WWII Female Air Force Pilots Still Flying High
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
During World War II, a group of women took a bold step in aviation. While male pilots were sent overseas, the Women Air Force Service Pilots took up the war effort on the home front. From 1943 to 1944, they logged over 60 million miles across the U.S., flying 77 types of military aircraft to haul supplies and conduct training exercises.
This week, the women pilots were honored at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. NPR's Daniel Hajek caught up with some veteran members before the parade.
DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: Van Nuys Airport, an hour north of L.A., a group of 10 elderly women dressed in blue uniforms walk onto an airstrip where they're greeted by a small crowd and four World War II-era AT-6 Texans, two-seater propeller planes that bring back some memories.
FLORA BELLE REECE: Pratt & Whitney engine, 650 horsepower and is a beautiful airplane. It will just do whatever you ask it to when you use the controls correctly.
HAJEK: That's 89-year-old Flora Belle Reece from Lancaster, California. She flew these planes 70 years ago when she volunteered for the Women Air Force Service Pilots or WASP. She was inspired to fly as a kid in Oklahoma watching the birds as she helped her dad farm.
REECE: In my life, my priorities are God first, family second, and then flying.
HAJEK: And her priorities were straight when she became one of 1,100 women who earned silver wings in the WASP originally stationed in Sweetwater, Texas. The women pilots transported soldiers, test-flew planes and conducted training exercises as seen in this WASP training film courtesy of Texas Women's University.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAINING FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nobody should ever tell a WASP that flying's not a woman's job. They wouldn't believe it any more than if it were said a girl can't be a good flier and a woman.
HAJEK: One of their most dangerous missions, towing targets for anti-aircraft training, where guys on the ground would shoot live ammunition. Ask 94-year-old Elizabeth Strohfus if she was ever scared.
ELIZABETH STROHFUS: Oh, no. Not a bit. I loved every minute of it.
HAJEK: Today, these women get to play co-pilots as members of the Condor Squadron at Van Nuys, take four of them up in these old planes they've restored. On the ground, a line of active duty female pilots salute as the planes pass in formation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINES)
HAJEK: Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Weeks says the WASP inspired her to become a pilot. She flies F-15 and F-16 fighter jets in the United States Air Force.
LT. COL. SAMANTHA WEEKS: To have the opportunity to be around them and sit with them and listen to their stories and hear how they paved the road that allows me to walk the walk that I do in the Air Force today is just amazing.
HAJEK: Yet even today, the aviation culture is largely male dominated. The FAA estimates that women make up just 7 percent of certified pilots in the U.S. These women are trailblazers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINES)
HAJEK: The AT-6s land and sputter back to the hanger. Elizabeth Strohfus carefully climbs out of the cockpit. She's all smiles.
STROHFUS: Good memories. It was a beautiful flight. I used to do a lot of formation flying. Course, they always said I flew too close. I said, I thought that's what you're supposed to do.
HAJEK: Like the other WASPs, flying is in her blood. When Strohfus was 72, she hitched a ride in an F-16 fighter jet. Midway through her flight, she says the pilot gave her the controls. So you took control.
HAJEK: And what did you do?
STROHFUS: Well, I didn't mean to make too steep a turn, but I got a 6G turn.
WEEKS: 6G turn.
STROHFUS: 6Gs, yeah. And he said: Hey, take it easy. I don't have the (unintelligible). I said: Honey, you can have mine because I don't need it.
HAJEK: They've come a long way since the WASP was disbanded in 1944. These women were finally recognized as veterans in 1977, and they received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. Earlier this week, their own float at the Rose Parade. Members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots are like celebrities in the aviation world. They live for the thrill of flying. Daniel Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.