program in 1939, she became the first female trainee in the Southeast to receive her pilot’s license. By 1941 she had obtained her commercial pilot’s license, completed the instructor’s course, and was an officer of the Ninety Nines (the international women pilots organization). Hembel was assigned to train Navy V-5 aviation cadets at Owens Field in Columbia. On February 14, 1942 she married fellow instructor Les Hembel, a future South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame inductee. In 1943 she became a WASP (Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots member). In 1945 the Hembels settled in Saluda, raised three children, and pursued an aviation-centered lifestyle. Caroline Hembel competed in several All-Women Transcontinental Air Races during the 1940s. In 1962 she helped her husband establish South Carolina Helicopters, a Saluda firm that became one of America’s largest helicopter training schools and has trained pilots from all over the world. Caroline helped to promote the Amelia Earhart postage stamp in 1963, the year she retired from flying. In 1995 the South Carolina Aviation Association named her South Carolina Aviator of the Year and inducted her into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame, making the Hembels the first wife and husband inductees. Caroline Hembel died of congestive heart failure on January 22, 2001, at her Saluda home and was buried in the Red Bank Baptist Church cemetery.
“Pioneer Aviator Leaves Legacy.” Saluda Standard-Sentinel, February 1, 2001, p. 1.