You know, you live with someone long enough, you think you know them pretty well. My wife and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary, so I thought I had her down cold: loves birdwatching, cooking, 80s music and terrible television shows (more or less in that order, which is fortunate for me, as I prefer classic films). She’s intellectually curious, especially about the animal kingdom, the environment and outer space. In fact, she has mentioned on occasion that she would have loved to have been an astronaut. While I do not share her enthusiasm for space travel (unless we’re watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) I will say I secretly chuckled at her claim; it was difficult to imagine her rocketing around the galaxy, since she’s timid about riding any bicycle but one of the stationary variety.
So it caught me a bit off-guard recently when I saw her nose buried in a large tome about women aviators. “Whatcha reading?” I asked, and within a few moments, after hearing some very uncharacteristically excited and adventurous chatter from my spouse, I was left trying to process her summary statement: “…and so, I’ve always wanted to fly a plane – and I think I’m going to take flying lessons.”
WWII flyer Elizabeth L. Gardner (Image: U.S. Air Force)
My first reaction was surprise, which quickly gave way to rabid fear. I began imagining every possible disaster that could befall my wife’s first flight (complete with images from Airports 1970 – 1979, inclusive, flashing through my mind’s eye). I suppose my reaction was the same one women must have when their husbands turn 40 and come home with a shiny new motorcycle or sports car.
Somehow, this is not how I pictured the woman I’d married. (Image retrieved from armedrobbery.wordpress.com)
But then I picked up the book she was reading, and, being a librarian, I put my trust in that. It began to dawn on me that there was more here than mere middle-aged thrill-seeking on my wife’s part. She clearly was inspired by the pioneering women of aviation. Having been intrigued by the subject ever since I first heard Joni Mitchell’s tribute to Amelia Earhart (a wee lad at the time, I came for Pat Metheny’s guitar, but stayed for the history lesson), I quickly found myself turned around on the whole thing.
The focus of the book my wife was reading was The Women Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary organization of U.S. aviators who stepped up during World War II, flying support missions such as cargo transport. While not slated for combat duty, the WASPs did complete rigorous training comparable to that of male army pilots and engaged in perilous flights, including the towing of dummy crafts for military target practice. The most experienced and skilled of the women also assumed more prestigious roles, such as the early test flights of rocket-powered and jet-propelled planes. Following the war, the WASP program was terminated, but women pilots continued to serve in limited numbers in the Women in the Air Force program.
WAF pilot Florene Watson readies a P-51 Mustang fighter for a ferry flight in California (Image: U.S. Air Force)
Sadly, it was not until more than a half century after the war that the U.S. government finally and formally acknowledged the brave contributions these women made. While not every pilot lived to see it (more than two-thirds of the 1,074 WASPs are now deceased, over three dozen of whom were killed in action), their efforts and sacrifice were first recognized with veteran status in 1977, and the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
Of course, even before the WASPs flew their missions, there were other female aviators. Unquestionably, none is more famous than Amelia Earhart, who completed the first solo trans-Atlantic flight by a woman in 1932. She received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of this feat, just five years to the day after Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh completed the first ever such solo flight.
(Image: Associated Press)
Like Lindbergh before her, Earhart’s exploits earned her immediate international fame, and she soon was rubbing elbows with heads of state and other VIPs. Her accomplishments had a significant impact on women entering what were then considered non-traditional careers. She continued to give back to the aviation world, particularly for young women she had inspired. Earhart was one of five pilots to form an early organization for female aviators, and she taught at Purdue University, mentoring students who (as Joni sang) also ‘had a dream to fly.’
Amelia Earhart (at right) as a young aviator-in-training, with her flight instructor Neta Snook. (Image retrieved from Wikipedia)
Earhart vanished during a flight over the Pacific Ocean, just shy of her 40th birthday. More than a mere pioneer of aviation, she has endured as a heroic figure to feminists, adventure and exploration fans, sociologists and history buffs for nearly a century.
(Image: Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress)
Since my wife’s birthday was approaching soon after the revelation of her aeronautic ambitions, I presented her with a surprise of my own – an introductory flight lesson at a local airfield. She was thrilled, and I’m very excited for her. But I shan’t be watching Airport again any time soon…at least, not until that first lesson is over, and she has both feet safely back on the ground.
WAF officer candidate, 1952 (Image: U.S. Air Force)
Amelia Earhart’s birthday is July 24th; you can celebrate in any number of ways, but a good start is to learn more about this fascinating American legend. There are plenty of materials on Amelia Earhart available to the Touro community via our Libraries.