WASP Alta Corbett Thomas: A passion for flying!

by Logan Walker

Alta Thomas, 1943. (Photo: Women's International Air and Space Museum, Virginia Thomas Collection)

Alta Thomas, 1943. (Photo: Women's International Air and Space Museum, Virginia Thomas Collection)

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Alta Corbett Thomas had the kind of upbringing that many would envy; “Early on my life consisted of horses... (and parents who) believed there was more to life than horses,” she would later recall.  Alta’s father had raised his five daughters to “stand on their own feet” rather than enter into hasty marriage, like so many of the Corbett girls’ peers. When she was unoccupied in the stables, Alta passed time reading books, especially those written by author, poet, and aviator Antoine St-Exupery. His Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars were piloting themed novels that captivated Alta with tales of the immenseness and beauty of the sky and the adventurers who glided through it, and the former would prove to be a kind of holy book throughout the future aviatrix’s life. Moved by Saint-Exupery’s heartfelt words, Alta would later point to the novel as her first entry point to the world of flight. 

The first steps toward Alta's career happened just after her graduation from Smith College with a degree in history and a resolution to get her pilot’s license. Fortunately, her father was understanding once he overcame his initial surprise. “When I said I would like to be a pilot…it wasn’t what he had in mind. And he thought that would be sort of like investing in a ski bum….(but) he said, well you’ll just have to get your flying time on your own. But you can live at home, and so you don’t have to pay for room and board while you’re learning this. And that’s what I did. I went to Swan Island to try to get a job down there and be paid in flying time.”

Alta Thomas. (Photo: Flying Heritage and Combat Armour Museum http://video.flyingheritage.com/v/117042382/alta-corbett-thomas.htm)

Alta Thomas. (Photo: Flying Heritage and Combat Armour Museum http://video.flyingheritage.com/v/117042382/alta-corbett-thomas.htm)

Having succeeded in obtaining her personal and commercial pilot’s licenses, Alta went about searching for flying jobs, but even against the backdrop of the war, positions for women in the field were negligible. Help came in the form of Alta’s old alma mater, Smith College. The College's vocational office notified her that the War Department was looking for employees with a college degree and pilot’s license. She applied and was given a position in the Pentagon, working as a research analyst, compiling information on the military capabilities of countries like Russia and Norway. It was a hefty position and one that allowed her to take an active role in the war effort, but Alta’s passion was in the sky beyond her desk job and when she became aware of the WASP program and the possibilities it offered for young female pilots, she jumped at her chance to join.

Leaving her position with the War Department proved to be harder than Alta had expected. Her boss threatened to blackball her if she left her “frozen” position, but thanks to the intervention of another superior in the office, she soon found herself enrolled in the WASP class 43-4 in the early months of 1943. “It took me awhile. I struggled to get in. I really clawed my way in,” said Alta of her desperate efforts to fly military planes. But further efforts lay on the horizon.

Reporting for her pre-training military health exam at Torren Field in Texas, Alta was dismayed to find the Army doctor was concerned that a slight defect in one of her eyes could hinder her ability to fly. Recalling her medical test, she noted, “I flunked it the first time. And I said, I just can't because this is, it just seemed like I was meant to do it. And he, I had to go back. To Tarrant Field and finally he said, do you really think you can fly military ships? And I said, without a doubt. And he said, go for it. So I went. Even if it was a little not quite 20/20 in one eye.” 

Alta joined her class at their original training base in Houston, Texas, where she and her classmates were shuttled to training in a cattle truck and engaged in exercises like marching to build group morale. The girls were, in Alta's words, “…a scraggly bunch, and that pulled us together, and I think in Houston we probably had PT too…It seemed like we were just getting used to what it was like to be in the military at Houston.” Soon the girls received news that their base would be changed to Avenger Field in Sweetwater. “Everything was, I felt it was quite militarized," she said. "We marched to classes and we had a scheduled ground school in the afternoon. We were the flight line in the morning and at night when we were listed in operations that we had night fly. And we lived in barracks all of us, six in a barracks and then they had the big showers and a bathroom in between and another in our bays. They were divided into bays and it was very ordered.”  Alta remembers that flight training occurred in mainly Fairchild and BT-13 aircraft, and was fraught with a very real sense of danger underneath the exhilaration of soaring. Accidents were known to happen, as in the case of one WASP who took Alta’s place in a night flying exercise and “…crashed, didn't come back. They had an accident. It's easy at night, if you take your eyes off the instruments, you can get awfully disoriented.”

WASP wings: class 43-4 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

WASP wings: class 43-4 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Upon graduation,  Alta was assigned to the Tow Target Squadrons at Camp Davis, North Carolina and Liberty Field in Georgia. It was a dangerous job that put her in the regular vicinity of gunfire. Towing targets was a duty that was much disliked by male pilots for this very reason. Although the rope for target practice was 2,500 feet long, it wasn’t uncommon for WASP to return to the ground with bullet holes in the tales of their planes. “When I went down to Camp Davis, we thought it was a great adventure” Alta mused, “but apparently the morale was very low. They'd had two accidents, I guess, and, well, here we came in as I said.” A series of tragedies prompted a visit from WASP leader Jacqueline Cochran. “I thought she was worried about a couple of us wanting to leave the program. Yes, that's what I’d say I was very aware of by the time I'd been there for, that … they wanted to resign even. I remember one of them said, ‘I want to live to be a grandmother.’”

Alta and her peers flew a variety of planes during their tenure; After first arriving at Camp Davis “…we had these l5's. I think there was an engine, and we were over the camp and all over to have to go round and around and figure eights and circle. Certain places we were told to circle. It was just maneuvering to get us, I guess, used to what we would do towing. And what we did towing, we flew the A- 24, the Douglas Dauntless, And later on, the 825, the Curtis Helldiver.”

More often than not, the planes given to Alta and her peers weren’t fresh from the factory, rather they were considered the “dregs of the Army”. Plane tires were sometimes worn to nearly nothing and rumors circulated throughout camp that the gasoline that fueled the planes was watered down. Despite this, Alta’s attitude remained unflinchingly optimistic; “I never gave a thought to the gas and the to the water and the gas or running rough. I think there is a difference between being recruited and being asked to belong to something when you want it desperately. And it just never would have occurred to me to criticize it. Because I was very aware that, and this doesn't say that I'm holier than thou, but I was aware that the ones overseas deserved the good stuff.. But the E- 25 was in good shape when that came but Camp Davis was It was all right.” Throughout her career, Alta's favorites remained the reliable and powerful A-25 and the SB2C Helldiver.

When the WASP program came to a sudden end at the close of 1944, so would Alta's career as an active pilot. Nevertheless, she took a pragmatic view of the situation, remarking that, “Someone asked me were you disappointed when you found out about deactivation, disappointment wasn't the word because I'd felt we had a lot and was glad that the was winding down but it never occurred to me there wouldn't be a place that we would serve after all of this training and experience…But, the men were coming home and they really deserved the jobs, they had been overseas and they said that they weren't needed…”

In search of a new position, Alta sent inquiries to a number of aircraft companies but had little success in the wake of a sudden influx of pilots home from the war. Finally, she found a position with the CAA which was in the process of recruiting personnel for air, ground, and weather communications in Alaska. Reporting for training at Boeing Field in Seattle, Alta was pleasantly surprised to find that she was just one of several former WASP to apply for such a position. Describing the feeling of camaraderie that she felt with her former peers, Alta recalled a short passage from a WASP newsletter many years later; “…it spoke of a high school basketball coach. He'd led his team all through the quarter-finals, all through the semi-finals, and here they were at the championship and it was halftime. And he spoke to his men and he said, you go out and win this tonight and you will have shared a moment in time that touched and shaped you deeply. And no matter how many miles separate you, no matter how many years go by, you will walk together forever. And I thought, you know that's just kind of how it is with the WASP.”

Alta Thomas (left) with fellow WASP Dorothy Olsen, Betty Dybbro and Mary Jean Sturdevant pose in front of a P-51. (Photo: Joan Brown, website: Northwest Military )

Alta Thomas (left) with fellow WASP Dorothy Olsen, Betty Dybbro and Mary Jean Sturdevant pose in front of a P-51. (Photo: Joan Brown, website: Northwest Military )

During the 1950s, Alta lived a quiet life out of a cabin in Oregon’s Willamette National Forrest, where she wrote verse for fun and took care of her household pets. In the early sixties she married Ralph Thomas, a Dam worker, and despite her apprehensions ("Three. Meals. A day . . . I just didn't think I could.”), she settled into family life as a wife and mother of four---two stepsons, Ralph Lee and John, and two daughters Kelly and Debbie. They eventually moved to Sequim, Washington where they ran a fifteen-acre farm.  

Alta's days of piloting planes ended on the day she resigned her WASP uniform in 1944, and her experience as an aircraft passenger speaks to her somewhat conflicted stance toward women in the modern world of aviation. Recounting the last minute flight complications during a return trip from Seattle with her daughter, she says, “…it was terrible weather, and they weren't going to let us take off for a while, and then it got just enough of a break that we did, and this girl got into the pilot seat. And I said to Kelly, ‘You think she's gonna know what to do?’ And Kelly looked at me and said, ‘mother being a woman yourself, flying, would you doubt her?’ And I don't know why I did. I'm just not driven to causes. I just feel things happen when they're ready to…And yet, I don't see why they shouldn't, unless it's hard to cope with both men and women.”

Alta Thomas at an aviation event on the grounds of the William Fairchild Int'l Airport in Port Angeles, WA, 2017 (Photo: KSOM 91.5 Community Radio Facebook Page)

Alta Thomas at an aviation event on the grounds of the William Fairchild Int'l Airport in Port Angeles, WA, 2017 (Photo: KSOM 91.5 Community Radio Facebook Page)

Alta is now 99 years old and still lives in Sequim. Her children praise her as a role model and trailblazer for women. She taught her daughters they could be anyone they wanted to be and to never accept "You can't". Alta feels privileged to have had the opportunity to fly and no words express her love for flying quite like those of John Gillespie Magee's poem, High Flight, which she is known to recite with a wave of emotion.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Helping Dreams Soar: Outreach is EVERYTHING!

by Jill Meyers

As I mentioned in my introductory segment last week, one of my roles for Dreams Soar is to oversee the planning of our Outreach events all over the world. Each location is different depending on how long Shaesta will be there, how much support we get from the local community, and what kind of STEM activities already exist in the schools and local aviation organizations. I have support from several different groups of people to plan and execute these Outreach events and I couldn’t do this without them.

First and foremost is our own Dream Team, an amazing group of talented and passionate college students (and recent graduates) who are the heart and soul of our organization! Several members of the Dream Team are assigned to help with Outreach planning. Dreams Soar also has strong support from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as part of their Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) program. I am able to collaborate directly with ICAO’s delegates at the headquarters in Montréal, Canada, and they connect me with their local Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) representatives at every international stop.

Part of The Dream Team. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Part of The Dream Team. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Madrid is a good example of Outreach planning at its best. The first Skype call had me and Dream Team member Jessica talking with Jose Ramón and Pedro from the Spanish CAA office. They had not planned anything like this before and wanted our inputs and ideas, so Jessica and I talked about Dreams Soar’s vision to inspire kids to pursue STEM education and aviation careers. We gave them a few ideas of types of events they could hold, and they agreed to do some research. Very soon they added Almudena to their team, an energetic young woman in her first job at the CAA, who is very passionate about our mission! After several weeks of collaboration, we had seven events planned over the course of three days!

Shaesta met with over 40 kids at the Madrid Air Museum, sharing her story with them and talking about aviation. She participated in a forum with Aviation Management Degree students and women from the Gender Equality Unit at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Shaesta met with Spain’s Director General of Civil Aviation and also spoke with the “Balance for AESA” team, a group chartered to empower the role of women in aviation in Spain. She met with a group of young student pilots at Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos Airport, where our Bonanza aircraft was hangered, and also spent time with members of Aviadoras, a group of women pilots from the Spanish Pilot Association. Shaesta also visited the Escuelas Aguirre School in Madrid, the only bilingual elementary school in the city. And finally, she was interviewed by Fomento magazine and the Spanish Guild of Commercial Aviation Pilots’ magazine, as media interviews are also a big part of our Outreach program. As you can imagine, a great deal of planning went into this Madrid stop! All of our Outreach stops are not this complex, but they are equally important and powerful in our efforts to inspire the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals!

Shaesta takes a selfie with kids at the Madrid Air Museum. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta takes a selfie with kids at the Madrid Air Museum. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

"I wanted to serve my country in a very active way." --WASP Dawn Seymour

by Martha Magruder

WASP Dawn Seymour (Photo: ezramagazine.cornell.edu)

WASP Dawn Seymour (Photo: ezramagazine.cornell.edu)

By the time she was 26 years old, Dawn Rochow Balden Seymour had logged 700 hours in the Boeing B -17 "Flying Fortress" and was training young gunners in preparation for D-Day and war in the Pacific.  Just a few years earlier, the ambitious 22-year old native of Rochester, NY, who had never stepped foot on a plane, graduated from Cornell University’s College of Home Economics and was hired as an instructor at the school. While volunteering in a research study, she was approached by Dr. Richard Parmenter, a veteran WWI pilot who saw her potential and asked if she was interested in Cornell's new Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT) and not long after, he took her for her first plane ride. She recalled, “So he took me up in a yellow [Piper] Cub on an October day when, of course, the leaves have turned, and suddenly the world is completely different. There's a sense of freedom. I was hooked with this love of flying.”

Seymour became the first woman pilot accepted into the CPT, “one out of every ten—nine men, one woman—was acceptable,” and in 1940, she earned her private pilot’s license. December 1941 brought about America’s involvement in World War II and Seymour found herself working for the New York State War Council on the same committee as Eleanor Roosevelt. Seymour, however, wanted to do more for the war effort: "I wanted to serve my country in a very active way.” In March 1943, she applied and was accepted to Jackie Cochran’s WASP program. “I was on the sidewalk and I flipped a nickel. Heads, I go that month, or, tails, I stay home [and get more flying time]. And it was heads. So I quit my job...And I joined the class of '43-5.”

Training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Seymour recalled a rigorous five months of “getting up and falling in line, going to breakfast, going to the flight line, going to ground school and to link training." Jackie Cochran presented Seymour with her wings on graduation day, September 11, 1943.  “The wings were cold, though it was a ninety degree day, and I said to myself, oh my goodness, I did it! It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.”

Dawn Seymour in the B-17. (Photo: CBS News)

Dawn Seymour in the B-17. (Photo: CBS News)

Though the WASP remained on home soil, they were by no means out of harm’s way. Seymour remembered, “Ten days before I graduated, my best friend, my buddy, Peggy Seip, was killed with her instructor and a fellow WASP pilot, and no reason was given for the accident. There was no ceremony held, they just disappeared. And it was a heart wrenching event….And Peggy had left a garden, the only garden any WASP had ever grown in Sweetwater, Texas, and it bloomed on our graduation day.”

Upon graduation, Seymour was sent to the Second Ferrying Command in Wilmington, Delaware and after just two weeks there, she completed ground school and checked out in the PT-19. Soon after, she transferred to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio where, after more rigorous training, she became one of only thirteen WASP, known as the “Lucky Thirteen” chosen to pilot the B-17. Seymour subsequently relocated to Buckingham Army Air Field at Fort Myers, Florida where she flew gunnery missions in the B-17 F/G and towed targets in the AT-23.  She trained gunners, mostly very young men no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and who had never been in the air. During those training missions, Seymour piloted the plane towing the target or “sleeve,” for the trainees to shoot at with live ammunition. She recalled, “Sometimes I'd see tracers in the B-17 going toward the plane, the B-26, and you'd put on the mike and say, "The sleeve, guys! Aim at the sleeve!"”

In early 1944, Seymour transferred to Roswell, New Mexico, to fly more training missions. In December of that year she and her fellow WASP received the devastating letter from General Hap Arnold notifying them of the disbandment of the WASP program. “The message we received was, 'Girls, go home, we don't need you anymore.'"  The women immediately packed up their things and without ceremony or fanfare, departed the military lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to and returned to their former lives. It would take 33 years for the United States government to officially recognize them as military veterans.

Dawn Seymour on the flight deck of the 445th Airlift Wing C-5 Galaxy aircraft in 2009. (USAF photo/Senior Airman Mikhail Berlin, http://www.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/158024/wright-patt-reservists-wowed-by-conference/)

Dawn Seymour on the flight deck of the 445th Airlift Wing C-5 Galaxy aircraft in 2009. (USAF photo/Senior Airman Mikhail Berlin, http://www.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/158024/wright-patt-reservists-wowed-by-conference/)

In 1982, five years after the WASP received military veteran status, Dawn Seymour was elected President of the WASP organization. She made it her mission to share the WASP story with the world. To commemorate the lives of those lost, she authored a book titled, IN MEMORIAM: Thirty-eight WAFS/WASP who gave their lives during training and service.  Seymour campaigned for Jackie Cochran's induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame and for ten years she worked tirelessly for a U.S. postal stamp honoring Cochran, which finally made its debut in 1996.  In 2005, Seymour was awarded the Keeper of the Flame award by the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Dawn Seymour strove to inspire women to pursue their dreams and proved a gifted speaker and storyteller as she shared her memories of of the WASP and WWII with audiences around the country. She was extremely proud to have had the opportunity to fly and serve her country while doing it.  “We were volunteers going in, and we were volunteers going out, and our motto was, “We live in the wind and the sand, and our eyes are on the stars.””

On July 18, 2017, Dawn Seymour passed away at the age of 100. Tributes poured in and fueled the American public's growing interest in the WASP. Given her unwavering resolve during her lifetime to share the WASP stories and preserve their legacy, Seymour would no doubt have been proud that even in death she was able to carry out that mission. 

During a 1999 interview with Rebecca Wright for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Seymour was asked how she'd sum up the contributions and sacrifices of the WASP:

"So I think my advice, as you asked me before, what difference -- what were the WASPs and what was their meaning in this particular time? And I think it is they listened to a voice inside that urges each one of us--we each had this--urges us to try. Find a way. You do the hard work. And I think that's my message." 

Dawn Seymour's service to her country and contribution to changing the course of history, especially for women, will forever inspire and influence generations to come.

Helping Dreams Soar: Aviators Jill Meyers & Shaesta Waiz are on a mission to help young women realize their dreams!

"Helping Dreams Soar" is a new Sunday segment that will run throughout August and September and is written by Jill Meyers about her experiences working with Dreams Soar, Inc. and the history-making flight of its founder and pilot Shaesta Waiz. Shaesta is piloting a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 solo around the world. Her mission is to inspire girls and young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and aviation education and careers.

by Jill Meyers

There is nothing more rewarding than finding your true purpose in life, and I believe it’s even more rewarding to find it later in life!

Four months ago, after more than three decades in the aviation and aerospace business, I quit my job. I didn’t have a plan --  I just knew that I needed to find a way to help the next generation find their passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, specifically in aviation. I have been a STEM advisor since the 1980s (before they called it STEM!), but only a few hours a month here and there at most. It wasn’t enough.

Two weeks after I left my job at a major defense contractor, I received a text message from Shaesta Waiz, Founder, President and Pilot for Dreams Soar, Inc., a non-profit, all-volunteer organization working to inspire young girls to pursue STEM and aviation education and careers. I had never met Shaesta at that point, but I knew Lyndse Costabile, their Board of Directors Chairwoman. I had contacted Lyndse earlier in the year, offering to help connect Dreams Soar with WAI chapters worldwide.

So -- back to the text message. I had been on a couple of conference calls with Shaesta and the team, providing a few suggestions on their Outreach program. A few days after a very long meeting, I received the text message which led to a phone call with Shaesta, and before I knew it I was their new Women in STEM/Outreach Coordinator.  What an incredible four months it has been!

Shaesta & the Dreams Soar Bonanza A36. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta & the Dreams Soar Bonanza A36. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta is flying around the world solo on a Global Flight for STEM, piloting a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 with five of the six seats ripped out and replaced with extra fuel tanks for the two ocean crossings. She is currently about halfway around the world on a route that stops in 34 places in 18 countries on five continents, and we are holding Outreach events in about 20 of those stops. Shaesta has already completed hugely successful Outreach events in Columbus, Ohio; Montreal, Canada; Madrid, Spain; London, UK: Athens, Greece; Cairo, Egypt; Dubai, UAE; and Singapore, and she has been to seven additional countries for fuel and rest stops.

Why is Shaesta's story inspiring to young girls?

Shaesta was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and her family fled to the U.S. when she was very young to escape the Soviet invasion. She does not come from wealth. English was her third language as they spoke Farsi and Pashto at home. She did not excel in school yet at the age of 30 she has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Aeronautics and holds a commercial pilot’s license. She is the first woman from Afghanistan ever to hold a civilian pilot’s license.

Shaesta talks to children at the Madrid Air Museum in Spain. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta talks to children at the Madrid Air Museum in Spain. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

As Outreach Coordinator for Dreams Soar, I assist local organizations worldwide in planning outreach events. I also manage the logistics and scheduling of Shaesta's flight and act as her primary point of contact during her journey. We talk every day and have a private messaging system to communicate while she is in flight. This, along with being given the opportunity to spend a week with her in Dubai, has offered me the rare gift to get to know Shaesta very well. It is fair to say that she is one of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met.  Shaesta’s story is one of finding your passion, working hard, and letting your dreams soar.

In the weeks to come, I will tell you about what it's like to support this organization, to choreograph Shaesta's activities, and to help thousands of young girls around the world let their dreams soar!

Read about Shaesta's May 13th launch event and learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

Elizabeth Harmon Bane: A Strong, Determined Woman Who Approached Life with Zest and Enthusiasm

by Susan Bane Summers

Elizabeth Harmon Bane, Class 43-W-4 (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

Elizabeth Harmon Bane, Class 43-W-4 (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

My grandmother Elizabeth "Liz" Harmon Bane earned her WASP wings on August 7, 1943 at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She began flying while attending the University of Alabama and had well over the required flight hours before heading to Texas.

During her training she flew the PT-19, AT-6, AT-10, BT-13 and twin engine Beech UC-78. Her assignments included Love Field, Dallas, Texas; Gunter Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama; Randolph Army Air Base, Universal City, Texas; Eagle Pass Army Air Base, Eagle Pass, Texas.

During her service, Liz met my grandfather, Major Mark C. Bane, Jr. and they married at Gunter-Maxwell Field in Alabama.  Mark served until 1969 and the couple spent many years abroad including in Occupied Japan after the war. They raised four children; Liz, Laurie, Mark Jr. & Helen.

My grandmother was a strong, determined woman who approached everything she did in life with perfection, zest and enthusiasm. She was an amazing mother, gardener, talented chef, always stylishly color coordinated and loved taking me shopping for clothes when I visited. I'm the youngest girl of six so her distaste of me in my brothers' hand-me-downs worked out well for my dress wardrobe. She "spoiled me ripe", called me 'little fish' because I loved swimming and the water and let me climb up in her lap and fall asleep long after I had grown too big to do so.

We lost my grandmother to cancer my freshman year of college.  Her passion for life, learning and flight lived on and inspired her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to this very day. In fact, one of her great granddaughters has completed over 1,000 hours of flight training at the age of 12. 

My grandparents had a set of portraits of them painted in Japan in 1949 and today they hang in my dining room. I think of them both every day. I can hear my grandmother complimenting my cooking, telling me to stand up straight and watching over my children she never got to meet.

Elizabeth Harmon & Major Mark C. Bane when they first met. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

Elizabeth Harmon & Major Mark C. Bane when they first met. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

She's Got Grit: Navy Pilot and Commander Karen Fine Brasch

by Shannon Huffman Polson

“Someone once asked me how I became a Navy pilot,” Karen Fine Brasch says. “I responded without thinking, 'It never occurred to me that I couldn't.' " 

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch (Photo: The Grit Project)

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch (Photo: The Grit Project)

One of three girls with a father who had been an Air Force fighter pilot, Brasch picked up the flying bug early. Her father was thrilled that one of his children wanted to follow him into the skies. When she was nine years old, he bought her a book "Anyone Can Fly," by Jules Bergman. It still sits on her bookshelf today. He built model airplanes with her and took her to nearby airfields to watch the planes. Her dad instilled in her the belief that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anyone she wanted to be. She didn’t set a path for the military initially, heading to college instead and taking classes while working full time to pay for school. Humble beginnings and upbringing required her being able to independently set goals and deliver on them. On one tough day of class, she stood in the elevator heading to another class and saw a poster that read: “Learn to fly with Bubba.”

“I took the poster off the wall, skipped class, drove over to the little airfield, set the paper on the guy’s desk, and said ‘I want to learn to fly.’ He took one look at me and laughed. I was a twenty-one year old, big haired Texas co-ed sorority girl.”

The instructor composed himself, and offered to take Brasch up flying on the spot.

“I was wearing a jeans mini-skirt and holding a can of Diet Coke,” she remembers. “We preflighted and got in the aircraft. I remember handing him my Diet Coke because I had nowhere to put it. He just laughed. So I dumped it out and put the can on my lap. He gave me the controls and told me to take off. I did. I was the opposite of scared. It was exhilarating!"

After eight lessons Brasch started her application to Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), a four month boot camp and accelerated officer training program for flight candidates. That’s where things got tough.

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch in the cockpit. (Photo: The Grit Project)

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch in the cockpit. (Photo: The Grit Project)

"Adversity tempers steel." That was the sign hanging in the entrance of AOCS. "It became the voice in my head over my flying career as I sought one challenge after another," says Brasch. "As we lined up to enter training, a big burly instructor came up behind me and grabbed the car keys I had hanging from a shaking hand. 'Trying to get away already?' he boomed. 'You wont be needing these anymore.' Strangely enough, I wasn't nervous anymore. It felt like an acknowledgement that my new adventure was beginning."

“I could not have been more of a fish out of water,” Brasch says. “I had hair down to the middle of my back when they cut it all off on the first day of indoctrination. Even with incredibly short hair, I did not fit in. I was weak academically. I was weak physically. And it showed. I realized how different I was when I was picked last in some silly swim competition. I felt the sting of humiliation and exclusion. Even my class didn't think I should be there. I remember wishing I had studied harder in school and spent more time in physical training."

The USMC drill sergeants running AOCS had no patience for weakness. “I had a lot of extra time with the drill instructors,” Brasch remembers. “Their job was to weed out the weak. I pushed through, because I had literally nowhere else to go, and no where I would rather have been. I was up for the challenges, and I did not want to be treated any differently just because I was a woman."

“I did not want to be treated any differently because I was a woman.”

One challenge required of candidates was getting themselves over an eight foot wall without assistance. “I just could not get over the wall,” she remembers. A small group of women including Brasch realized, then, that there was a wall in the barracks showers exactly the same height as the obstacle they were required to climb. “After the guys went to bed, we would run at this concrete wall in the shower,” she said. “There wasn’t room to get much of a running start, but we worked it anyway. We were all black and blue down one side of our bodies. I remember the day I finally got myself over the wall on the obstacle course. The drill instructor happened to be standing right there. He stood back and just said in his disgusted gruff drill instructor voice: 'Oh. My. God.'"

There were many more challenges to come. One was the fifteen-foot high dive. 'We had to jump in with full flight gear and swim twenty meters underwater without coming up for air."

“I wouldn’t jump off of it,” Brasch says. “I was inexplicably terrified. Another woman was assigned to walk me down to the pool every day and sit there while I waited to go jump and swim. I wasn’t allowed to speak. She just marched me there, and I would stand on the high dive and stare down at the pool-- paralyzed with fear and unable to jump. One day I decided she shouldn’t have to babysit me anymore. It was one more thing I needed to do. I thought to myself, 'there's always going to be one more thing, so what the heck?' I jumped. It was her quiet support that helped me jump.”

Whatever the Navy threw at her, however unprepared she was at times, “I was 100% all in," Brasch said. "The only thing I wanted to do was fly. I was going to do whatever was required to get there.”

Brasch started flight school in 1993, just after combat exclusion was lifted and all aircraft were opened to women. She remembers her training class being really angry because 'the women were going to steal all the pilot slots." Despite the gender protests, by the end of flight school she was qualified in the Navy T-34C fixed wing aircraft and TH-57 helicopter.  At the end of flight school she was qualified in flying the Navy Seahawks.

“The men didn’t want to fly with us,” she remembers. On one of her final primary flights with an instructor she'd never flown with before, she landed, feeling great about the flight, but her scores were low. Low scores were not necessarily an aberration, but this had been a particularly great flight. She could navigate, hold altitude, perform aerobatic maneuvers, nail the emergency procedures and fly in formation.

“I went in to the instructor’s office and asked him to explain. I told him I thought I’d nailed each part of the flight. He looked at me wearily and uninterested and said ‘Look, I’m retiring from the Navy in a week, and I only signed up to fly with you so I could say I had flown with a woman.’”

That was the end of that.

Brasch headed to California for her first assignment, flying the SH-60/HH60H Seahawk helicopter. She was scheduled to deploy on a six-month carrier rotation after initial Seahawk training on the U.S.S. Nimitz. She would be the first female pilot in her squadron and on the second aircraft carrier ever to deploy with women on board. "I should have been more nervous," she says, "but I could not have been more excited about my first deployment. The adventure, the responsibility and the patriotism I felt was indescribable."

“The week before I deployed I met a friend at the Officer's Club in Miramar. I lived just across the street. We were having a drink when one of the F-14 Tomcat flight officers came over to my table and said: “The only role for women on carriers are as surrogate wives, whores or mothers to the men on board. Your flying is inconsequential.”

My first book on flying when I was nine years old.

I read it on my first Navy deployments to pass the time. It was a great story to escape into while at sea. I read it several times and loved it. My first lab was named Monte.

Slow burn descriptive books transform you completely to another time and place with breath-taking descriptions of scenery and life from a time gone by. I also love Jane Austen novels for the same reason.

I've been learning a lot about classical music. I have also always regretted not taking more science and math in school. This book creatively brings it all together in a captivating story told through human experiences. It was completely above my head and I loved it. I learned a lot, too, but still haven't learned to break the code that is on the first page.

I read it in high school, and it always really stuck with me. I didn't love the book, but I've never been able to forget it or the symbolism and how it relates to our society.

Or any of his books. I like the fast-paced spy adventure novels. Also Robert Ludlum's Parisfal Mosaic and original Bourne series.

She laughs. “That pretty much summed up the feeling of a lot of the men,” she says. “Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

On deployment, she flew Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions and sub-hunting missions, flying the HH-60 and the SH-60. 

“Anytime the jets were flying we had one helicopter in the air for SAR, and another one farther out conducting training,” she says. “One day we were the helicopter doing training. The weather was terrible. We were more than twenty miles away from the carrier. The ceiling came down to three to four hundred feet, and it was rainy, stormy, really unusual weather,” she recalls. “There was no visibility above us, and max of a thousand feet in a given direction. The carrier called all the aircraft back for inclement weather, but they forgot about us. We were out over the ocean, bingo fuel, with nowhere to land.”

Brasch and her crew were twenty miles off the coast of Iran, but landing there wasn’t an option.

“We started to go through the ditching (when a helicopter is forced to land in the water) checklist,” she said. “We knew there would be a lot of shrapnel once the blades hit the water, so we planned to drop the crew with a boat a distance off. We came down to a hover and they prepared to get out, when the carrier called and came back for us. We were below bingo fuel.”

Brasch 3.jpg

“By my second deployment, the men were a little bit more used to women,” she said. “On February 17, 1998, I came back from my second deployment (on the U.S.S. Nimitz), an around the world tour. I returned exactly five years to the day from when I joined the Navy.”

“There are so many stories,” she laughs. “On another flight, we were cleared back to the carrier on the fantail (the rear of the carrier). Usually we came in from the side, matched the speed of the carrier and landed. On approach I saw an F-14 Tomcat on the catapult preparing to launch. I called the air boss and asked him if the jet would be taking off. He said no, so I made the approach. Just as we were about to land, the Tomcat launched. We sucked in all that exhaust, and it caused a dual compressor stall and we barely made it to the deck.”

Looking back over her career (Brasch retired as a Navy Commander), Brasch appreciates the bonds that form among diverse groups of people all going through challenging circumstances together. Nothing was ever easy; she remembers a time on a deployment when she went to her department head and asked why she wasn’t slotted on any of the night CSAR operations.

“He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his desk and looked at me and said, 'It has nothing to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it's because you don't remind us of ourselves. We all (the men) like to fly with young bucks that remind us of ourselves. And you don't remind us of ourselves. I’m just being honest with you.”

“It does not have to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it’s because you don’t remind us of ourselves.”

What would Brasch recommend to new leaders starting out? 

1. Respect is more important than being liked. It takes a long time to earn and seconds to lose it. ”I remember a commander calling me into his office,” Brasch says. “He told me ‘Everyone likes you, but what will you do when they don’t? You need to know that not everyone is going to like you...and that's ok.' I thought about his words a lot. I decided I would rather be respected for what I knew than liked for any other reason.

2. Be present in the moment. If you're flying, the aircraft neither likes nor respects you.  It doesn't care where you went to college or where you grew up. The difference between living and dying is attention to detail, situational awareness and competence.” She pauses. “You have to respect yourself,” she says. “Many will doubt you along the way. The bigger your dreams, the bigger the doubts.”

3. Be adaptable. Brasch remembers the change in identity necessary as well. “Sometimes you have to alter who you are to adapt to a situation," she says. “I had to ask myself: how much do I have to change? How much am I willing to lose of what I am? I had to learn to speak guy,” she says with a laugh. In a commencement address Brasch gave to a local high school, she suggests: “Expect a lot of change. Plan on it. Learn to reinvent yourself, while still remaining you."

4. Be okay with being alone and self reliant. “You will be your own obstacle or propellant,” she says. “You have to learn to thrive alone. That was one of my hardest lessons. Every woman should be her own worst critic and her own biggest advocate.”

5. Practice resilience and reflection. It takes more than passion and perseverance. You have to be able to bounce back from adversity. You have to be willing to risk failure in order to succeed. Replay your actions in your head and determine what you did right and what you can do better. 

6. Don't let fear control you. Build up the skills you need to face your fears. At the moment of truth, those skills will make all the difference. 

“Grit isn’t something you learn. It’s something you do.”

As for grit, Brasch clearly has it. “Grit comes from within. It starts from something feeling overwhelming or even impossible. It requires all of your focus and fortitude as you’re going through it. You might think you will fail all the way up until the moment you succeed. Grit isn’t something you learn, but it’s something you do. And it’s something you do alone. Grit is meeting a seemingly insurmountable challenge head on despite adversity."

For someone who wants to build grit, she suggests “Take on challenges outside your comfort zone. Start small and build up endurance for things that make you feel uncomfortable. Learn to rely on yourself.”

Now a mother of three and a program manager, Brasch has taken on additional challenge and passion: playing the cello. “I’ve been playing for three years now,” she says. "It's complicated and requires 100% focus. The first time I played gave me the same exhilaration that I felt the first time I flew. I love a good challenge."

Source: http://aborderlife.com/grit-project-blog/s...

Meet the Rogue Women Astronauts of the 1960s Who Never Flew

But they passed the same tests the male astronauts did—and, yes, in high heels

By Kat Eschner

June 16, 2017

Valentina Tereshkova was the first-ever woman to fly a spacecraft, on June 16, 1963. But even before Tereshkova took off, the United States was researching–and discarding–the idea of sending women into space, for reasons that had nothing to do with their abilities. It would take another twenty years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

This is the story of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, an elite group of women pilots who underwent astronaut testing and seemed like they might be on track to become astronauts in the early 1960s.  The best remembered of these women is probably Jerrie Cobb, a record-setting aviator. Even though Cobb and twelve others did extremely well in the astronaut tests, none of them went to space and the program they were part of was killed, speaking to the unwarranted sexism of the early American space program.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/meet-american-women-who-trained-space-1960s-180963704/#XV1PGTHP9uxPmj5r.99

She's Got Grit: "The Navy Doesn't Reward Pioneers"

by Shannon Huffman Polson

Jane O'Dea in front of a C1-A

Jane O'Dea in front of a C1-A

Jane O’Dea was born to a father who was a World War II pilot and a mother who was a WWII Supply Corps Officer. She grew up in the Iowa countryside outside of Ames and Des Moines, graduating from Iowa State University in 1972.

“I always wanted to be a pilot,” she says, “but little girls didn’t dream of being pilots in the 60s.” Still, she admits that “I was a rough and tumble girl growing up.” Both of her parents raised O’Dea and her sister to be tough in the face of the neighborhood bullies, and she attributes that to the grit she developed and brought with her through her life. 

O'Dea planned to go to law school, but when she heard that the Navy might open flight training to women, she signed up right away. She was sent to Newport Rhode Island for Women’s Officer School (WOS).

“I figured if I wasn’t selected (for flight training), I’d get out of Iowa for a few years and finance law school through the GI Bill,” she says. Four women, including O’Dea, were selected for flight training. Three graduated, earning their wings in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1974.

“My dad dressed up in his service dress blues which I had never seen him wear,” she remembers. “He was the 1st man to pin wings on his daughter. That was a special day for both of us.”

Despite earning their wings, the women pilots were not allowed to carrier qualify (CQ) as part of their training, though it was required of all the male pilots. This exclusion wasn't the only indication of challenges ahead. O’Dea was warned another way as well in WOS.

“The commander, a pioneer in her own right, was excited for me but cautioned me to be careful saying “The Navy does not reward pioneers.”” She was right,” O'Dea says.

As a Lieutenant Junior Grade in 1976, O’Dea was flying C-130s when she discovered she was pregnant, prompting a two page article in the local paper. Despite the headline, “Rota’s first pregnant pilot continues as ‘a competitive asset to squadron’” O’Dea hints that things were not nearly as smooth as the article attempts to illustrate, though the extent of information provided on her circumstance in the published article alone suggests difficulty. It did give her the opportunity even in the 1970s to speak up about the balance of military duties and family: 

“I hope career-type women of the Navy will be a thing of the future. Childbirth is a natural thing and all organizations employing women will have to learn to deal with it.”

Her commander is quoted as saying “her pregnancy has probably complicated her personal and career life more than it has made problems for me.”

When O'Dea was halfway through her career, as a field grade officer, an unexpected opportunity materialized.

“When I was a Lieutenant Commander I was given the opportunity to carrier qualify on the USS Lexington in a C-1A,” O’Dea says. 

It was a big risk. “I already had a perfectly good reputation as a pilot,” O’Dea said. “I risked losing that if I didn’t do so well.”

She knew what she was getting herself into. “I’d been exposed to it enough having been ship’s company for over a year,” she says. “I’d seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d watched a cold CAT (catapault) Shot where something happened and the catapult misfired and the plane dribbled off into the ocean. The possibility of a cold CAT was especially scary for the plane I was flying because we didn’t have ejection seats so there was an additional risk.”

She pauses, remembering the cold CAT. “The guy I watched on a cold CAT punched out but he almost died anyway. He landed on the deck of the ship and was almost sucked into the intake of the aircraft waiting to take off behind him. Fortunately several brave sailors jumped onto his parachute and saved him.”

O'Dea, top left, with her fellow department heads on the U.S.S. Lexington, 1984

O'Dea, top left, with her fellow department heads on the U.S.S. Lexington, 1984

It wasn’t only the danger of a carrier landing itself that worried O’Dea. “I was worried I could let my dad down, too,” she says.

“Did I follow a life long dream? Or should I play it safe and say no, I don’t want to take this risk?” 

O’Dea took the risk. 

“It was very scary, very intense,” she says. 

A normal runway has thousands of feet for takeoff. On the USS Lexington, O’Dea had 200 feet. The first time she went off the ship “I looked back once we were in the air and the ship looked like a postage stamp,” she says. 

The carrier landing was the biggest challenge. “You learn to fly the Fresnel Lens,” she says. “There is a row of green lights on either side of a yellow or red light. This is referred to as the meatball. It goes up and down depending on whether you are above or below glideslope. If it turns from yellow to red, you are way below glideslope. When you roll onto final you call “roger, ball,” and your fuel status.”

In order to maximize space on the carrier, the deck was also angled ten degrees to the left. “With a fixed runway you correct for crosswinds but the runway doesn’t move,” O’Dea says, “but on a carrier you have to keep correcting because the runway is drifting away from you and you have to make constant left corrections. It’s the Skipper’s job to keep the wind within ten degrees of the nose of the ship. Carrier landings require you to put your life completely in someone else’s hands.”

Because the USS Lexington was a smaller World War II era carrier with a shorter runway, O’Dea had additional landing requirements. 

“We had to do what they call a “blue water cut,” O’Dea says, “bringing our throttles to idle while still over the ocean. I looked down at the water while bringing my throttles to idle, and had to have total faith in that Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on the deck.”

She landed it. “I faced the fear and lived to tell,” she laughs.

What would O’Dea tell new young women leaders today?

“Even after all these years women are still up against tough situations. If they make it to flag rank, it is automatically assumed that they are tokens and they don’t deserve it. They are still harassed at all levels. All the sexual harassment training has done is to drive the resentment underground.”

O’Dea is perplexed at the effort by today’s women officers to save the skirts in uniform.

“I simply don’t understand. All we had were skirts and high heels when I was in the Navy. I and many others fought the battle with the Navy to get us trousers and comfortable shoes.”

She has specific thoughts on careers as well.

“The uniform doesn’t make the person wearing it. Performance is everything. Nothing will be given to you. Unfortunately, you will have to work harder and be good if not better than your male counterparts to prove yourself.”


O'Dea's flight suit is in the museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station

O'Dea's flight suit is in the museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station

What does O’Dea think about grit? “Merriam Webster says grit is toughness and courage. There were times in my career that required great mental toughness. I first stuck it out through survival training in the February cold and rain. I flew down the Suez in the Yom Kipper War. I left my two small children to go on deployment for six months. I took off into the sunset in a C-130 only to know that I would still be flying when it rose 12 hours later. Oh, but the stars out over the ocean were incredible!”

Not only can anyone develop grit, but “we are all born with grit. It is a matter of whether or not we want to nurture it.

O’Dea recognizes different kinds of grit, though, too.

O'Dea's youngest daughter dressing up in her mom's helmet

O'Dea's youngest daughter dressing up in her mom's helmet

“There is the toughness that pushed the adventurer like I am to embark on a non-traditional career. My sister and I have discussed this. She cannot understand how I was able to do what I did. She has a different kind of grit. She was a flower child of the 60s when I was flying airplanes. We could not have been more different. She became a nurse which I could never have done. It took all the grit I had to change my babies’ diapers. For many years she worked in LA juvenile hall helping troubled teens. She was attacked and had to carry mace with her to protect herself at work. In my mind, that takes a type of grit I don’t have.”

Even so, O’Dea is still facing the fear. The weekend before our conversation, she headed to a wind tunnel to simulate skydiving with her grandchildren. 

O’Dea retired in the Navy as a Captain (0-6).

Shannon H. Polson is a speaker, author of North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, mountain lover, mom and founder of The Grit Project. She is one of the first women to pilot the Apache attack helicopter in the U.S. Army. She is also an Ambassador for FlyGirls the Series. Read more about Shannon at https://medium.com/@ABorderLife/.

Source: http://aborderlife.com/grit-project-blog/s...

Wall of Honor - The 38 Fallen WASP

We honor the fallen...

               Hazel Ying Lee       Aug 24, 1912-Nov 25, 1944

               Hazel Ying Lee

      Aug 24, 1912-Nov 25, 1944

         Mabel Virginia Rawlinson         Mar 19, 1917-Aug 23, 1943

         Mabel Virginia Rawlinson

        Mar 19, 1917-Aug 23, 1943

     Virginia Caraline Moffatt      May 22, 1912-Oct 5, 1943

     Virginia Caraline Moffatt

     May 22, 1912-Oct 5, 1943

        Marie Michell Robinson        May 23, 1924-Oct 2, 1944

        Marie Michell Robinson

       May 23, 1924-Oct 2, 1944

         Gertrude Tompkins Silver          Oct 16, 1912-Oct 26, 1944

         Gertrude Tompkins Silver

         Oct 16, 1912-Oct 26, 1944

                Mary P. Hartson          Jan 11, 1917-Aug 14, 1944

                Mary P. Hartson

         Jan 11, 1917-Aug 14, 1944

  Betty Louise Taylor Wood   Mar 13, 1921-Sep 23, 1943

  Betty Louise Taylor Wood

  Mar 13, 1921-Sep 23, 1943

              Elizabeth Mae Scott             Jul 26, 1921-Jul 8, 1944

              Elizabeth Mae Scott

            Jul 26, 1921-Jul 8, 1944

              Dorothy F. Scott         Feb 16, 1920-Dec 3, 1943

              Dorothy F. Scott

        Feb 16, 1920-Dec 3, 1943

         Lea Ola McDonald    Oct 12, 1921-Jun 21, 1944

         Lea Ola McDonald

   Oct 12, 1921-Jun 21, 1944

          Jane Delores Champlin         May 14, 1917-Jun 7, 1943

          Jane Delores Champlin

        May 14, 1917-Jun 7, 1943

         Beverly Jean Moses     Dec 21, 1922-Jul 18, 1944

         Beverly Jean Moses

    Dec 21, 1922-Jul 18, 1944

       Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck        Nov 14, 1912-Oct 16, 1944

       Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck

       Nov 14, 1912-Oct 16, 1944

        Susan Parker Clarke      Aug 5, 1918-Jul 4, 1944

        Susan Parker Clarke

     Aug 5, 1918-Jul 4, 1944

     Bonnie Jean Alloway Welz      Jun 22, 1918-Jun 29, 1944

     Bonnie Jean Alloway Welz

     Jun 22, 1918-Jun 29, 1944

  Evelyn Genevieve Sharp (WAFS)         Oct 1, 1919-Apr 3, 1944

  Evelyn Genevieve Sharp (WAFS)

        Oct 1, 1919-Apr 3, 1944

       Betty Pauline Stine   Sep 13, 1921-Feb 25, 1944

       Betty Pauline Stine

  Sep 13, 1921-Feb 25, 1944

      Mary Ann "Marian" Toevs        May 13, 1917-Feb 18, 1944

      Mary Ann "Marian" Toevs

       May 13, 1917-Feb 18, 1944

    Marjorie Laverne Davis    Dec 20, 1922-Oct 16,1944

    Marjorie Laverne Davis

   Dec 20, 1922-Oct 16,1944

       Marie Ethel Cihler Sharon        Apr 21, 1917-Apr 10, 1944

       Marie Ethel Cihler Sharon

       Apr 21, 1917-Apr 10, 1944

     Helen Jo Anderson Severson        Nov 2, 1918-Aug 30, 1943

     Helen Jo Anderson Severson

       Nov 2, 1918-Aug 30, 1943

     Margaret June "Peggy" Seip       Jun 24, 1916-Aug 30, 1943

     Margaret June "Peggy" Seip

      Jun 24, 1916-Aug 30, 1943

      Gleanna Roberts Jan 11, 1919-Jun 20, 1944

      Gleanna Roberts

Jan 11, 1919-Jun 20, 1944

       Margaret Sanford Oldenburg           Jul 29, 1909-Mar 7, 1943

       Margaret Sanford Oldenburg

          Jul 29, 1909-Mar 7, 1943

   Dorothy Mae "Dottie" Nichols       Sep 26, 1916-Jun 11, 1944

   Dorothy Mae "Dottie" Nichols

      Sep 26, 1916-Jun 11, 1944

              Mary Elizabeth Trebing             Dec 31, 1920-Nov 7, 1943

              Mary Elizabeth Trebing

            Dec 31, 1920-Nov 7, 1943

     Marjorie Doris Edwards     Sep 28, 1918-Jun 13, 1944

     Marjorie Doris Edwards

    Sep 28, 1918-Jun 13, 1944

             Peggy Wilson Martin            Feb 8, 1912-Oct 3, 1944

             Peggy Wilson Martin

           Feb 8, 1912-Oct 3, 1944

                 Alice E. Lovejoy           Aug 15, 1915-Sep 13, 1944

                 Alice E. Lovejoy

          Aug 15, 1915-Sep 13, 1944

     Katherine Dussaq Mar 14, 1905-Nov 26, 1944

     Katherine Dussaq

Mar 14, 1905-Nov 26, 1944

Elizabeth "Jayne" Erickson Apr 24, 1921-Apr 16, 1944

Elizabeth "Jayne" Erickson

Apr 24, 1921-Apr 16, 1944

            Cornelia Fort (WAFS)         Feb 5, 1919-Mar 21, 1943

            Cornelia Fort (WAFS)

        Feb 5, 1919-Mar 21, 1943

            Paula Ruth Loop       Aug 25, 1916-Jul 7, 1944

            Paula Ruth Loop

      Aug 25, 1916-Jul 7, 1944

   Frances Fortune Grimes   Oct 7, 1914-Mar 27, 1944

   Frances Fortune Grimes

  Oct 7, 1914-Mar 27, 1944

         Mary Holmes Howson       Feb 10, 1919-Apr 16, 1944

         Mary Holmes Howson

      Feb 10, 1919-Apr 16, 1944

        Edith "Edy" Clayton Keene          Dec 19, 1920-Apr 25, 1944

        Edith "Edy" Clayton Keene

         Dec 19, 1920-Apr 25, 1944

       Kathryn Barbara Lawrence         Dec 3, 1920-Aug 4, 1943

       Kathryn Barbara Lawrence

        Dec 3, 1920-Aug 4, 1943

       Mary Louise Webster     Jun 30, 1919-Dec 9, 1944

       Mary Louise Webster

    Jun 30, 1919-Dec 9, 1944

In the Face of Rampant Sexism, Aviation Pioneer Beverly Burns Conquered the Odds in a Male-Dominated Industry

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

It was early in her career that Beverly Burns heard the words that would cement her fate as pilot: “Women are just not smart enough to do this job.” The speaker was a first officer of American Airlines and his audience was a group of fellow crew members, gathered for a casual conversation in between flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Burns, a young flight attendant among the group that day, recalled, “I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth…that I wanted to be an airline captain immediately.”  

That Burns would eventually achieve her goal in the face of the rampant sexism of the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. airline industry and become not only a captain, but also the first female pilot to helm a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, is a testament to a unique and extraordinary drive and perseverance.

Beverly Burns was born on August 15, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. From her early years, her family expected her to follow a typical route of marriage and subsequent reliance on a bread-winning husband; however, Burns' passion for airplanes led her toward other aspirations. During her high school years she had made up her mind to work in the travel industry, prompting her school counselor to recommend to her a career as a flight attendant. 

In 1971, Burns took her guidance counselor's advice and embarked on a career in flight -- working for seven years as a stewardess for American Airlines while enrolling in flight school at Hinson Airways, located at Baltimore Washington International Airport. From the very beginning of her flight school training she encountered problems and went through eight different instructors before she finally found one that she felt took her seriously--Robert Burns, Hinson’s lead instructor who would eventually become hers husband. Robert Burns was predisposed to be sympathetic to the plight of aspiring female aviators; he had been taught to fly by a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who had flown in service to their country during World War II but once disbanded, were thereafter excluded from airline service. The former WASP urged him that if he ever found a woman pilot he thought was ready for the opportunity, he should try to get her on board an airline. Without hesitation, Robert Burns agreed.

Although Beverly Burns earned her flying certificate, Hinson demurred at bringing her on as a pilot until Robert Burns intervened and secured her a place as his co-pilot on a string of flights, finally satisfying the airline as to her proficiency and earning her a spot on their professional roster.  

The world that Burns hoped to break into as a pilot at the end of the start of the 1980s was a boys' club that no doubt seemed exasperatingly exclusive to any would-be aviatrix. Female pilots were restricted from using the public address system to address passengers because of the fear that it might unsettle clients. Peggy Chabrian, then-president of Women in Aviation International and former dean of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University remembers the 1980s as a decade in which some passengers would indeed walk off of aaircraft if they learned their pilot was a woman.

Despite a spike in female pilot recruitment that remains unparalleled even today (in 1980, one in 4,224 pilots was a woman, today the number is closer to one in 5,623), the male pilot who Burns once heard refer to women as “too small, too weak, and not intelligent enough,” was representative of a persistent opinion within both the industry and the general public. Other problems also awaited women who commanded planes, as Burns found out when she was fired from one corporate flight job after a businessman’s wife was displeased at the idea of a pretty, young pilot joining her husband on trips.

Still, Burns pressed forward, accruing flight hours and experience as well as graduating to larger planes. By 1981, after a short stint as a captain at Allegheny Commuter she accepted a job at People Express, alternating an unusual schedule of duties as a flight attendant, gate agent, baggage handler, dispatcher, and avionics trainer as well as line captain.  Her record-breaking Boeing 747 flight from Newark to Los Angeles occurred in 1984 and earned her an Amelia Earhart Award.

For many years after, Beverly Burns continued to demonstrate the capability and ambition that allowed her to excel in her field. In 2001, she assumed the captain’s seat in a Boeing 777 with Continental Airlines, becoming the first female Continental captain to fly the large and sophisticated aircraft (by this time People Express had been absorbed into the larger Continental). A year later, on a flight that Burns piloted out of Hong Kong, the plane’s floor began to vibrate violently at the onset of the journey, causing her three alarmed co-pilots to request a swift return to the city that they had just left. Burns kept a cool head and succeeded in keeping the flight on track, helping the crew pinpoint the source of the problem, and designing an effective solution.

Toward the end of her career, Burns expressed her resolute love of flying while voicing her takeaway from a long experience in the sky: “All good pilots have some fear in them. That’s what makes them good pilots. It’s that knowledge that you have a vehicle that your operating and if you don’t operate it right, you can kill yourself- just like in a car.”

When she retired in 2008, Burns had clocked 25,000 hours in flight and operated a series of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft across the world. With her early aspirations fulfilled and considerable challenges surmounted, Beverly Burns finally settled into a permanent life on the ground, with another future goal in sight. In the absence of a significant amount of recorded female stories and achievements, the pilot and former stewardess has announced that she plans to publish a book about her life, adding that, “We need to write our own histories."

WASP Ruth Adams: Flying Gave Her Courage

by Logan Walker with special thanks to Dylan Almendral and the American Legacy Museum

Ruth Adams with her chute posing in front of a C-47 before ferrying it to another base. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum

Ruth Adams with her chute posing in front of a C-47 before ferrying it to another base. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum

“I’m a fairly cautious person. I remember the first time it crossed my mind that anyone would be interested in flying besides those men out there. A couple of girls that I knew…said, ‘We want to be flyers when we grow up.’ And my response was, I was fourteen, fifteen, I wasn’t—I thought, what a dumb idea. It’s dangerous.”

That was Ruth Adams’ earliest recollection about flying, and few impressions could prove more comically inverse. For Ruth, who would one day find herself piloting a “dangerous” vessel thousands of feet above the ground, the journey from a safe college life to the cockpit of a plane was one that wound through a maze of personal difficulties, preconceptions and fears. It was also one that would leave her with the courage and skill set to pursue her most daunting ambitions and start over again and again with startling success.

Born in Ohio in 1917 to George Dana and Pearl Adams, Ruth’s childhood in the Cleveland area was beset by obstacles. Although her family lived in an upper class neighborhood, the family was relatively poor and Ruth and her sister were just two of just a few neighborhood children who did not attend a private school. A tomboy who rarely mixed with her community peers socially, Ruth suffered from a form of dyslexia that prevented her from reading until she was in the third grade; “…I was convinced I was stupid. I read a lot because I was rather isolated. The boys wouldn’t let me play with them because I grew up in an upper class neighborhood.”

Things began to change for Ruth in her late teens, as she began to feel more assertive and comfortable with her unique skills. Having played baseball as a hobby for many years, Ruth found an opportunity to prove herself and shatter expectations when she and a friend happened upon a boys' baseball game during summer camp. As she watched the boys show off their prowess on the field, she felt a resentment build within her. She knew she could play just as good as them. Boldly, she decided to make her move. She recalled, “I said timidly, pretending to be a timid girl, ‘Can I play? Will you let me try it?’ And they said ‘Alright, let her try it.’” She asked the boys to “throw her an easy one” and proceeded to hit the ball out of the field, never to be found again. “They had no business showing off like that and expect[ing] me just to stand there wide-eyed and admiring. And I thought, the hell with that, you know. Why can’t girls do anything?”

Ruth’s streak of courage faltered at times in the face of air travel. Although her attitude had softened somewhat toward flying as she grew older, an incident during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 gave her a serious scare. Her family had flown to Chicago for the Fair and were enjoying sightseeing around the city just a day later when they learned that the plane they had traveled on had crashed in a bout of harsh wind over Lake Michigan. Once again in Ruth’s mind, flying was crossed with an unmistakable aura of danger.

After graduation from high school Ruth moved on to study at Wellesley College, earning her undergraduate degree in Art History in 1939. In Boston she found work as a research assistant at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and was confronted by another chance encounter with planes. On the way back from visiting a friend out of town, a roadside school caught her attention with its advertisement for five dollar and under flying lessons:  “But I thought, oh, that dumb stuff, and went by.  I was saying disparaging things to myself. Five miles beyond that I decided, ‘are you afraid to go up?’ And I said, ‘Well, I will just see if I was afraid.’ And I turned around.” Ruth signed up for lessons with the school, practicing in an open cockpit biplane, and found to her surprise that she wasn’t afraid of flying at all. As she recalled, “It was simply an interesting sensation, and also intellectually appealed to me. Things looked so different. So, I liked it so much that I would take myself—it was near Worcester and I would go all the way out there…Then I thought, well maybe this is something I could do, because I was very dissatisfied.”

Ruth Adams dressed and ready for flight. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

Ruth Adams dressed and ready for flight. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

With a growing ambition to be a professional pilot, Ruth investigated the possibility of enrolling in a flight school run by pilot and future WASP executive Nancy Love. With lessons at the school running up to $2000, she decided against enrolling; however, before long she heard about the new Civilian Pilot Training Program. As a college graduate, Adams only had to pay the registration fee at Northeastern University and after a string of free flying lessons she received her private pilot’s license. “Of course it was kind of fun and I enjoyed it and that’s where I discovered that I was a really good flyer,” she remembered many years later. As a licensed pilot, Ruth continued to take lessons, hoping to log the requisite 500 hours to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Her plans changed when she heard about the WASP program, which required applicants to log less hours. She applied quickly, and after a successful interview, she was accepted.

Landing in class 44-W-2, Ruth left for training in Sweetwater, Texas. Life as a trainee presented its own set of challenges but Ruth was determined to succeed, sometimes too her own detriment; her eagerness to follow an instructor’s comments about head movements to a literal degree resulted in the man failing her during a test ride. Fortunately, she persisted in retaking tests and absorbing in-flight lessons, eventually becoming glowingly proficient in basic flight as well as acrobatics and navigation.

Ruth’s dyslexia, which caused her to transpose numbers and letters and often painstakingly slowed her reading abilities, was another hurdle. While flying she learned that her condition, which had long been an embarrassment to her, could be navigated around with enough willpower and creativity. “I’ll tell you that flying gave me a lot of courage because I found that I could read all of the instruments on the dashboard,” She recounted. “Of course we learned where to focus, and to focus fast, but nevertheless by the time I was doing pursuit, or even at the AT-6, there were a fair number of instruments to take in at a glance. I thought if I could do that then I’m a pretty good flyer. I think that I could do anything if I really pay attention and try to learn it.”

After graduating from WASP training in March 1944, Ruth was assigned to Ferry Command at New Castle Army Base in Wilmington, Delaware, later moving to take up a place in pursuit school in Brownsville, Texas. “[In] Brownsville…I was always afraid I’d wash out. I’d do something dumb and wash out,” remembered Ruth, who added “I didn’t at Sweetwater, but when I got to Brownsville I was flying in the backseat of the AT-6…for the first two weeks, and then the next two weeks we just flew various pursuit planes. At first oh, P-39, and then the King Cobra, and then the P-40, and the P-47.” Ruth may have been nervous about passing her courses, but time would prove her fears unfounded, as she was the only woman in her bay to pass primary training.

On duty as a ferrying pilot, Ruth not only loved flying but found herself impassioned about her role in the war effort; “I hated Hitler and really wanted to see us win this war. I had political orientations from the time I was an analyst.” As many of her WASP peers also learned, flying was a dangerous and unpredictable job, even outside of combat. Ruth's experienced this first hand when a UC-78 plane she was flying began to emit copious smoke mid-flight, forcing Ruth and her co-pilot Esther Manning Shively to make an emergency landing in a farm field. A further investigation showed that defective wiring insulation had caused the landing gear to burn. Both women where cleared of any responsibility, but the incident recalled that upsetting moment Ruth experienced years ago at the World’s Fair. “I think I could have gotten killed easily,” she remarked. “I think I’m lucky I didn’t…I’m very lucky. [I was] relatively inexperienced. I did everything by the book pretty much. And I was careful. I had to be because I was afraid of things.”

By October of 1944 the WASP program was officially disbanded, but contrary to the abject disappointment experienced by many women in the organization, Ruth viewed the end of her WASP career with more relief than anger; “…when we were deactivated I wasn’t of two minds. The goddamn planes could kill me, or I could kill myself, you know, by doing something dumb. And so I think my main feeling, about sixty percent of me, was glad that I had made it and was still alive.”

Ruth may have had misgivings about flying, but she hoped to continue her career as a pilot even after she retired her WASP uniform. Despite her efforts to secure a job in the field, she was faced with the post-war reality of an America that was less than ready to see a woman at the helm of a plane, in a commercial sense at least. After a meeting with a business head about a potential job flying the company's planes, Ruth remembers the man “…looking me up and down like a piece of meat. You know, particularly my legs…He told me he didn’t think that the officers of the company would be comfortable flying with a woman. And that was the end of that.”

Ruth Adams' assorted photos and WASP paraphernalia. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

Ruth Adams' assorted photos and WASP paraphernalia. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

While Ruth continued to pilot Cubs on occasion and even took helicopter lessons at one point, flying was no longer a viable career path for the former WASP. She took a several jobs in New York, first as a welder and later as an electrical technician, where her WASP credentials were a definite advantage; “They were very impressed. They really hired me because I was a WASP I think. An ex-WASP. That made me very attractive to them.”

When a psychiatrist she was seeing suggested that Ruth pursue a job in the medical field, the former pilot embarked on a career that would dominate the rest of her life. After gaining admission to NYU's prestigious medical program, she studied hard and rose to the top of her class. After finishing her studies in psychiatry, Ruth went on to practice at New York’s William Alanson White Psychiatric Institute as well as the Youth Authority of the City of New York, where she worked extensively with young patients. In the early 1970s she relocated to California to be near family and settled in Oakland where she served as a psychiatrist for the Alameda County emergency juvenile psychiatric facility.

On December 16, 2005, Ruth, who had retired nearly twenty years earlier and had devoted her later years to painting and sculpting, died suddenly after suffering a massive stroke. A self-proclaimed “independent” woman to the end, Ruth's inspiring career and service to her country and to the medical health profession are enduring reminders of the power of a woman determined to pursue her own goals as well as rise above adversity in any time period. For Ruth, whose courage was outstanding even in the face of perilous flying conditions, dramatic career changes, personal disadvantages, fear was never enough to keep her down.

"We all wanted to do something to help the war effort." --WASP Lucile Doll Wise

By Logan Walker

Lucile Doll Wise. (Photo: Texas Woman's University)

Lucile Doll Wise. (Photo: Texas Woman's University)

With the onset of U.S. involvement in WWII, much of the youth in America found themselves united in a common employment; aiding the country’s war effort. Such work was not just the purview of men, as evidenced by the scores of American women who functioned in military and paramilitary roles during the conflict. Kansas native Lucile Doll Wise was one of many such women who wished to help in service to her country, but the job she had her heart set on was one that had been unprecedented for women in the nation’s military history.

“We all wanted to do something to help the war effort. All my women friends were joining the military,” Wise remembers, reflecting on her decision to join the WASP so many years ago. “I did it for a lark, to add a little excitement to my life.”

For Wise, who took her first flying lesson on December 6, 1941, just a day before the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor, her attachment to the job went beyond a mere bit of fun; “I loved flying, it’s such a wonderful feeling, you know, to be up in the air. It’s exhilarating, everything looks so beautiful. And then you’ve got the challenge of making the plane do what you want it to do.”

Fifty hours of logged flight time later, Wise was ready to add her talents to the war effort. In May 1943 her application to join the WASP was approved at nearly the same time that her brother, fresh out of high school, enlisted to join the Navy. While he would go on to return “…safely, but perhaps a bit damaged emotionally,” Wise’s own experience would be unforgettably exciting and empowering.

On her arrival at the WASP Sweetwater, Texas training camp, Wise soon realized that the flying preparation regimes for the female pilot hopefuls would be no different from that of the men; “We lived in barracks, we slept on metal cots, and we learned to march, and we were under military discipline, under demerits- we had to make our beds a certain way, and we had inspections. It was very stressful because we had to meet the requirements.”

Wise and her fellow trainees spent long hours in the air, at times seven days a week. Even more time was spent worrying about meeting graduation standards and even more pressingly, avoiding the hazardous and all-too-easy piloting mistakes that could have fatal consequences. As she noted, “…those of us that were left were really proud of those wings, because they worked hard for them.”

In November 1943, Wise was one of the successful WASP graduates to earn her wings and embark on a future flying military aircraft. Her first assignment was to the Asheville Weather Wing of the Army Airways Communication Systems in North Carolina, but soon after she was reassigned to the Army Air Forces Weather Service Region in Kansas City, Missouri.

Like many WASP, Wise's duties included ferrying military aircraft between bases, but most often she was assigned to fly weather officers to meetings and inspection trips at air force bases in the region.   During those trips, she flew quite a bit and covered a seven-state regional territory. While her passengers were always men, they seemed very comfortable with her piloting skills. That’s not to say that Wise had no issues with her position as a WASP;  “We had a handsome uniform and officer privileges, but I really wanted to be militarized and get a commission. We were working hard and did not realize that we were making history as the first U.S. women to fly military aircraft.” It was an issue that she would add her own weight to in years to come.

Lucile Wise poses with her basic trainer. (Photo: Denver Post)

Lucile Wise poses with her basic trainer. (Photo: Denver Post)

Constant contact with a variety of military planes was one of the perks of the job. Wise says, “When I started, we had a twin-engine Cessna. It was about a five passenger Cessna, it was kind of slow, but it was a nice, safe plane. And we had short hops between these air bases, so it was okay. But then we got a C-45, the Beechcraft C-45, which carried about ten passengers, and that was much more fun to fly.” Her favorite plane to fly was the AT-6 Texan, an apparent favorite among the girls. During her tenure as a WASP, Wise would fly a range of planes, including the Cessna UC-78, AT-11, C-60, B-25, and C-45.

“When traveling, I usually stayed on base in the nurse’s quarters, although sometimes we stayed in hotels,” Wise explained, adding that “one base in Nebraska had no women on base, and the small town had no hotels, so I was given a room in the hospital.” Wise’s trips were usually for periods of four to five days, with a day spent at one airbase at a time within her assigned seven-state region. Recalling this period in her life, she muses that “I loved every minute of it, but it was not easy. It was hard work, and I came back from trips pretty tired.”

When the news that Congress planned to disband the WASP, Wise joined many like her in feeling lost and disappointed in the wake of the sudden decision. “It was pretty much a shock,” she recalls. “We just didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had been doing something that was just wonderful, and it was very hard to get our lives started again.“ After 19 months and 700 hours flying planes in service of the war effort, Lucile took off her wings and headed on to a more grounded life. After all that time, she noted with equal parts playfulness and pride, “[I] never scratched a plate.”

Adjusting to her new status wasn’t easy; “I missed it dreadfully for a while, but it was expensive, and going back to the small planes wasn’t nearly as much fun,” stated Wise. “We were spoiled. And then I married, and raised a family, so, I got involved in other things. I missed it very much. But I finally got over it. I still love to be around airplanes.”

Wise and her husband settled with their two children in Washington, DC, where she would be conveniently placed when the subject of the WASP re-emerged once again in her life many years later. In the late seventies, the issue of bestowing veteran status on the WASP was a much-contended topic in the government with groups like the Veterans Administration and the American Legion among other powerful organizations opposed granting the WASP this level of recognition. “Those groups had so much power, and they feared this would open the floodgates,” Wise asserted, presumably referring to other non-military groups who might hope for similar privileges.

Wise’s geographical location made her a perfect ally to her fellow WASP in their quest for recognition.  She happily added her support and lobbying efforts to the cause; “It was a thrill to attend the hearing and have contacts with Congressmen. It was a great help for a few of us who were without health insurance or in financial trouble to be eligible to be treated at military hospitals.”

The result of the hard work, by Wise and her fellow WASP was the 1977 legislation signed by President Carter recognizing the WASP and bestowing upon them military veteran status.

In recent years, Wise, who resides in Arvada, Colorado, has remained close to her WASP roots, meeting old colleagues and even flying occasionally. Through WASP reunions and meetings, she has made kept in touch with many fellow WASP. “I made some great friends in the WASP program,” she stated, adding “We all looked alike in our ‘zoot suits’…I am grateful for my opportunity to serve and I believe we all feel the same way. The WASPs went through a unique experience and I believe we all have a close bond.”

Lucile Wise, 92, awaits pilot Chad Graves as the two prepare to fly in a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane at Centennial Airport. (Photo: Denver Post)

Lucile Wise, 92, awaits pilot Chad Graves as the two prepare to fly in a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane at Centennial Airport. (Photo: Denver Post)

In 2012, at the age of 92, Wise took a very decidedly hands-on trip down memory lane when she took over the controls of a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane, one she may have remembered as a military training aircraft used during WWll. Stylishly outfitted in goggles, a headset, and a leather bomber jacket, she started the plane with the same giddy smile she might have worn almost seventy years ago.

“I’m so impressed by what women pilots are doing today, especially flying into combat,” the aging aviatrix said, reflecting on the modern state of women and flight. “They are doing some great flying and proving once again that women can fly military aircraft as well as men.”

To Wise, one of the courageous women who once flew planeloads of military officials state-to-state and fought victoriously to change government legislature, the vast extent of women’s competency is, without a doubt, very old news.

She's Got Grit: What it takes to be (the first woman) Blue Angel

by Shannon Huffman Polson

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins (Photo: She's Got Grit)

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins (Photo: She's Got Grit)

“Ol’ Chesty Puller would be rolling over in his grave if he knew she was a Marine,” Katie Higgins remembers a classmate saying at the Naval Academy when she was selected for the Marine Corps. “If I have to work with her I’d throw a grenade in her tent,” said another.

It’s not hard to imagine that the road to being the first woman Blue Angel pilot would be a hard one. Where does a woman like this come from? What does it take?

A life of service

Katie Higgins knew about the military from growing up as the daughter of a Navy FA-18 pilot, moving with her family every 2–3 years and spending her first two years of high school in Yokosuka, Japan. The military legacy in Higgins’ family was strong. Her paternal great-grandparents had emigrated from Sweden and her grandfather believed in the idea of service as giving back to their new country, serving during WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

“He really instilled in me the idea of a life of service,” Higgins says.

All three men in her father’s family had attended military academies, so Higgins applied to all three, was given her choice, and chose the Navy.

“I’d thought I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad,” she says, “but throughout my time at school I fell in love with the Marine Corps. I was so impressed with the caliber of enlisted Marines, and the loyalty, hard work, and dedication of the officers to their subordinates. I wanted to be a part of that organization.”

I talk to Higgins as she is driving to a new duty station with her husband, also a Marine. She has just finished the flight safety course and is six months pregnant with their first child.

“I’m taking command of a small airfield in a non-flying billet which is perfect timing with where we are in our family,” she explains. “Marines are expected to serve in a “ground tour” even as aviators and so she is also meeting her professional requirements. She speaks candidly about her career thus far, and in everything her love of the Marines comes through.

Resistance starts early

Higgins’ initial application for selection as a Marine at the Naval Academy came with resistance, even from classmates she considered her friends. “It was hurtful, mean shit,” she says. “When I went to TBS (The Basic School), I had an Staff Company Commander that told me that the only reason I would survive in the USMC was because “they can teach a monkey to fly.”

Higgins didn’t let pettiness get in her way, but used these experiences to move forward. She qualified as a C-130 pilot, and deployed almost immediately on arrival to her first duty station.

Higgins has much to be proud of in her career as a Marine, from her Marine commission to her selection and performance as the first woman Blue Angel, but like MGen Tracy Garrett, our most recent Grit Profile, she is most proud of her combat deployment.

“I was so excited to have the chance to do what I was trained to do.”

“I was part of the Harvest HAWK mission in Afghanistan where we provided close air support (CAS) for US forces. Being able to employ against the enemy to protect American lives was the best feeling in the world,” she says. It was her first deployment.

Harvest HAWK is a modification to the C-130J that Higgins was qualified to fly, dropping the hose refueling pod on the outboard wing and in its place carrying an M299 quad-mount Hellfire missile launcher. It also carries a dual missile launcher for Griffin missiles.

Code One Magazine tells the story:

“The message received by the battalion watch officer in the operations center was as urgent as it was precise: “Second platoon is in sustained contact. Ground commander is requesting Harvest Hawk for an immediate priority JTAR [Joint Tactical Air Request]. Advise estimated arrival time when able.”

The U.S. Marines taking enemy fire in Afghanistan who sent that message weren’t making a general request for close air support. They weren’t trying to flag down a fighter in the area with a couple of bombs to spare, although any help would have been appreciated. What those ground troops wanted was one specific aircraft overhead to make their problem go away — and make it go away right now.”

Higgins was copilot on the mission.

“When we got the call to stand by for a nine-line (the briefing requesting an engagement), I was like: “Hell yeah, it’s on! We could hear the rounds coming in on the radio,” she remembers, “and then an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). It was definitely an adrenaline rush.”

It was daytime mission, but the cloud deck was at the orbiting altitude for her aircraft, so “I was setting the airplane up, and we had to fly below our usual altitude, avoiding the mountains. It was a really dynamic situation. But when there are guys on the ground, well, failure is not an option.”

She put two hellfire missiles on the target.

“I was so excited to be able to do what I had been trained to do,” she says.

A year later, she was in a bar on base, when a guy walked up to her.

“Hey, you guys shot for us last year,” he said. “I was in the platoon that was pinned down. I recognize your voice.”

“That story still gives me chills,” Higgins says. “Putting a face to those guys, having the opportunity to give people the chance to be alive.”

After Afghanistan, Higgins did a second deployment almost immediately to Uganda, flying the C-130 in support of the Marine Air Ground Task Force in 2014 including support of the embassy evacuation. While she was deployed, she had an unexpected call. One of the Blue Angels who knew about her flying called and suggested she apply to be on the team.

“I was very junior,” Higgins says. “I was just a junior captain, and most of the Blue Angels are senior captains or junior majors, but because I’d done back to back deployments I had the requisite hours and flying requirements.”

Higgins took the prompt, and applied for the Blue Angels, the elite Naval aviation demonstration team.

She applied, attended the required two air shows back to back to understand publicity and travel requirements (“I went to watch the Blue Angels on my return from Uganda before I even went to visit my parents!” she says) and was selected as a finalist.

Even knowing it was common to have a commander tease about the final results, when Higgins went to talk to her commander and he said “You know, you’ll be able to apply when you have a little bit more experience,” her heart sank.

Then he smiled, and said “Congratulations. You made it.”

I was so surprised I yelled “Holy shit!” she remembers.

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins

Putting on the Blue Suit

She did three months of on the job training before putting on “the blue suit” and flying as a Blue Angel, the United States Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, for the first time in November 2014, serving two years. This meant being on the road 300 days a year to inspire up to 11 million people around the nation.

“It was so cool, she says. That suit is so iconic. The team has been around for 70 years.”

Higgins was the first woman pilot on the team, but “I didn’t fathom the impact my joint the team would have. I was just there to do my job.”

(The first woman assigned served in 1969 as an administrative officer, and today eighteen enlisted women serve in different capacities on the team. At any given time seventeen officer pilots violuntarily serve in the Blue Angels and one hundred enlisted sailors and Marines serve in maintenance and support positions.)

That didn’t make it easy.

“All I heard then was that ‘she’s too junior to fly an aircraft like that’ or that ‘the only reason she was selected was because I was a girl.’ Even some of the Blue Angel wives came up with mean nicknames for me. In the end though, as many mean, jealous people I have faced over the years, that number is just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of awesome supportive, mentoring people I have had the honor of serving with.”

And though she may not have anticipated it, she had a major impact.

“The best part of the Blues was being able to talk to the kids,” she says. “To be able to tell them that even if a girl has never done this before, you can do whatever it is that you want to do. Even talking to the little boys…I tell them that women will never reach full equality until we are fully supported by our brothers and fathers, by the men.”

Captain Higgins in flight. (Photo: She's Got Grit)

Captain Higgins in flight. (Photo: She's Got Grit)

Advice to leaders

“Many of the most influential people in my career were my enlisted Marines that taught me the meaning of leadership. I will forever be grateful for those experiences. The bottom line though, whether its negative or positive opinions you are getting, it matters what you think of yourself and your abilities. Don’t let other people define your self confidence. Be open to constructive criticism because officers should always be looking to better themselves, but if someone is trying to tear you down just to be a jerk, give them the proverbial middle finger and move on with your life.”

“Don’t let other people define your self confidence.”

She’s done that, and learned good lessons for all leaders along the way.

One of them is about the power of a good team.

“The C-130 is a crew served weapon,” Higgins says. “There are two fire control officers in back, the pilot has to flip the (weapon release) consent switch, and there are two guy loading the missiles into the Derringer doors. This teamwork with the Harvest Hawk mission served me well for the Fat Albert mission in the Blue Angels.”

Echoing Karen Baetzel, Higgins recommends new leaders “Seek council from your senior enlisted. They have been in the service almost as long as you have been alive. Have the confidence to make decisions on your own, but there is nothing wrong with going to your GySgt or MSgt and saying “hey I was going to do this, how do you think the Marines will react?” They will respect you as an officer for recognizing them as a source of what you don’t have: experience. There is nothing better than having your senior enlisted looking out for you.”

Another lesson she learned about herself, but also, as a good Marine, taking care of her Marines.

“Mental exhaustion will hit you harder than physical exhaustion. Whether it’s combat stress, complications at home, etc., many type A personalities will hit mental exhaustion long before their bodies give out. Marines don’t quit. They keep taking on responsibilities and don’t want to say when they are overwhelmed or overtasked. It’s up to you as a Marine officer to be on the looking out for signs of mental exhaustion/stress in your enlisted.”

“Mental exhaustion will hit you harder than physical exhaustion.”

For Higgins, grit “is a combination of perseverance, courage, determination and mental toughness. Someone has grit if they can push through even in the face of what seems like an impossible or dangerous situation. I think of those Marines at Belleau Wood or the Chosin Reservoir or even the Monford Point Marines. All three groups faced very different challenges, but all showed grit in the face of insurmountable odds.”

Like Shaye Haver, one of the first women Rangers, Higgins finds deep and abiding strength in her family support system.

“I have an amazing support system in my family. My husband (another Fat Albert pilot in the Blue Angels) is my rock who even when I doubt myself believes in me and pushes me to be better. My parents are unbelievably supportive and examples of unconditional love. Surrounding myself with those type of people gives me strength when I am weak. They allow me to dig deep even in the most difficult circumstances. My grit, my courage, my perseverance, my determination come from them and is for them. I refuse to ever let them down.”

Sounds a lot like earlier Grit Profile women BG Becky Halstead and LTC Tammy Barlette who both have said that quitting is not an option.

Developing grit is possible too, says Higgins.

“If you want to improve your Grit, you must challenge yourself. How you can you learn skills like perseverance, determination, and courage if you live a boring, comfortable life? You must take on situations outside your comfort zone.” Higgins has clearly done that. She’s got grit.

“Take on situations out of your comfort zone.”

What does Higgins think about the Marines’ decision to integrate women into combat ground forces?

“The Marine Corps has a standards,” Higgins said. “And that standard shouldn’t be adjusted. If there’s a woman that can meet that standard and she wants to do the job, well, good on ‘er!”

As for the reaction of today’s Marines, Higgins says “people don’t give this generation of Marines enough credit. They are so smart, so intelligent, so professional. They just want to know you can do the job.”


Shannon H. Polson is a speaker, author of North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, mountain lover, mom and founder of The Grit Project. She is one of the first women to pilot the Apache attack helicopter in the U.S. Army. She is also an Ambassador for FlyGirls the Series. Read more about Shannon at https://medium.com/@ABorderLife/.

Iris Critchell: At 96, time has done little to slow her down

by Logan Walker

Iris Critchell in front of a P-38 Lighting, 1944. (Photo: Museum of Flying, http://www.museumofflying.org/exhibits/cahof/iris-cummings-critchell)

Iris Critchell in front of a P-38 Lighting, 1944. (Photo: Museum of Flying, http://www.museumofflying.org/exhibits/cahof/iris-cummings-critchell)

Years before she set foot in an airplane, Iris Critchell knew she wanted a different life than the kind most of her female classmates were being groomed for. Athletic and tomboyish, her sights were set early on the world of sports, competition, and adventure, areas largely outside the domain of 1920s schoolgirls; however, as her future career would bear out, Critchell rarely failed to achieve what she set her mind to.

Born in December 1920 in Los Angeles, Iris Critchell nèe Cummings was the daughter of a doctor and his Greek/Latin teacher wife. With her fondness for trousers and playing organized sports, she became known as something of a "kook” by other students, but her unusual reputation failed to dampen her passion for athletics. More daunting was the limited opportunities for girls to join a team.

Fortunately, Critchell found a unique ally in her father, who specialized in an area known today as sports medicine. A sports enthusiast and frequent participant in sporting events, her father supported her ambitions and encouraged her to excel. Critchell soon decided on swimming, a sport that women could compete in and her location near beaches and sports clubs could easily facilitate.

By 1933, Critchell had begun entering swimming competitions, her specialty being the 200-meter breaststroke, and by 1934 her training had paid off in several local victories. In no time she was participating in events such as the Far Western Championships Swim Meet along with the likes of future film star Esther Williams. Several competitive wins later she was on her way to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as a member of the U.S. swimming team. Critchell's ascent to the dizzy heights of Olympic sportswoman was heady, but the reality of her situation meant that she still had to strive to reach German soil; Olympic team funding was lacking, as the country was in the midst of the Depression, and Critchell was forced to raise money herself. These efforts, and the ten days she spent traveling to Europe by boat, meant she lost precious practice hours and finished her race in fourth place. Although she was disqualified from competing in the finals, Critchell was left with ample time to take in the rest of the historic events.

During her time in Berlin that summer, Critchell was afforded a front row seat to the rising tide of Nazism that had swept the nation, and the very men she would be helping to defeat in her later role in the war effort. She later recalled, “We saw Hitler, he was right there, and (Josef) Goebbels and (Hermann) Goering. We were so interested because my mother had helped me to understand a little bit more of what was going on… Everywhere you went there were the goose-step police and guards, but they were ordered to be friendly and so they were a little bit less intimidating.”

American Olympic Women's Swimming Team (Photo: A Vibrant View: The Official Blog of Phi Mu Fraternity. Iris Critchell is on the bottom row, right)

American Olympic Women's Swimming Team (Photo: A Vibrant View: The Official Blog of Phi Mu Fraternity. Iris Critchell is on the bottom row, right)

It was also in Berlin that Critchell began to get more involved in an area that she had long been interested in -- flying. “When I heard that the Germans would be holding a major air show during the Games, I was able to make arrangements to attend," the future WASP noted, adding that "Since Germany had been restricted by treaty after World War I as to how many engine-powered airplanes it could build, this show consisted mainly of gliders. The point is: The Nazis had found a way to train hundreds of young pilots without breaking any laws.” It would be two years before flying took center stage in her life, but the impression of this event would stay with Critchell long after she departed the ominous arena.

After her return to America, Critchell continued as a competitive swimmer for several years, graduating from Redondo Union High School in 1937 and moving on to college studies at the University of Southern California. By 1939 she officially retired from swimming; the shadow of imminent war had begun to fall over the nation, and it was increasingly apparent that larger political events would derail any plans for a 1940 Summer Olympics. Instead, Critchell had turned her full attention to flying, beginning her first lessons at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1939. For 30 minutes at four dollars a session, she scaled the heights above a sun-drenched field in a 40-horsepower Piper Cub plane. A year later she had earned a pilot’s license at just 18 years old, the earliest age that one could be legally held. She enrolled in the first year of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) offered at USC, and typical to her iconoclastic track record, became the only woman in a class of 50.

Iris Critchell climbing into a plane. (Photo: SCPR courtesy of CJ Productions, "Off-Ramp Recommends: Celebrating Women's History Month with a 96yo WWII Test Pilot")

Iris Critchell climbing into a plane. (Photo: SCPR courtesy of CJ Productions, "Off-Ramp Recommends: Celebrating Women's History Month with a 96yo WWII Test Pilot")

"Flying, along with getting a college education, was something I had to do," remembered Critchell, who became one of only several women at the time to complete a second, third, and fourth year of pilot training. “By the time I was a senior, I had earned a private pilot's license and a ground- instructor's rating. I had also taken a CPTP [Civilian Pilot Training Program] course in aerobatics at USC that involved 65 hours of open cockpit flying in a variety of biplanes." Following her graduation she began working as a flight instructor, until dramatic events on the world stage intervened. As she explained, “I was busy on my first job doing that when Pearl Harbor occurred. And then our lives were forever changed.”

In the wake of that disaster, Critchell was relocated but continued flight training for a year until she learned that the government was recruiting civilian pilots to join the newly formed WASP program. Eager to sign up, she became one of second class of women to join the organization, graduating from training in May of 1943 as a member of WASP Class 43-2. Soon after gaining her wings she was sent to a ferry unit in Long Beach, California where she flew a total of 18 different aircraft including the P-38, P-51, A-20, C-47, B-25, and the P-61 Black Widow fighter. Reflecting on this time, Critchell calls her days as a WASP a “fabulous experience,” noting, “We were pilots and civilians, but those of us who had enough experience and background were transitioned rapidly into fighter aircraft. I flew all four of the single-engine fighters and all twin-engine bombers in the ferrying division."

Iris standing next to a display of her old uniform at the P-38 Museum in Riverside. (Photo: The Press-Enterprise)

Iris standing next to a display of her old uniform at the P-38 Museum in Riverside. (Photo: The Press-Enterprise)

The disbandment of the WASP brought Critchell’s days as an Army pilot to an end, but her flying career was far from over. She went on to marry Howard Critchell, an Army Air Corps pilot she had met during the war. The two moved to Palos Verdes Estates, and Critchell went to work at her USC College of Aeronautics, where she helped to develop and teach a pilot training curriculum. Among the courses she was responsible for was the school’s instrument pilot training, a class she explains was notable because “…there were experienced instructors up there from that military school, but they were not experienced in instrument flying. I happened to learn to do instrument flying as part of my experience with WASP. Well, I enjoyed doing that but it was very intense. Again, it was like the wartime experience in which we had no time off- we were going all the time.”

Having experienced both scenarios herself, the program she worked on aimed to help transition war veterans into civilian aviation. For much of the 1950s the former WASP focused largely on raising her two children at home, although she made sure to take the occasional recreational flight. During this time she was also active in 14 of the 30 Women’s Transcontinental Air Races, (also known as Powder Puff Derbies), finishing second twice before winning the race in 1957 (and finishing in the top 10 a total of 5 times). Starting in the early 1950’s she was also a member and supporter of the Ninety-Nines, an organization based around promoting women in aviation.

Iris after her induction into the Women Pioneer Hall of Fame at the International Women in Aviation Conference, 2007. (Photo: Airport Journals)

Iris after her induction into the Women Pioneer Hall of Fame at the International Women in Aviation Conference, 2007. (Photo: Airport Journals)

In 1962, Critchell re-entered the professional world to found the Bates Aeronautics Program at Claremont’s Harvey Mudd College with her husband. The program instructed students in aeronautics and physical sciences combined with practical piloting lessons. Iris ran the program, jointly and later alone, until it was eventually eliminated by the college in 1990. By that time she had helped guide over 700 students to their piloting licenses.

Even in retirement, Critchell continued to teach a small number of aspiring flyers, maintaining partial ownership of a 1970 four passenger Cessna 172 for her personal use. Her impressive contributions to aviation have earned her a place in the halls of fame of the Women of Aviation, California Aviation, and National Association of Flight Instructors. She has also been the recipient of a number of awards, including the FAA Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award.

Today, 96-year-old Iris Critchell lives in Claremont, California. The survivor of an extraordinary life, time has done little to slow her down. She still devotes time to working with Harvey Mudd students and curating the schools Aeronautical Library Special Collection. A tireless advocate of piloting in general and females in flight in particular, her efforts in promoting aviation in her community and beyond continue to this day, and will surely resonate for generations to come.

Remembering Marty Wyall

by Hannah Wyall

Marty Wyall, WASP. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Marty Wyall, WASP. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

"Her legacy lives on in us all."

I always knew my Grandma Marty was special. The way she carried herself was different from other people. She always had a sense of pride that lingered wherever she ventured. 

Growing up with Marty was always interesting. She had so much knowledge and such a thirst for life and she loved to share it with me and my sisters. We went to the symphony, botanical gardens, the zoo, and the airport. At the airport, she would tell us stories, and we’d watch planes take off and land. On the way home, she’d sit behind the wheel and swear at the old ladies driving slow in front of her. “Move along ladybug!” she'd shout.

Grandma Marty never really treated us like children. Of course, she would let us play but she always expected us to be responsible for ourselves -- to not get lost and to be on time. Her version of spoiling us was putting a layer of butter on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Marty was a wise woman and taught me many things, one of the most important being that nothing is out of reach. If she wanted to do something, she would just do it. She instilled that in me as well. Her stubborn genes lost none of their potency on their way down the ladder.

I am one of the fortunate few who always knew growing up that I could be a pilot. Granted, I don’t think it would have made much difference because I also wanted to be a professional NFL football player. Like Marty, I never really cared what was normal, I just wanted what I wanted. I always managed to wind my way back to wanting to be a pilot, though. Marty always encouraged me down that path and suggested that if I wanted to fly I should really think about going to the Air Force Academy. At that time though, I'd never heard of it. After all, I was in the 6th grade, but her encouragement is what started me down the path to where I am today.

While I was at the Academy, Marty managed to charm her way into getting a paid trip to see me every year to give an award to a basketball player. She also shared in my commissioning ceremony from that esteemed institution.

Hannah (in uniform) and Marty (on her left) with their family at Hannah's graduation from the Air Force Academy. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Hannah (in uniform) and Marty (on her left) with their family at Hannah's graduation from the Air Force Academy. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Every time I would go through some sort of world-ending trial in pilot training (a common occurrence for young pilots) I would think about that time she looped a plane she didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to loop. The only reason she didn’t die that day is because the one plane that was slightly different and could handle the loop was the one she happened to be flying on that particular day. If that doesn’t put the fear of God in you I don’t know what will.

Hannah with Marty, proudly displaying her WASP Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Hannah with Marty, proudly displaying her WASP Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Even though I got older, Marty never really seemed to age. Sure, she had some minor physical issues that come with age, but she lived on her own, drove her own car, maintained her garden, fended off the mink that would steal the orange carp out of her pond, baked yon hagels every Christmas, hiked mountains in Utah with my cousins, dance the night away with her friends, and religiously attended events including the Oshkosh Air Show and the WASP homecoming in Sweetwater. She never lost her lust for travel and adventure. She was going to outlive everyone

Just a few months ago, Marty had made plans to visit friends in South Carolina and she asked me if I’d go to the WASP homecoming with her. I hope that I'll still be going this year, even though it will not be in the way that I'd expected.

Marty was part of the elite group, the WASP, who taught us that the word “pilot” is not synonymous with any descriptor other than “driven.” More important to me than the issued wings that I earned when I graduated pilot training are the WASP wings that I earned on that same day that grace the fingers of all the pilots in my family. Not only was Marty an inspiring pilot, she was an inspiring person. Her legacy lives on in us all.

Marty Wyall on the WASP Rose Bowl Parade Float in 2014. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

Marty Wyall on the WASP Rose Bowl Parade Float in 2014. (Photo: Hannah Wyall)

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

--John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Mary Anna Martin "Marty" Wyall
January 24, 1922 - March 9, 2017

Willa Brown: Teacher, Civil Rights Activist, Lobbyist, and Aviation Pioneer

Willa Brown earned her pilot's license in 1938. (Photo: The History Makers: http://ow.ly/XN6j307y5xh)

Willa Brown earned her pilot's license in 1938. (Photo: The History Makers: http://ow.ly/XN6j307y5xh)

Willa Brown was born in 1906 in Kentucky, the daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown. She graduated from high school in Terra Haute, Indiana and attended college, earning a bachelors in Education from the Indiana State Teachers College in 1927.

After briefly teaching at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to become a social worker.  It was there that she decided to pursue her interest in aviation. 

In 1934 Brown began to train under Cornelius Coffey, a self-taught African-American pilot and founder of the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago. During this time she once again attended school and by 1937 she had earned a Masters Mechanic Certificate from the Aeronautical University of Chicago, MBA from Northwestern University and Civil Aeronautics Administration ground school instructor's rating.

Brown earned her private pilot's license in 1938, the first African American woman to achieve that feat--and with a score of 96 of 100 on the exam. She and Coffey later married and formed the National Airmen's Association of America, dedicated to the integration of the Army Air Corps. 

In an interview with The History Makers, Walter Hill, Jr. recounted Willa Brown's petition to host an aviation training school for black men at the beginning of the war:

“She petitioned the War Department when it made the decision to train black men to become pilots…They went out to various institutions to find out who would be willing to host a training school. Willa Brown’s application to the War Department was that she could do that in her flying school ‘cause she had been training black pilots since the late 1930s. She was very prominent in the field. She lost out of course; Tuskegee was one of the institutions that won, and that’s why they became the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Though Brown's school was not selected, she continued supplying trainees to the Tuskegee Airmen training program. By the time the US entered the war, the Coffey school had trained hundreds of men and women. In 1941, Brown was commissioned the first African-American officer in the Civil Air Patrol and named federal coordinator of the Civil Air Patrol unit in Chicago.

After the war, Brown would become involved in politics and ran for Congress. Though she lost, it was groundbreaking for African-American women who were later inspired by her to run for office. She remained heavily involved with issues important to her, especially racial and gender integration of the Army Air Corps.

Willa Brown-Chappell (she remarried in 1955), retired from teaching school in 1971 and a year later, she was appointed to the FAA Women's Advisory Board, in recognition of her contributions to aviation. She would remain active in her work and causes important to her for another twenty years until her death from a stroke at the age of 86.