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"'Fly Girls' recount their trials, triumphs in World War II flight"



Friday, March 30, 2007

'Fly Girls' recount their trials, triumphs in World War II flight
By ALISHA SEMCHUCK 
The Antelope Valley (CA) Press


EDWARDS AFB - Women can soar, reach all kinds of heights and come in for a
landing that equals the best of male pilots, according to five women who
dared try.

Ty Killen, Flora Belle Reece, Betty Jane Williams, Jean McCart and Pearl
Judd share the distinction of numbering among a select group of women pilots
commonly called the WASPs - Women Airforce Service Pilots -who flew military
aircraft during World War II. They gathered Tuesday at Edwards Air Force
Base for a trip down memory lane in conjunction with Women's History Month.
They talked about the good times and the hardships with a group of roughly
50 people from the military base.

As with every other male-dominated field, women who wanted to prove their
prowess in the air worked twice as hard as men, mainly to dispel beliefs
that their skill levels were limited to secretarial or nursing careers, the
women said.

"We had to constantly prove ourselves," Williams said.

Yet women have a long-standing link to flight as a video titled "Exploring
the Skies: Encountering Women in Aviation" showed. That video, played at the
gathering, was created by a 17-year-old high school student from Riverside
as a national history assignment, Judd said. She did not name the creator
but said the video took sixth place out of 2,000 entries at a competition in
Washington.

Katherine Wright worked on planes with her brothers, Orville and Wilbur. But
when the young men made their first successful flight on Dec. 17, 1903, in
Kitty Hawk, their sister never received mention because of her gender, the
videographer reported.

Harriet Quimby was the first woman to fly across the English Channel -
around 1912.

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Spurred by Earhart's disappearance in July 1937 over the Pacific, Jacqueline
Cochran, founder and director of the WASPs, entered the Transcontinental
Bendix Race in September 1938 and won. After war broke out in Europe,
Cochran wrote first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recommending the establishment
of a women's flying division of the Army Air Forces . But the United States
was not yet ready for women pilots working with the military.

Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Three months later, in
March 1942, Cochran took 25 American women pilots to Britain to fly with the
British Air Transport Auxiliary. In November 1942, she established the
Women's Flying Training Detachment with 28 recruits who reported to the
Houston, Texas, municipal airport. That month, the women flew their first
U.S. flight - transporting Piper Cubs from Lock Haven, Penn., to Mitchell
Field in New York, and from that group the WASPs evolved.

Killen, Reece, Williams, McCart and Judd glow when they recall their
exploits, even though the government did not grant them military status
during World War II. That means they did not receive military benefits.
Thirty-eight Women Airforce Service Pilots died, and their families had the
responsibility of bringing the bodies back home and handling funeral
arrangements, including costs.

It wasn't until more than three decades after the battle ended that the
military distinction was bestowed on the women.

Nonetheless, the "Fly Girls" as they often were called, look back at their
work with great pride.

WASPs "accomplished a necessary mission," aviation legend Chuck Yeager said
in the video.

Reece said she responded to a newspaper advertisement in 1942 about the need
for women pilots. She was still in high school but began flying lessons.
Once in the women's pilot program, she was assigned to Foster Field, an Army
Air Forces base near Victoria, Texas. Her assignment: utility pilot.

"We were treated with great respect. I enjoyed every minute of the war -
enjoyed every minute in the air," Reece said.

"In those days, (women) became a secretary or a nurse," said McCart, a 1938
high school graduate. "When I read about (women pilots) in the paper, I was
really gung ho."

She applied and went for her physical to the Army Air Base in Santa Ana,
"Ten thousand men and me. They had to clear the medical facility. I was the
only woman in 25 miles," she said. 

After her training, she flew mainly in the continental United States, McCart
said.

"I was in my glory. It's an experience I treasure," McCart said. "It
influenced my life."

Killen got hooked on flight at age 9. She pointed out that she'll turn 84 in
six weeks.

She recalled a family road trip in Casa Grande, Ariz., when she was 9, where
she and her brother watched as a pilot flying a Curtiss JN-4 aircraft -
commonly called "the Jenny" - gave people rides for $5. Military flight
instructors used the Jenny as the primary trainer for America's World War I
pilots.

"The World War I Jenny. What a romantic-looking thing," Killen said. Her
mother couldn't afford $5 for Killen and another $5 for her brother. The
pilot agreed to a two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

The duo took flight at sundown.

"My brother sang the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' I screamed and yelled. We saw
the sunset" from the air. "We never saw anything so beautiful. Both of us
were hooked that day."

While in high school Killen took flying lessons, paying for them by doing
maintenance work around the hangar.

"I could put gas in a plane, oil in a plane. I could clean them. I could
sweep up a hangar. Someone vomited. I could clean that up."

Killen was at the University of Arizona when the United States declared war.
She heard a radio announcement about recruiting women pilots, but she was 19
and the women had to be at least 25. The war reached a point where the
United States was losing, so "they lowered the women's age limit," she said.


Then and there, she joined the war effort.

"When we hit Sweetwater (Texas)," Judd said, "we were told a bus would pick
us up."

In reality, it was a cattle truck.

Accommodations at the base proved even less comfortable. Fourteen women
pilots squeezed into two rooms intended to house two cadets each. There was
only one bathroom to share.

"Picture when the trumpet sounds the next morning and 14 women hit the
bathroom made for four."

"About that Saturday morning, the inspector, he had white gloves on,"
Williams said. "If you had an apple in your locker, everyone got demerits.
I'm proud. I only had eight demerits." And they were all because of other
people's failures to comply, she added.

"We'd come to work every morning. There were all these planes that had to be
tested - more than we could fly in one day. None of the male pilots wanted
to fly this (one) plane - the AT-6," an advanced trainer that was one of the
most widely used aircraft in history. It was between Williams and another
woman pilot. They tossed a coin.

"I won, or lost, depending on how you look at it. The ground crew asked me,
'What kind of flowers do you like?' It was considered an unstable plane."

Williams took it up to 10,000 feet and began to spin it to the left, just to
see what would happen. Then she started her recovery. "The plane ignored me.
The airplane by now is going like a top. I didn't think I wanted to go that
way. Life didn't pass (before) my eyes. But, all of a sudden, I was 4 years
old."

As the aircraft spun toward earth, she recalled being told to pretend she
was "whipping a big batch of mashed potatoes" with the controls. And, she
thought, "what have I got to lose? When I finally got that sucker to stop
spinning, I was 500 feet off the ground."

Several of the WASPs recalled close calls with B-29s, long-range, heavy-duty
bombers, as they brought in other aircraft for a landing.

Still, all agreed, given the same opportunity today, they would accept it in
a heartbeat.

"We enjoyed what we were doing," Williams said. "We would have done it for a
dollar."

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