WASP Edna Davis: "They told me I couldn't."

by Shannon Huffman Polson, aborderlife.com

Edna Davis in the cockpit

Edna Davis in the cockpit

“They told me I couldn’t,” says Edna Davis when asked about flying. “But there’s a certain percentage of the female population that nobody tells no, and that’s why I was there.”

I had hoped to meet Edna in person at the WASP event in support of the Flygirls Miniseries, but because of a family emergency she was unable to attend. Instead I met three of her sisters-in-arms, whose stories, like Edna's left me in awe.

All tell stories with incredible beginnings, young women who, in the 1940s, took to the air in support of their country at a time when opportunities for women were generally considered to be limited to nursing or teaching. Davis's experience was a little bit different. Growing up in Cleveland, her father used to take her out for flights in his open cockpit small airplane. After her father died, the family moved to Los Angeles.

“It was the depression, and I got 11 cents a week for my allowance," she says. "A double feature matinee at the movies was a dime. I had a little tin tea can at home that I had cut a slot in and labeled it ‘Flying Money.’ I would save my nickels and dimes, and when I had enough, my mother would take me to Clover Field (now Santa Monica Airport), where I would pay 50 cents and a pilot would take me up for a 15 minute ride.”

“I always had the desire to fly, and then Jackie Cochran came up with the WASP program. I wrote to her but never heard back.

Davis went to Mills College, where she joined the Civil Air Patrol program and was able to find her way into the WASPs. 

I got on the train (to training in Texas) with about 6 cents in my pocket. From Fort Worth to Sweetwater I lived on a peanut butter sandwich. Then I went to the regular WASP group.

I was born not jealous of anyone, except the pilots. I remember taking my physical at the air base, and I was worried they’d tell me I was too skinny. I drank water all the way down the hall to, but when I got on the scale I was under by a pound.” The medical assistant looked at her, held up his finger, and moved the dial one pound over. “And that’s how I became a WASP,” she says, smiling.

“They didn’t have any uniforms or anything for us when we arrived, so they handed us what we called the zoot suits, the men’s cockpit suits, all size 32. We learned how to take the sides and turn them, fold them under. We had two pair that were issued to us.

We’d fly all day, and then get back to the barracks and take a shower with another girl and scrub each other (in our Zoot suits) with a bar of soap in the shower and hang them up to dry for the next day.

We flew every kind of airplane and had exactly the same training the men had. It wasn’t until we ran into the politics of Drew Pearson…they said no women could fly an airplane for the United States. They took us in for $250 a month…

We had all these wonderful women who lost their lives and not only would they not grant us the use of the star but they wouldn’t pay for our way, the way home for the girls. I remember we lost one and it was heartbreaking, but we all had to chip in to buy the ticket for the (girl’s body) to go home to her family.

After I graduated I was sent to Dodge City, Kansas in the dead of winter to learn how to fly the (twin-engine Martin B26 Marauder) which had the worst reputation in the Air Force. It was designed and came right from the design table into production to our flight line. Nobody knew its idiosyncrasies. They were dangerous because nobody knew how to teach anybody else how to fly the airplane."

Davis became the first woman to solo pilot the B26. 

Edna David, third from left, with sister WASP

Edna David, third from left, with sister WASP

Though the WASPs were not allowed to fly in combat, they did live fire training drills with anti-aircraft gunners from all over the world.

"In Arlington, Texas, I helped train gunners from all over the world to go fight the war. I loved it.

“The weather was terrible. We were sitting on the ground in pouring rain, when all of a sudden the sun shone through and we heard, ‘Everyone up in the air!’

“I was towing a target about 250 yards behind our B-26 for a group of Chinese B-24 gunnery trainees who had just arrived in the U.S. for training. Each gun had different colored bullets, so after the training exercises, the instructors could tell which guns were hitting the target.

“Unfortunately, the B-24 didn’t have an interpreter on board. The Chinese thought they were to shoot at the plane.”

"I got back to the airport with bullets in me but we flew all right. They were very apologetic. The guy in that other airplane saved my life. You get to the instance where you wonder: are you going to pull right, or are you going to pull left? The guy made the right turn…and later I wanted to tell you, I married that man. We had 67 years of wonderful marriage.”

Flying was not without humorous situations, and these women learned how to roll with the punches. Davis thinks of another story in the B26.

“In the B26 the bomb bay opened and closed, and it was cold. We flew in the winter up in North Dakota. We had lambswool and leather (outfits) but there were no provisions for women (to go to the bathroom). So I had to take everything off, these big heavy coats. I had two paper cups and managed to fill those. I got my clothes back on and walked back to the cockpit, and the crew was laughing like mad. All of a sudden the bomb bays open, these guys in the front thought it was the funniest thing, all the snow and wind, so I said, ok bombs away. I never knew where that went.”

Like many of the WASPs interviewed, Davis expresses frustration at how they were treated at the end of their service. 

“We didn’t want to go home. They made us go home. All these pilots were coming back from Europe, so they didn’t want anything else to do with us. That was a sad day.

We didn’t have any choice. They just threw us out. They put everything in a big file in Washington and locked it up. For all those years we were left alone until finally the psyche of humanity changed and realized that women can do things. They didn’t give us a ticket or money to go home.

We didn’t get military status until 1977. Barry Goldwater’s son spearheaded the effort. We went to Washington and got our papers assigning us our status, and after all these years they gave us the Medal of Honor.”

As for rekindling interest in the WASPs, Davis seems grateful and a little bit perplexed. 

Standing on their shoulders: all of us who followed are beneficiaries of the WASPs passion and their grit. I have to think Edna is pleased.

Standing on their shoulders: all of us who followed are beneficiaries of the WASPs passion and their grit. I have to think Edna is pleased.

“I’m 94. My generation was more quiet and almost Victorian compared to you all. I don’t think I swore— I didn’t know what swear words were. I married my husband at the end of the war after we both got out. I taught flying for awhile but it wasn’t much fun. Then the social life was overwhelming— my husband was from Charleston, SC. Then you have your children and your life takes over and then you get old enough to get recognized. I loved every minute of it. 

People with ambition said (the WASPs) ought to have a reunion. That’s when Jackie Cochran was still with us and we met in Palm Springs and we came from all over the United States. We’ve had meetings every year since. In the last five years we’ve decided we’re too old to have meetings every year so we’ve developed our archives at Texas Women’s University.”

Though Edna was unable to make yesterday's event in Carlsbad, CA, dozens of other women aviators from all branches of the military and the civilian sector were there, standing on her shoulders.

WASP Florence "Shutsy" Reynolds: "Keep dreaming. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, and always fly as high as you can."

Shutsy Reynolds, 1944. (Photo: Shutsy Reynolds)

Shutsy Reynolds, 1944. (Photo: Shutsy Reynolds)

It was over eighty years ago on a day in Connellsville, Pennsylvania that Florence “Shutsy” Reynolds’ father informed her and her siblings that they should figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. “You’re too young”, he added, turning to his youngest, 7-year-old Florence. When undaunted, she answered “Dad, I want to learn to fly”, she was met with peals of laughter. It would take the passage of many years and the onset of a war, but she would have the last laugh.

Growing up in Connellsville, Reynolds was fascinated with machines of flight, consuming every book about aviation that she could get her hands on and building hundreds of model airplanes with her brothers. Although her family was supportive of her ambitions, she was keenly aware of the limits of the society that she would need to pursue a career in as she graduated from high school. “It was a time when women were not even encouraged to go to work, let alone fly airplanes” Reynolds herself explained. Women in the workforce were expected to be nurses, schoolteachers or stenographers, but Florence chose to take aviation courses at a ground school.

In a class with forty men, many of whom were on their second or third attempt to pass examinations, she was unsure about her chances of making it into the five highest testing students, the requisite qualification for receiving a flight scholarship. Nonetheless, she took the classes, and emerged in the coveted top five, winning herself a scholarship and a chance at a career in the sky.

Even after this hurdle was crossed, Reynolds would have to fight to defend her hard-won victory; staff members attempted to convince her to give up her scholarship spot to a lower-achieving male student, informing her that with the war coming up, men were needed in aviation rather than women who “(didn’t) fly”. Unimpressed, she refused to yield the honor, replying, “It’s mine, I earned it, by damn I’m gonna get it”. She did and soon entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Connellsville Airport, becoming within a year the first female to receive a pilot’s license at the facility. Before receiving her license, Reynolds was required to sign a document promising that she would join the aviation military service in case of war. “That was a big joke at the airport that day. ‘Girls don’t fly.’ But I signed it. By damn I joined later on.”

It wasn’t long before the newly-licensed Reynolds learned about the WASP program through a news publication, and almost immediately set about petitioning the organization’s founder and director, Jackie Cochran, to accept her as a trainee. Although at 19 she was two years short of meeting the 21 year age requirement of all WASP members, Reynolds wrote to Cochran every week (the age limit would eventually be lowered). Finally, perhaps worn down by her persistence, she received a telegram inviting her to travel to Cleveland and then Harrisburg for an interview and physical, culminating in a final summons to the training ground at Avenger Field in December 1943.

Having traveled all along at her own expense, Reynolds was met with some hard realities on her arrival in Texas, when an Army officer informed her, “You know of course, if you were a male you would be insured by the government, but because you’re an experiment, we’re keeping you on civilian status. You’ll have no insurance.” Later in her training, Reynolds would remember the mother of a fallen WASP visiting the base and reading aloud to a group of trainees the telegram she had recently received from the government. She remembered that it simply said "'Your daughter was killed this morning, where do we ship the body?’ I was floored. That didn’t mean I was going to quit, that thought never entered my mind. But this is what we lived with.”

Life at Avenger Field may not have been for everyone, but Reynolds adjusted to it with alacrity. Despite the tight living conditions that the girls found themselves in (“Can you imagine 12 girls getting up at 6 in the morning and sharing 1 bathroom?”), she found no element of competition among her fellow trainees. Instead, she and her WASP comrades found themselves exchanging information and forming friendships, some of which long outlived the end of the war. “The training was exactly like the men’s. And our living environment was also military…I fell in love with it, I loved military life. I thought it was great.”

Widely considered less than great were the makeshift WASP uniforms or “zoot-suits” as they were nicknamed among the girls. When it came to the limited fashion options of those days, “Nothing fit, they came in three sizes: big, big, and way too big.” When the time came to report measurements for the issuing of uniforms, Reynolds gave her size as a 12, and was met with the response “We have 42, 44 and 46”.

Being a woman in a job field usually occupied by men also had its challenges. “The men resented us and didn’t know what to do with us. You had to prove yourself on every flight,” as Reynolds put it, emphasizing, in particular, one Army captain who told her during a check ride during her training that “I don’t like women and I don’t like women pilots.”

Reynolds graduated from the WASP program and found herself transferred to Merced, California, carrying out a series of assignments that included flight testing planes, ferrying aircraft from repair stops, and transporting people and materials for the war effort. Flying consistently, often on more than one assignment a day, gave her theopportunity to do what she loved. This activity was, in her words, “The closest thing to God. I’ve always felt that way. There’s nothing like it, especially when you’re on a solo flight.” Like so many other WASP, Florence’s daily activities also exposed her to a high level of danger and uncertainty; by her own admission. “It was great. But it was hard work. You never knew if you were going to return alive.”  In one instance, Reynolds was flying planes to the scrap yards when she noticed that one aircraft was marked with an "X". Seeing that a form listed the vessel as having a crack in its left wing, she asked the maintenance officer who was overseeing the operation how serious of a problem this could pose. Reynolds remembers that the man merely told her, “‘You either fly or you go home and I won’t talk anymore about it.’ So I flew it. Fortunately, it didn’t come apart…He did tell me though, ‘You’ve got to remember, the WASP are expendable.’”

A more tragic mishap occurred on a plane that she assigned to fly one harrowing night. Mid-flight the electric system on the aircraft failed, and her instrument panel and navigation lights refused to work. With her skill, she managed to land the aircraft in the dark, only to learn that the WASP who flew it the next day was killed when the plane’s hydraulic line malfunctioned.

Reynolds received news of the demobilization of the WASP in 1944 before she was set to start training in B-26 bomber planes. Of the sudden disbandment of the program and the subsequent treatment that many WASP received, Reynolds says that she “…felt betrayed. I mean, they de-activated us before the victory. We felt that we had contributed, even in a little way, we contributed.” Hoping to stay in the field of aviation, she applied for employment with airlines, but none would hire her as anything but a stewardess.

apt. Danielle Parton, a pilot in the 123rd Airlift Wing, shares flying stories with Florence Shutsy Reynolds on the flight deck of a C-130 aircraft at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., March 22, 2014.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

apt. Danielle Parton, a pilot in the 123rd Airlift Wing, shares flying stories with Florence Shutsy Reynolds on the flight deck of a C-130 aircraft at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., March 22, 2014.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

She describes feeling at this time, “like an old piece of garbage thrown away. After we were disbanded in the summer of 44’, everybody went their own way and took up different careers. Some of them never talked about flying again…nobody believed you anyway.” In her attempt to adjust to life outside of the WASP, Reynolds took on a series of jobs, working in her father’s auto repair shop, as an Army Air Force dispatcher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and operating a flight training simulator in Anchorage, Alaska. She finally settled in Panama with her husband, taking a job at an Air Force office there, where she would remain for 16 years.

In the late 1980s, following the deaths of her mother and husband, Reynolds drew on previous experience making custom jewelry and began running the WASP stores, designing and producing jewelry, scarves, photographs, prints, and other items themed around the WASP. In 1986 she designed a WASP flag, decorated with 38 stars to honor the 38 fallen WASP pilots.

These days Reynolds works to promote knowledge about the WASP and the efforts of the many women who made up its ranks. She urges women today to, “keep dreaming. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, and always fly as high as you can.”

“Querer es poder...if you can dream it, you can achieve it." --Lt Col Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.)

by Liz Duca

Olga Custodio was the first female T-38 flight instructor at both Laughlin & Randolph AFB in Texas. (Photo: Olga Custodio)

Olga Custodio was the first female T-38 flight instructor at both Laughlin & Randolph AFB in Texas. (Photo: Olga Custodio)

“Querer es poder...if you can dream it, you can achieve it.” Those words speak to the core of Olga Custodio and it is a mantra that she uses to inspire those around her. The moment Olga decided that she wanted to become a military pilot it became her mission, and she was not going to take “no” for an answer.

Olga’s desire to fly began at a young age. Her father was in the Army and she has many memories of traveling around the world with her family. However, when she first attempted to become a military officer through her university’s United States Air Force (USAF) Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), she was told women were not allowed into the program. A later attempt to enter through the USAF Officer Training School was also denied. Despite the obstacles that were placed in her path, Olga continued toward her goal full throttle with grit and determination. When she was 26 years old, already with a family of her own, she decided to make one last attempt to apply to USAF Officer Training School. Her three career choices on her application: pilot, pilot, and pilot. She became all three and then some.

Olga became the first Hispanic female to graduate from USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training, as well as the first female T-38 Talon Flight Instructor at both Laughlin Air Force Base (AFB) in Del Rio, Texas and Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas. It was during her time as a T-38 instructor that she was awarded the Headquarters Air Education and Training Command Aviation Safety Award for the superior airmanship she displayed while handling an in-flight emergency when one of her engines failed after a bird strike.

In total, Olga served 24 years in the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve. Her time in the reserves allowed her to make her mark at American Airlines as well, where she became the first Hispanic American Airlines Captain, retiring with over 11,000 hours flying the Boeing 727, Fokker 100, Boeing 757 and Boeing 767. She was recognized on two occasions by the Senate of Puerto Rico as an outstanding and exemplary citizen, and as the first and only Puerto Rican female pilot in the United States Air Force and American Airlines.

As Captain with American Airlines (Photo: Olga Custodio)

As Captain with American Airlines (Photo: Olga Custodio)

Olga continues to hold a number of roles in her community to include being Vice President of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP), a non-profit organization she helped found in San Antonio in 2010, Executive Director and Treasurer of the Women in Aviation International Alamo City Chapter, a member and trustee of the Order of Daedalians, and a mentor with the Aviation Explorers in San Antonio and the School of Aeronautics at the Inter American University in Puerto Rico. She is also the Director and Founder of the Ballet Folklorico Boriken in San Antonio, a Puerto Rican folk dance group since 1992. The group was founded to promote and preserve Olga’s cultural heritage in Texas and has participated in many cultural and educational events.  Boriken is the only group representing Puerto Rico in the annual Texas Folklife Festival.

Olga Custodio’s accomplishments, like the WASP, are a true testimony to the power behind believing that your dreams can become a reality. “The WASPs laid the foundation for us, the second generation of military aviators,” said Custodio. “We are the next layer of military pilots who continue to inspire more women to know they can do and become anything they dream.”

Querer es poder!

Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Scientist, Engineer, Inventor, Astronaut & Director of the Johnson Space Center

by Logan Walker

Dr. Ellen Ochoa. (Photo: NASA)

Dr. Ellen Ochoa. (Photo: NASA)

From her seat in the machine perched in a corner of the universe rarely disturbed by any living being, Dr. Ellen Ochoa may well have let her mind wander back to the beginnings of a journey that had led her so high into the unexplored sky.  The year was 1993 and this foray into the place where gravity thinned like tissue paper and the world was dark and silent was Ochoa’s maiden voyage into space as a member of the crew on the STS-56 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her participation in the 9-day mission distinguished the 34-year-old as the first Hispanic woman to make it into outer space, and her days ahead held even more records to be broken and awards to be received; but, on that day the little girl who had never so much as heard of a female astronaut looked down on Earth, the place where she was born and where she now hovered above, from millions of miles. The trajectory of her life had taken her far, far above the limits of her world’s atmosphere. It was a place she would return to again and again.

Born in California in 1958, Ochoa was the middle of five siblings born to Joe, a Navy serviceman and sometime retail manager and his wife, Rosanne, a homemaker. The son of Mexican immigrants, Joe experienced his share of racial discrimination growing up; the memory of a childhood spent swimming in public pools only on the days before they were set to be cleaned because of public fear that he would “dirty” the waters stuck keenly with him. Consequently, Ellen and her siblings were pushed to assimilate completely into American society, and were even discouraged from speaking Spanish. The fact that neither of their parents possessed a college degree seemed to bolster the Ochoa children’s desire to educate themselves (Ellen’s mother Rosanne, who began steps to earn a college degree after giving birth to several children, would finally earn one 22 years later).

Without any female role models to look to in space travel, Ellen nonetheless took an interest in the field, stating that, “I can't image not wanting to go into space. But I never considered being an astronaut as an option because when I was growing up there were no female astronauts. It wasn't until the first six female astronauts were selected in 1978 that women could even think of it as a possible career path.” An exemplary student who held a particular interest in science, she graduated top of her high school class and was offered a scholarship to Stanford University but chose to attend the much closer to home San Diego State University in order to assist her then divorced mother.

In training.  (Photo: Huffington Post)

In training.  (Photo: Huffington Post)

At San Diego State, Ochoa weighed her options in considering a major. An accomplished flutist, she considered studying music but also harbored an interest in business and engineering. Her ambition toward the latter, however, was discouraged when she was told that engineering was not a “woman’s field” so she majored in physics instead. Having earned her bachelor’s degree, Ellen was encouraged by her mother to attend graduate school. She soon received a fellowship from Stanford, which unlike her former college, laid no gendered distinctions on their fields of study. It was while earning her master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering that a landmark event occurred, the effects of which were reverberated through Ochoa’s own life; “When the first space shuttle took off in 1981, Sally Ride flew for the first time,” Ellen would note later. “Putting all that together with my interest in space is what led me to apply (to NASA).”

It wasn’t long before Ochoa was working as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, investigating optical systems for information processing. Her ambitions to join NASA were realized in 1988 when she was hired as the Chief of Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames Research Center, where her responsibilities included supervising 35 scientists and engineers as they researched and developed computational systems for aerospace missions. During this time Ellen applied three times to NASA’s notoriously selective astronaut program, and her efforts finally paid off in 1990, when she was chosen as a future space explorer and moved to Johnson Space Center. Among the factors that she has credited for her selection are her love of music, which she notes made her a well-rounded candidate, and the pilot’s license that she had earned at an earlier date.

After her first groundbreaking foray into space in 1993, during which she deployed and captured a research satellite used for solar study and conducted studies on Earth’s atmosphere, climate, and environment, she would go on to embark on three more missions, including STS-66, STS-96, and STS-110. STS-96 was the first Space Shuttle to dock with the space station (and then proceed to deliver supplies to the station via a robotic arm operated by Ellen). All in all, Ochoa has spent nearly 1000 hours in orbit. Remembering her last mission into space, she fondly recalls, “We had docked in the international space center. We were looking down at the Earth, and we were watching bright green auroras, and the sun came up and it illuminated the station instantaneously. It was just an amazing visual view. It was amazing to see what we were building in space, and we had an international crew…There were a lot of amazing thoughts associated with that moment.”

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Director of Johnson Space Center. (Photo: NASA)

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Director of Johnson Space Center. (Photo: NASA)

In 2013, Ochoa was appointed Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the second woman to ever hold the position. On her evolving career, Ochoa states, “Being an astronaut, and part of a team, is really rewarding, and now I have a different perspective. The end goal is still the same-carrying out exciting and challenging missions in space.”

In addition to her work with NASA, Ochoa is a co-inventor on three patents and author of various technical papers. She has received a series of awards including NASA's Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal, Space Flight Medals and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award. She has also received the Harvard Foundation Science Award, Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement, The Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity, and is the first woman to receive the Engineer of the Year award by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference. Ochoa is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, serves on several boards and chairs, and even has schools named after her! 

Having embarked on a dazzling career in an organization that in earlier days would have barred her entry, Ochoa’s thoughts on the past, present, and future of women in NASA are optimistic; “I was fortunate that women had been members of the astronaut corps for a dozen years when I joined. The astronaut corps has been about 20% women during the time I’ve been at NASA- a higher percentage than women who choose engineering or piloting as their careers but nevertheless a percentage that will hopefully grow larger as more women choose science and engineering fields. In the last 20 years we’ve seen the first woman pilot and command a Space Shuttle, and the first woman command an International Space Station expedition. There’s no job in the astronaut corps that women haven’t done and continue to do.”

With students at the Animo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School in East Los Angeles.  The school is part of the Green Dot public charter school chain. (Photo: Green Dot)

With students at the Animo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School in East Los Angeles.  The school is part of the Green Dot public charter school chain. (Photo: Green Dot)

Dr. Ochoa, wife and mother of two, continues to play the flute, enjoys flying, outdoor activities and spending time with her family.  She also spends time mentoring children just as her own mother did for her.  In fact, Ochoa cites her mother as the biggest influence in her life. Rosanne Ochoa began college when her daughter was just a year old, taking one class a time while struggling to raising five children as a divorced parent. It took 22 years but Rosanne earned her degree expressing that during the long educational experience, she had always remained focused on the learning. That stayed with her daughter Ellen through her studies and beyond.

These days, Ellen Ochoa hopes to inspire and encourage children in much the same way.  She emphasizes the value of hard work, determination and perseverance and encourages them to get a good education and keep focused on pursuing their goals. She says, "I tell students that the opportunities I had were a result of having a good educational background. Education is what allows you to stand out."

Helping Dreams Soar: Though Shaesta's flight has come to an end, the mission continues!

by Jill Meyers

This is the last post in my Helping Dreams Soar blog series, as this week marked the end of the Dreams Soar Global Flight for STEM. Shaesta Waiz returned to Daytona Beach International Airport on October 4th, flying the Beechcraft Bonanza A36 back to its starting point, greeted by the Dreams Soar team, friends, and a handful of media. What was originally going to be a 90-day journey turned into a 145-day journey, common amongst almost every “earthrounder”. As I told many people along the way, we don’t control the weather and we can’t predict aircraft maintenance issues. But how long it took Shaesta Waiz to fly around the world solo is not important at all. What is important are the incredible accomplishments of this mission, never done before in the history of the world.

Shaesta flew almost 25,000 nautical miles across five continents and landed the Bonanza in 20 different countries. She crossed three oceans - the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific - and quite a few seas including the Mediterranean and the Arabian. In addition, she flew via commercial carrier to two countries, England and Afghanistan, to hold Outreach events in places she couldn’t fly to in the Bonanza. We held a total of 32 incredibly successful Outreach events in 17 different locations, inspiring and reaching over 3,000 young girls and boys in person. Many people have flown around the world alone, including nine women, but none of them had the primary goal of inspiring and empowering young girls to reach for the stars and follow their dreams! None of them faced the challenges we did in having to work across every time zone on the planet to reschedule events, often multiple times, due to weather or aircraft delays. It is one thing to reschedule an arrival at international airports when schedules change, which is complex enough, but to be rescheduling visits to schools, gatherings of hundreds of kids at an airport or other venue, and moving media interviews around was not easy!

The pressure on Shaesta and our team was significant due to the calendar of flights and events. A great deal of the burden was on me, as I was handling Outreach planning and ground logistics, and supporting flight planning. But we took each day one at a time, and just played the cards we were dealt. I told Shaesta many times along the way to not worry about the schedule, since that was my job, and I encouraged her to focus on flying safely and keeping the aircraft moving eastward, which she did! In addition to flying and taking care of the Bonanza, Shaesta had to focus on other priorities like staying healthy and getting enough rest, so that when she wasn’t piloting or dealing with the aircraft, she had the necessary energy to tell her passionate story to a group of kids, and then go off and be interviewed by global media like CNN World News or The Independent. All very taxing and exhausting week after week.

We both, along with everyone on the Dreams Soar team, feel incredibly proud of the success of this mission. And as Shaesta always says, “success is never achieved alone”. The entire Dreams Soar team, led during these five months by the amazing Lyndse Costabile, came through every time with whatever help was needed. The reason this is miraculous is that all of us are volunteers, and with the exception of me and Lyndse, they all have day jobs. Busy day jobs. But they have strong passion and found the time to help this mission move forward. And we had the support of so many organizations, many of which I’ve talked about in earlier posts. And of course, our donors, who provided much needed financial or “in-kind” support during these five months. Shaesta would not have completed this flight without everyone’s help. This was the epitome of a team effort!

Matia Karrell, creator and director of FlyGirls and the person who asked me to write this blog, often asks me to be “more personal” in my writing. So here goes. I am very sad to have this journey end and have cried a bit these past few weeks. Being Shaesta’s primary support person, talking and texting with Lyndse many times a day and well into the night, and working with amazing people all over the globe to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams, has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I have made friends all over the world in these past months, and although we say we will meet again, no one knows for sure if that’s true. And although I plan to support Dreams Soar for as long as it exists, I don’t know how often I’ll see the wonderful members of this organization – the Dream Team, the Board members and the Advisory Council members, some of whom I still have not met.

Shaesta & Jill. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta & Jill. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

And then there is Shaesta. It is mind blowing that we did not meet until the day before her launch in May. You would never know that seeing us now. But being her “lifeline”, as the Dreams Soar Board called me, and being her “virtual co-pilot”, as Shaesta herself called me, allowed us to build a very special bond between us that will never be broken. We went through a lot together, navigating the many different waters of this global flight. I helped Shaesta get around the world and through some challenges along the way, and we also celebrated the success of each and every Outreach event together. I was very lucky to experience the events in Dubai and Washington DC with Shaesta, and the rest I had to experience vicariously through talking with Shaesta and looking at photos. In turn, Shaesta trusted me to make plans and decisions on her behalf and got to know me well enough by mid-summer to give me a good bit of worldly advice about my own life! I believe Shaesta is what we often call “an old soul”, insightful beyond her years, and with an incredibly altruistic view of the world. I learned a lot from her and will continue to, and I tell her all the time how she has changed my life forever. So, I thank you, Shaesta Waiz, here in this public forum, for having and executing your vision of making the world a better place, and for asking me to be part of that journey.

Dreams Soar’s mission, with Shaesta leading the way, will continue on after this flight, with plans to expand and keep inspiring the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals around the globe, especially young girls who don’t have the means to get a good education without outside help. I look forward to continuing my support to Shaesta and Dreams Soar, whatever that might look like as I transition into a paying “day job”. This has been the time of my life and Shaesta’s landing in Daytona Beach was in fact bittersweet. But I’ll do what I’ve been doing since May, taking life just one day at a time, and hoping that the best is yet to come.

Please continue to follow our journey on social media:

https://www.facebook.com/DreamsSoar/

https://twitter.com/DreamsSoarSTEM

https://www.instagram.com/dreamssoar/

CW3 Eva Rodriguez, U.S. Army (Ret.): From Pilot to Author, Spiritual Healer, and Activist Serving Her Community

by Logan Walker

Eva on military duty. (Photo: georgeherald.com)

Eva on military duty. (Photo: georgeherald.com)

To most people who experienced a childhood as Eva Rodriguez did, a life of turbulent adventure and near constant travel might seem like a path to be avoided rather than actively pursued. Constancy and environmental stability can provide an undeniable lure to those who have never experienced it. But, as Rodriguez’s unique life and career prove, normal is sometimes just not enough.

Born in 1963 Detroit to Mexican-descended musician Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez and his half-Cherokee wife Rayma, Eva and her family lived a gypsy lifestyle that wasn’t without hardships. She says, “(My parents) did tough things to keep going and raise three kids. I went to 13 different schools because we moved around all the time. Sandra and I were always the new kids at school and before we could make friends we moved again.” 

Despite the lack of stability, her parents did their best to keep the family together in a supportive and loving environment. Art was a pervasive part of the Rodriguez home, with Eva recalling that, “Music was always a part of our life. Rodriguez played guitar and we were encouraged to sing and perform poems, drum, and dance.”

Life would change when a U.S. Army recruitment team visited Eva's school. She signed up right away; “As my dad’s daughter I was taught to love not kill. I was a hippie. But the opportunity came along and I realized if I did not get out of Detroit I would probably end up being a mom on crack.” By 1986 she was working as a combat nurse, and spent a year stationed in South Korea working with the seriously injured. During this time, she helped to evacuate a patient by helicopter for the first time, an experience that left her with a growing interest in flying. Never one to rest on her laurels, by the next year she not only passed the difficult Army pilot training test but became one of the first women to do so. Officer training was intense and difficult, and Rodriguez was striving in what was undeniably a male dominated environment; in personal quarters, she shared a bathroom with 70 men. Despite what must have felt like at least an initial incongruence, Eva remembers an acceptance and camaraderie that eventually sprung up between her and her male co-trainees. Her training took her to Germany between 1988 and 1990 before she was finally rewarded as an official military pilot.

Life as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot was a whirlwind of travel and excitement, alternately thrilling and heart-wrenchingly tense. Sent to Puerto Rico, she spent time acting as a military advisor for Columbia and Barbados before traveling to Honduras, Guatemala and Belize as a safety program manager. Next disaster relief and humanitarian work called her across South America, to places like Nicaragua, Belize and El Salvador. A year later she flew in the Persian Gulf War, carrying patients and medical supplies through the war zones from Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The steady and substantive financial perks of Rodriguez’s job allowed her to spend lavishly and purchase expensive clothes, cars, and houses (in both Egypt and Germany). Looking fondly on these days which stood in such stark contrast to the modest lifestyle she grew up with, Eva muses, “I literally lived the American dream.” But the dream darkened when the realities of her work in combat put her in serious concern of her life. “I had a lot of close calls, which make you realize you are not in control of everything,” she explained, adding, “There is a reason why you make it out alive and others don’t.”

Returning to America in 1991, Eva put her medical experience to work as a nurse in Kansas, working with patients for four years. Next she spent a yearlong stint as a peacekeeper in Egypt, an experience she recalls as a particular career favorite, before she returned once more to her life in Kansas. It was at this point that she was surprised to learn of two South African fans of her father who were searching for information on the current whereabouts of the “Sugar Man”, whose popularity, she would learn, was quite substantial in South Africa. Eva, who refers to her father only by his last name, was passingly aware of his status as a pop musician whose song (and epithet provider) “Sugar Man” had been an international hit for a period in the ‘70s, but knew relatively little of his music. Inspired by the renewed interest, she set about assisting in the revitalization of his career, taking photos of the musician for fans and arranging and accompanying him on a string of South African tour dates.

Eva, "On 3rd Degree: Rodriguez-Echoes of Freedom" (Photo: sugarman.org)

Eva, "On 3rd Degree: Rodriguez-Echoes of Freedom" (Photo: sugarman.org)

Once back from the tour experience, Rodriguez’s daily life had reached an adventurous and sometimes hectic fever pitch as it seems she was once more piloting helicopters for the military. Soon enough she found her life changed following the birth of her first child. The 1999 arrival of her son called into question how much longer she could continue in a line of work that meant near constant danger; “I was a soldier by day and a mom by night. But once you become a mom your mind-set changes. For the first time I had something to live for.”

The final straw came for Eva as she piloted a Black Hawk helicopter in the midst of a Columbia drug raid, an experience that forced her to realize that there was no room in her life for both her Army missions and her child. Honorably discharged as a highly decorated soldier, she ended her military career as a Chief Warrant Officer 3, and in 2001 moved with her family to the town of Wilderness in South Africa where she set up house in a rural cliffside cottage.

Reflecting on her long career, Rodriguez states that “As a woman, the effects after a war are very hard. Everyone admires you as a hero, but you don’t feel like one. Twenty years was enough, so I took early retirement.”  Years in the stressful environment of the Army as well as an awareness of her Mexican/Cherokee ancestors and their tribal healing practices influenced her interest in spirituality and native healing, a subject which she calls “full of sacredness and miracles”.

Eva authored the book, The Circle of Love, a book authored by Rodriguez and aimed at highlighting spirituality and nature for children. Picked by UNIMA as an arts intervention project and staged by over 300 students at a school in Cape Town, the book combined many forms of performative art over a period of eight weeks. In 2009, it was performed for the Amateur Arts Festival at George Society of the Arts Theatre where it was nominated for Best Performance and received acknowledgment for directorial and script efforts. According to Eva, “My vision is to promote The Circle of Love as a fundraiser to provide children with greater opportunities to express themselves creatively, encourage a true appreciation of nature, and in doing so expand their own circle of love.”

Eva Rodriguez (Photo: heraldlive.com)

Eva Rodriguez (Photo: heraldlive.com)

Immersed in a life very different from the one she led years ago, Eva has settled into a life of healing and authoring in her tranquil community, occasionally accompanying her father on tours and extending her efforts toward community involvement. Of her preferred lifestyle of late, she says “I live in Wilderness, it’s pretty remote. I’ve been there a long time. So I enjoy Cape Town, the art and the buzz, but it gets too much and then I long to go back to Wilderness.” After a career surrounded by men in a largely male-centric field, her current life has seen her surrounded by more women than ever before, as she is in her own words, “still trying to get in touch with my feminine side.” Now an executive committee member of the Outeniqua Business and Professional Women’s Club in George, she views helping with the club’s Phambili Refuge for Battered Women as a priority, stating “I have realized that one way I need to give back is by helping women be aware of their rights within relationships and that there are ways to pursue justice despite being abused and without resources.”

Although her piloting days are behind her, Eva’s continued commitment to serving her community and the larger world through authorship, healing, and community outreach are undoubtedly an extension of the active role she has always taken in meeting challenges head on and bravely participating in the change in both her local and global environment.

Major Marisol Chalas, U.S. Army Black Hawk pilot: "We learned very young that in order to be successful you have to work hard at it, nothing is handed to you."

by Jess Clackum

Major Chalas poses for a photo overlooking the Dominican Republic as part of International Women's Day and a book by Giovanna Bonnelly & Nicole Sanchez titled Mujer, which features 100 Dominican Women who have been trailblazers and opened doors for others to follow. (Photo: Nicole Sanchez)

Major Chalas poses for a photo overlooking the Dominican Republic as part of International Women's Day and a book by Giovanna Bonnelly & Nicole Sanchez titled Mujer, which features 100 Dominican Women who have been trailblazers and opened doors for others to follow. (Photo: Nicole Sanchez)

Major Marisol A. Chalas, decorated pilot with nearly 26 years of service, was born in Bani, Dominican Republic and at age nine, moved with her family to the U.S. to reside in Massachusetts. Chalas's parents were her greatest role models, often working two jobs each to take care of their children.  She says, “We learned very young that in order to be successful you have to work hard at it, nothing is handed to you.” 

Chalas followed her parents example and when times got tough after her freshman year at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, she left for a time in order to work. She put in more hours on weekends than most people put in during the week just to make ends meet. When she returned to school, she successfully completed her Bachelor's Degree and went to work for General Electric.

When Chalas was in flight school only 120 of the 3,000 Black Hawk pilots were women. (Photo credit: Marisol Chalas)

When Chalas was in flight school only 120 of the 3,000 Black Hawk pilots were women. (Photo credit: Marisol Chalas)

Major Chalas began her military career as an enlisted soldier in the Army in July 1990.  She was among the top graduates at Fort Rucker Army Aviation School and in 2001 received her commission as Second Lieutenant in the Aviation branch from the Georgia Military Institute Officer Candidate School. She has served in various leadership positions, including Lean Six Sigma advisor (Lean Six is a methodology that relies on a collaborative team effort to improve performance through a number of initiatives), Battle Captain and Platoon Leader during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Aviation Liaison Officer with the Combined Joint Task Force for the New Horizons Humanitarian Assistance project in Barahona, Dominican Republic. In addition she has served as Aviation Readiness Officer and Company Commander with FORSCOM (US Army Forces Command) as well as Aviation Force Integrator for USARC (US Army Reserve Command) G-3/5/7 Aviation Directorate.

Major Chalas has an extensive corporate career record with vast international experience. She worked for General Electric for eleven years in a number of management positions. She spent time in Latin America, Asia and Europe and graduated from GE's Nuclear Technical Leadership Program. She also served as a Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global firm which provides management and technology consulting and engineering services to Fortune 500 corporations, governments and not-for-profit agencies. 

Chalas received her Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Engineering from Massachusetts Maritime Academy (where she currently serves as member of the Board of Trustees) and a Master of Business Administration from J. Mack Robinson School of Business, Georgia State University. She is a certified Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt and a member of the National Scholars Honor Society and recently completed the Strategic Fellows Program at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

 (Photo: Marisol Chalas)

 (Photo: Marisol Chalas)

Chalas is the Battalions Operations Officer for 1-158th Aviation Regiment in Conroe, Texas and currently serving as a member of the Congressional Staff on Capitol Hill as part of the Army Congressional Fellowship Program which began in May 2016 and ends in December 2017. During this time she is also working on her Masters in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University.

Major Chalas is indebted to the WASP for the opportunities their service opened up for her. 

“Every time I read how this project began and how it has evolved I get goose bumps. These women are extraordinary, driven and true heroes. Thanks to these pioneers and trailblazers who found ways to follow their dreams and make them reality even when they were told 'no', I today can serve as a pilot in the Armed Forces. I salute and thank each of them for their persistence and perseverance."

NASA's Ginger Kerrick: “I have no idea what is next for me, but I trust I will find myself exactly where I am supposed to be!"

by Jess Clackum

Ginger Kerrick, NASA's first hispanic female Flight Director (Photo: NASA)

Ginger Kerrick, NASA's first hispanic female Flight Director (Photo: NASA)

A native of El Paso, Ginger Kerrick earned her bachelors and masters degrees in Physics from Texas Tech University. She began her career with NASA as an intern in 1991 and was given her first permanent assignment as Materials Research Engineer in 1994. Just over a year later she was reassigned to the Mission Operations Directorate as an instructor for the International Space Station Environmental and Life Support System where she was in charge of training development, simulator development and training conduct for crew members and flight controllers.

In 2001, Kerrick became the first non-astronaut Capsule Communicator (CapCom), a position within Flight Control that relays information from Mission Control to the crew. Four years later, Kerrick was appointed Flight Director, the first Hispanic Female Flight Director in NASA history. Kerrick is a dual-certified Flight Director meaning she has supported both Space Shuttle Operations and the International Space Station. She now serves as the division chief for the Flight Operations Directorate's Flight Integration Division. Kerrick has received a number of awards from NASA and other organizations for her outstanding work.

Read more about Ginger Kerrick, in her own words. Courtesy of NASA:

"I knew early on that when I grew up, I wanted to be an astronaut or a professional basketball player. Then one day, when I was 11 years old, tragedy struck. I watched my father die of a heart attack. My stay-at-home mom had to quickly figure out how she was going to raise me, my older brother, and my older twin sisters on her own. She got a job at my junior high school so she could keep an eye on me. My mom made it clear that without my dad around, she was not going to be able to pay for my college. She explained the concept of academic and athletic scholarships to me and kept me on the straight and narrow all the way through high school. By the time I reached my senior year, I graduated second in my class and was named El Paso Female Athlete of the Year, which meant I had a number of college offers to choose from. After much soul searching, I accepted an academic scholarship at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I majored in physics and was a member of the women’s basketball team, until I blew out my knee shortly before the first game of the season. There went the professional basketball player dream. Good thing I had the astronaut option still going for me!

Toward the end of my freshman year I learned that NASA did not have a co-op program established with UTEP, so I contacted the Texas Tech Physics Department Chair to inquire about transferring. I explained my financial situation and my goal to become an astronaut. The Chair found a number of scholarships and two part-time jobs for me, the sum total of which would pay for everything I needed for the next year.

I started my junior year at Texas Tech in the fall of 1989 and experienced my first semester away from home. At age 19, I wasn’t quite as grown up as I thought I was. While I had a great time, I lost sight of my priorities and allowed my GPA to drop from a 4.0 at UTEP to a 2.7 after my first semester at Texas Tech. I lost a few scholarships for the second half of the year and NASA told me that there was no way I’d be able to co-op with a GPA that low; some lessons you have to learn the hard way. I spent the next year and a half getting back on track and graduated with a GPA of 3.3, still too low to be considered for NASA’s co-op program but not too low to apply for a summer internship.

In 1991, I got my first taste of working at NASA as a summer intern with the safety organization in a calibration and materials testing laboratory. With my supervisor’s assistance, I transitioned to co-op status at the end of the summer. In October 1993, 2 months before graduating with my master’s degree in physics, I received a letter from the co-op office. The President had put a hiring freeze on all government agencies. They had no idea when it would be lifted and when they could offer me a permanent position. Luckily I stayed a semester ahead in finances so I opted to stay at Texas Tech and take some business courses that next semester while I waited. I knew though that if the hiring freeze was lifted, they probably wouldn’t be able to hire everyone, so to set myself apart, I decided to call the co-op office every Friday at 1 o’clock. Eventually a position opened up and I was one of the lucky few to be hired.

Ginger Kerrick (Photo: NASA)

Ginger Kerrick (Photo: NASA)

In May 1994, I joined NASA full-time in the safety organization. After 1 year, I met the minimum requirements for applying for astronaut selection. To increase my competitiveness, I was encouraged to seek out a rotational assignment in mission operations to broaden my experience base. My boss approved a 6-month rotational assignment to the Mission Operations Directorate as an instructor for the Environmental Control and Life Support System of the yet-to-be-flown International Space Station (ISS). About 3 months into that assignment, I was notified that I had been selected for astronaut interviews. I could not have been happier! However, during the medical tests I learned I had kidney stones, a medical disqualification. Needless to say, I was devastated. After wallowing in self pity for several days, during which I contemplated giving up on NASA altogether and moving on to something else, I arrived at a new perspective – it just wasn’t meant to be. But, as an instructor for the astronauts, I could still make a contribution to the program, with each astronaut taking a little piece of me with them. That would be the closest thing to actually going myself. With that new perspective and the support of my supervisor, my rotational position to the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) was made permanent in 1996.

Over the course of the last 14 years in MOD I have had a number of unique and very satisfying jobs. Following my experience as an ISS Life Support Systems Instructor, I created a new position, that of Russian Training Integration Instructor, to integrate training and operations products among Houston, the Gargarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and Roscosmos (the Russian space program) in support of the Expedition 1 Space Station crew. Following the successful execution of that mission in 2001, I became the first non-astronaut CapCom (Capsule Communicator), the Flight Control position that relays information from Mission Control to the crew. I served in that role for 4 years until I became a Flight Director in 2005. I am a dual-certified Flight Director, supporting both ISS and shuttle operations. I have supported 13 ISS crews and five joint shuttle missions, including lead assignments for Expedition 14 and STS-126/ULF2.

I have no idea what is next for me, but I trust I will find myself exactly where I am supposed to be!"

Helping Dreams Soar: When Crisis Hits, Just Take It One Day At A Time!

by Jill Meyers

It goes without saying that the past two weeks have been very challenging for many people around the country. Wildfires in the west have produced red-hot flames and thick black smoke, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres and causing fatalities in Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, and Utah. In the opposite corner of the country, many of my friends and colleagues were impacted by Hurricane Irma, not to mention the folks in Houston still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. I decided not to publish a blog episode last week since some of the Dreams Soar and FlyGirls teams live in Florida and were dealing with more important things like staying safe. This week I am going to write about taking things one day at a time, an important way to maintain one’s sanity in the wake of multiple and overlapping crises.

Hurricane Irma (Photo: NASA)

Hurricane Irma (Photo: NASA)

For me, the past two weeks were centered around two things. The first was filling in for Lyndse Costabile, our Dreams Soar Board of Directors Chairwoman, who was stranded on a Caribbean cruise due to the hurricane, with very limited access to Wi-Fi. Much of my effort was spent trying to keep in contact with our team members in Florida, along with our new Advisory Council member who lives in Antigua, an area hit very hard by the hurricane. I was first trying to determine who had evacuated (and where to) and who stayed behind to weather the storm Then I struggled to reach everyone afterward due to power outages and lack of cell service in affected areas. In the end, everyone was okay, but it was a bit stressful during the “not knowing” period, which lasted for days. I got through it by taking things one day at a time, and often just one hour at a time. I had to realize that all of this was out of my control, and I needed to stay positive and keep trying to reach everyone, and just hope for the best. And it worked.

Meanwhile, Shaesta was monitoring the weather along her route from Hawaii to California, with daily support from our friends at Universal Weather. The only issue seemed to be the wind -- it was blowing westerly, which I am told is not normal for that crossing. Even with all six fuel tanks filled to capacity, Shaesta needed to wait for the math to work out and needed the flight computations to be convincing that she could get all the way across based on the average wind component across the entire 2,119 nautical mile route. On September 7th, all looked good! Shaesta departed from Honolulu and was on her way! I was so excited! But then a little before two hours into the flight, I received a message from Shaesta that she was turning around. OH NO!! It turned out that some weather built up out of nowhere and the winds aloft increased during that brief time she was in flight. Shaesta made a very difficult but correct and admirable decision to do the SAFE thing and go back to Hawaii. So, we all went back into “wait mode”.

Shaesta continued to rest and monitor the weather, and the rest of us waited. For the first few days, I had to deal with a flood of Dreams Soar team members, sponsors, supporters, partners, and the public in answering questions regarding her status. This would have been stressful in itself but now I was handling this on top of dealing with the oncoming hurricane. But again, I just took every call and text and email one at a time, took a lot of deep breaths in between, and reminded myself that everything happens for a reason and that it would all be okay in the end. And it was.

The Bonanza arrives in California (Photo: Shaesta Waiz)

The Bonanza arrives in California (Photo: Shaesta Waiz)

It was another week before the winds behaved! On September 14th, Shaesta got back in the Bonanza and took off for Hayward, California! It was perfect weather and the wind computations looked good. Shaesta was in a super positive mood and was so excited to finally be doing this crossing! Her flight time was 14.5 hours, a daunting task for a solo pilot. One of the things I do to support Shaesta is to monitor her flight, which has me logged into a system that allows me to follow her speed, altitude and exact latitude/longitude position at all times. Why is this important? Well, because the publicly-accessible flight trackers either lose tracking over open water, or the data they provide is not accurate or is time-delayed. On these long open-water flights, I feed the aircraft position data to the Universal team, so they can provide Shaesta periodic updates to the winds and weather. And in addition, by knowing her position and altitude, I know she’s OK. As a solo pilot, especially while crossing an ocean, Shaesta has a LOT to do in that cockpit. If something did go wrong, she would probably not have time to contact me, at least for a while, so I have to stay on top of things. So yes, I spent 14.5 hours watching the tracking data, in addition to being available to communicate with Shaesta when needed. It was a long day for us both! And how did I handle doing that for 14.5 hours? One hour at a time.

Shaesta successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean this month and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in June. And crossed many seas in between. And crossed five continents and visited 20 countries. By the time this is posted on Sunday, September 24th, Shaesta will be just a few days away from arriving home in Daytona Beach, Florida. She will have completed her around-the-world trip, the Dreams Soar Global Flight for STEM. She will have met with and inspired 3,000 young girls and boys, letting them know that they too can let their dreams soar. And I bet if you asked Shaesta how she survived this four-month long journey, she would tell you… one day at a time.

Verneda Rodriguez McLean: WWII pilot, artist, teacher, lover of poetry.

by Logan Walker

Verneda Rodriguez McLean (Photo: Texas Woman's University, used w/permission)

Verneda Rodriguez McLean (Photo: Texas Woman's University, used w/permission)

 

No one can tell me,
Nobody knows,
Where the wind comes from,
Where the wind goes.

It's flying from somewhere
As fast as it can,
I couldn't keep up with it,
Not if I ran.

 

Like the opening stanzas of The Wind on the Hill, a poem from one of her favorite writers A.A. Milne, Verneda Rodriguez McLean was a woman who spent her life in the pursuit of travel, discovery and movement.  As a WASP pilot as well as an artist and traveler, she left her mark across the boundaries of international soil and through the sky above it, as she navigated the air carried by the wind under her metal wings. Her destinations were varied, but her trajectory was always one of forward motion, driving her toward the next station or pursuit.

Born on January 11, 1918 in Chicago, McLean’s mother was Danish and her father, a native of British Guyana. The family made their home in one of Chicago’s Hispanic American colonias, small residential communities located in the city’s industrial sectors. After graduating high school, McLean attended a Chicago Teaching College, but soon the onset of WWII would prompt a significant career shift for McLean in the form of her application and acceptance into the WASP program, joining class 44-W-6. McLean was one of 78 newly minted WASP who graduated at Avenger Field on August 4, 1944.  A noted lover of poetry, the inscription she left under her photo in the 44-6 WASP class book quotes the first line of the A.A. Milne poem Disobedience, reading “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”.

Roddy Rodriguez McLean (top row, middle) with classmates at their graduation from flight training, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX, August 1944. (Photo: USAF, No. 1330 N-1)

Roddy Rodriguez McLean (top row, middle) with classmates at their graduation from flight training, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX, August 1944. (Photo: USAF, No. 1330 N-1)

Having received her wings, McLean, nicknamed “Roddy” by her fellow WASP, was assigned to tow gunnery training targets for male soldiers’ shooting practice at Moore Field in Mission Texas. The close proximity to gunfire made this an especially hazardous task and completing training duties required a particular courage and unshakeable temperament. McLean also carried out the occasional transport duties of aircraft from various airfields and factories that was standard for WASP.

Following the end of the war, McLean moved back to her hometown of Chicago, taking a job with the Weather Service before moving to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. There, she met and married former WWII B-25 bomber pilot Edward R. McLean, whose Air Force career sent the couple traveling to such places as Japan and the Philippines.

It was during McLean's stay in Tokyo that the former aviatrix became an accomplished painter, studying and practicing the traditional oriental brush technique. When her family relocated back to Virginia, she taught art classes and held occasional exhibitions of her paintings. She became an entrepreneur, opening an artwork and gift shop with friends called The Late Possum, and in the late 1960’s, co-owning The Place, a coffee house that featured folk music.

Despite the decidedly grounded nature of her life, McLean's piloting past would resurface later when she became an active force in the WASP struggle to gain veteran status with military benefits, a fight she was joined in by her daughter Mary Lynn.

McLean passed away in March 1982 at the age of 64. It had only been five years since she and her fellow WASP had won their battle for veteran status. She is interred at Arlington National Cemetery and it is believed she was the first WASP to be buried there.  A pursuer of adventure, a lover of art and aviation, and a woman unafraid to join a fight to achieve her valued goals, McLean dictated the terms of her own path to the end. Just as she recalled his writing at the end of her WASP training, it may be fitting to let the words of A.A. Milne provide an addendum to her life and career:

And then when I found it,
Wherever it blew,
I should know that the wind
Had been going there too.

So then I could tell them
Where the wind goes...
But where the wind comes from
Nobody knows.

_________________________

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato: Decorated Air Force Veteran, Aviator, Author, Entrepreneur, and Mentor to Latino Youth

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato (Photo: Goodnight Captain Mama)

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato (Photo: Goodnight Captain Mama)

From Goodnight, Captain Mama:

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, School of Environmental Design, where she earned a degree in Environmental Design/Architecture while completing the Aerospace Studies program as an AFROTC scholarship cadet. She was commissioned as a Distinguish Graduate and second lieutenant atop the Campanile on the Berkeley campus. After Berkeley, she joined the active duty Air Force and completed Undergraduate Navigator Training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. She graduated in the top 15% of her class of 25 students as the only woman in the class. She then trained in the KC-135R refueling tanker at Castle AFB in California before reporting to the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB in Spokane.  Her first deployment was to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On that trip, she was a member of one of the first few aircrews to patrol and enforce the Southern NO FLY Zone in Southern Iraq after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. Flying two or three combat sorties a day over and near the city of Baghdad to prevent Saddam Hussein’s air forces from targeting Iraqi civilians earned her crew the prestigious Air Medal.

During her military career, Graciela lived on or visited four continents and flew for thousands of hours. As an instructor, she taught GPS systems, navigation systems and more in the classroom and in the cockpit. Her favorite rendezvous for refueling was with the SR-71 Blackbird as it came out of its high-altitude missions over the Earth at supersonic speeds.

Graciela was one of very few women that served on the NATO Battlestaff in Vicenza, Italy during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Later she led a multi-service group of communications technicians at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador in counter-narcotics operations.  Her last mission abroad was planning and leading a two-week CAPSTONE mission to Asia Pacific theater to introduce newly – minted generals to their new posts in Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Hawaii, Okinawa, Japan and more. She spent almost ten years on active duty as a navigator and instructor, eventually also becoming a wing contingency planning officer. During her active duty service, she earned a Master degree in International Management from Whitworth University in Washington. She speaks English and Spanish fluently.

(Photo: latino.com)

(Photo: latino.com)

Graciela is the Founder of niche publishing, marketing and communications firm, Gracefully Global Group, LLC. She is the author of the award-winning book Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them, which highlights Hispanic entrepreneurs innovating in the green economy. In between military service and entrepreneurship, she spent nine years in global marketing roles at Siemens, where she applied her military career lessons in a global, multicultural, corporate environment. Her thought leadership pieces have published in the U.S. and Europe including American Careers, Huffington Post, Fox News, Hispanic MBACommunications News and many other publications.

Graciela is a sought-after speaker on entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, personal branding and the "STEM of Aviation." She speaks to a wide variety of audiences ranging from young children to corporate professionals and university students.  Graciela actively mentors students needing education and career roadmaps. LATINAStyle Magazine named her “Entrepreneur of the Year” in Washington D.C. and the Business and Professional Womens Foundation in D.C. honored her in 2014 with a National Business Women's Week Award.

Graciela4.jpg

Graciela is the author of an Amazon bestselling bilingual children's book titled Good Night Captain Mama/Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá, the first bilingual children's book about why mommies serve in the military. This ground-breaking book was honored at the American Library Association National Convention (2014 International Latino Book Awards) in the category of "Best Educational Children's Book - Bilingual." Since then, it's won awards in competitions among military writers, independent publishers and the prestigious Writers Digest Magazine (1st Place, Children's Picture Book.)

Captain Mama and her children will star in a bilingual aviation travel adventure series in the years to come; the second award-winning book in the series (Captain Mama's Surprise) published in summer 2016. It won First Place in the "Most Inspirational Children's Picture Book - Bilingual" category at the International Latino Book Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Read more about Graciela's work at CaptainMama.com

Helping Dreams Soar: The Team at Universal® Weather & Aviation, Inc. in Houston Gives It Their All!

by Jill Meyers

Last week I wrote about my own round-the-clock efforts to support Shaesta Waiz and the Dreams Soar team and mission, and how the reward far outweighs the fact of not being paid. This week I am writing a special tribute to our all-volunteer support team at Universal® Weather & Aviation, Inc. Why am I doing this? Because they are located in Houston, Texas. Yes, Houston. Their continued support to us (and other clients) during Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, is stunning and admirable beyond description. They are true examples of people who are so passionate about their work and so dedicated that they go to great extremes, with personal sacrifice, to fulfill their mission.

thumbnail_Ep6Photo1.jpg.png

Universal’s Aviation Weather department is an experienced team of aviation meteorologists who “predict and adapt to weather conditions impacting your missions.” They have an amazing team assigned to Dreams Soar, headed up by their manager, Jack (I am using all fake names to protect their privacy), who was a Meteorologist in the U.S. Air Force, and who runs this team with compassion and a great sense of humor. He calls their Dreams Soar team “The Women of Meteorology”! The team includes three Master Meteorologists: Kim and Tara, both military veterans with over 25 years of experience; and Leah, with 18 years of experience. We also have two Senior Meteorologists: Alison, who also holds a dispatch license and specializes in weather flight following; and Wendy, newer in her career but a real role model for young women hoping to move into the science of Meteorology. 

Universal provides Shaesta a weather report prior to departure, with information that helps her make go/no-go decisions. When Shaesta is enroute, they do “flight following”, meaning they follow Shaesta’s flight plan and provide her real-time weather data - information that helps her make the best decisions on things like avoiding storms or minimizing turbulence. The Universal team and I are able to exchange messages and pictures with Shaesta using a private and secure onboard system. We usually have two people from Universal working each flight. In addition to exchanging weather information, we try to have fun too! Sometimes we play “Marco Polo”, a game I loved playing in our backyard pool as a kid. Alison or Tara will type “Marco”, and Shaesta will provide her exact position from her flight computer, and I’ll take a screenshot from a map-based tracking system I use and post it with the reply “Polo”! And sometimes Universal will provide a satellite or infrared photo that looks like this:  

Sample weather photo (Photo: Universal)

Sample weather photo (Photo: Universal)

The Universal team provides all of this support on a volunteer basis, day and night. Some of them work from home after their normal work shift ends, and some will drive into the office in the middle of the night to get online. Then, Hurricane Harvey came, during a time in August when Shaesta was scheduled to fly every other day, hopping across the South Pacific with questionable weather conditions. When I learned of Harvey’s path heading to Houston, I immediately contacted Jack, who assured me that Wendy, Alison, Tara, Kim and Leah would all be available as needed, even if they were stuck at work or stranded at home. My emotions bounced between shock and gratitude. The day after the hurricane devastated Houston, I texted Jack to see how he was doing. He replied by telling me he and his wife and dogs had to be rescued from their home by boat, and then he sent me photos of his neighborhood that brought tears to my eyes. He later told me that Leah’s home was also under water, and that she stayed at work to be online with Shaesta, while her husband dealt with the flooding until she got off shift.

Shaesta and I were so grateful for their continued support over this difficult time, and we reminded them of this during every flight. Wendy and the others would reply by simply saying how much they love what they do, and that they were just happy to be a part of our mission to inspire the next generation. It touched our hearts, and still does.  

The cleanup in Houston continues and Jack tells me it will take a year to rebuild his home. Leah and her husband are in a similar position. Luckily, the others on our Universal Dreams Soar team had no catastrophic losses. Throughout the past two weeks, we have witnessed this incredibly dedicated group of people giving support to Shaesta during a time when they had serious issues to deal with at home. They made this decision out of compassion for us, love of their own work, and dedication to supporting their customers no matter what the situation. It takes a very special kind of person to do this, and we are forever thankful. To the team at Universal, your devotion and altruism made moments like this one below possible. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Shaesta in Nadi, Fiji (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta in Nadi, Fiji (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Helping Dreams Soar: The Joy I Get From This Journey Beats Any Paycheck!

by Jill Meyers

When I first contacted the Dreams Soar organization back in March, I asked Lyndse Costabile, the Chair of their Board of Directors, if they needed help connecting to Women in Aviation International (WAI) chapters around the globe, to inquire about collaborating on planning the Outreach events. I really expected to just send a few emails and make a few calls to contacts I had from being a WAI Chapter President since 2012. Little did I know that this would turn into me supporting Dreams Soar 24/7 on a volunteer basis, quitting my job in the process to support Shaesta Waiz and the organization full time. I thought I’d write a bit about what it’s like giving every ounce of yourself to something you are passionate about, even when you are not getting paid.

 As the person handling Shaesta’s outreach events and logistics, it requires me to be available all day and all night to support needs in almost every time zone around the world. In the early months, I needed to be up in the morning to support Shaesta while she was in Canada and then in Europe. At the same time, I was on conference calls with our planning teams in places like Dubai, Singapore and New Caledonia, which often had me on calls very late at night. And then my phone would ring at 2:00 or 3:00 am, when folks overseas forgot to pull up a time zone chart to see what time it was here in California! And once they called, I really couldn’t be rude and say “I’ll call you back when I’m awake”, because by then, their business day is over and they are asleep! So I’d crawl into bed around 4:00 am, until around 5:00 am, when Lyndse and the Dream Soar folks on the East coast would get up and start texting me. I was never one to keep my mobile phone on my nightstand, as I always figured “no call in the middle of the night can be that important”. But as soon as Shaesta departed on May 13th, my watch with the Indiglo night light went into the drawer, and my iPhone took its place, with the ringer and text volumes turned up loud.

Shaesta on the day of her departure (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta on the day of her departure (Photo: Jill Meyers)

An interesting phenomenon started to happen in June after Shaesta crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in Europe. It was as if my body clock knew it had to align with hers. One of the Board members said to me one day, “You pretty much have to be up when Shaesta’s up, right? No matter where she is?” and I replied “Yes!". I started naturally waking up when she did without setting my alarm or I would set my alarm for the time I knew Shaesta would be heading to the airport in Athens or Bahrain and wake up right before it went off. But here’s the surprise: I have been getting very little sleep since May, often in 2-4 hour bursts, yet I have a lot of energy and am not really that tired, and I don’t mind sharing the fact that I am in my mid-50s, so it’s not like I’m “twentysomething” and used to lack of sleep.

People often tell me that they are amazed and impressed and even astonished by the fact that I left a high-paying job to do this full time for the duration of Shaesta’s global flight. From the day I started supporting Dreams Soar full time to the day that Shaesta will land in Daytona Beach, I will have been doing this for six months. Yes, it’s been challenging to give up a paycheck as I am not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I respond to people by saying that this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and that I am having the time of my life!

Supporting Shaesta and this team and seeing the looks on the faces of the young people that Shaesta has inspired fills my heart with love and hope for the future. Knowing that I am part of this team that is helping underprivileged kids understand that they can let their dreams soar is an incredible feeling and you just can’t put a price tag on that.

Young women in Kabul, Afghanistan listening to Shaesta's speech (Photo: UNDP Afghanistan)

Young women in Kabul, Afghanistan listening to Shaesta's speech (Photo: UNDP Afghanistan)

Shaesta with girls at an orphanage in Mumbai, India (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with girls at an orphanage in Mumbai, India (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Helping Dreams Soar: Every cloud has a silver lining!

by Jill Meyers

I have been managing projects and programs of all shapes and sizes for 25 years. I worked hard and studied hard to qualify for and obtain my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification 10 years ago, and have stayed current all these years by continuing my professional education and training in Project Management. I have an Aerospace Engineering degree from a top university with a specialty in Astronautical Engineering and do consider myself fairly intelligent most of the time. But nothing prepared me for the very challenging task of . . . Managing Shaesta’s Schedule. I learned an important lesson early on in my career, which has done me well during my support to Dreams Soar, which is: Always Look for the Silver Lining. It allows you to overcome challenges with more ease and less stress! Let me share some examples.

In addition to being the Outreach Coordinator for Dreams Soar, I also manage Shaesta’s schedule and handle the logistics for her journey. Our flight planning partner, HADID International Services, handles things like permits and route planning overseas, but I do the rest. I coordinate with the local civil aviation authorities and Fixed Base Operators (FBO) regarding ground support. I ensure hotel and transportation and meals are provided, along with seeking out donors to help offset the cost to our all-volunteer non-profit organization. All of this is fairly straight forward until something unexpected happens. 

In the early part of our Global Flight for STEM in late May and early June, Shaesta experienced weather delays in the Northern Atlantic region and was stuck in Canada for longer than we anticipated. We were on a “day-for-day schedule slip”, as PMP-certified people call it, making go/no-go decisions daily. Back then we had 32 stops ahead of us and about 20 of them had Outreach event planning going on. I spent a lot of time on the phone and emailing people all over the globe, shifting the schedule around and trying to keep everyone happy. Not an easy task! There were times when I was fearful of people being really upset, but for the most part, everyone was very supportive and willing to roll with our schedule changes, as they were also passionate about our mission and anxious for Shaesta to arrive.

 One truly difficult week occurred when the site leads in the Middle East contacted me after seeing my new schedule. They all said “Jill, you cannot have Shaesta come during that time. It’s during our Eid holiday and no one will be here! We all go on vacation after Ramadan!” The guidance I was given was to delay Shaesta’s arrival into Cairo, Egypt until early July. I had to work with Shaesta and our team to figure out a new plan, to balance out the fact that we had to extend our entire Global mission by several weeks. So what was the Silver Lining here? We were able to fly Shaesta to London on a commercial flight (we had previously removed the U.K. from our route), and she had three days of amazing Outreach events there. And, we were able to add Athens, Greece to our schedule, where Shaesta met with aviation students and visited children in an orphanage, giving them hope for their future. These events would not have been possible if we had stayed on schedule!

Shaesta with a group of kids at the Athens International Airport. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with a group of kids at the Athens International Airport. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Another crazy time was during the monsoon season in India, which we were up against because of prior delays pushing our schedule out. We had to remove three locations from our route and look for a more southerly path for Shaesta to fly from Dubai to Singapore. We spent days looking for airports that carried the fuel used in a Bonanza A36, called Avgas. It turns out that hardly anyone in that part of world carries Avgas, nor will anyone ship it there, so it was a real challenge. We finally figured it out and had our new route planned, and I was so relieved! The next day Shaesta and I were messaging back and forth with our weather team, and Shaesta sent this simple question to them: “Did you see the SIGMET about the volcanic ash over my destination airport?” WHAT? All I could think of is “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!” Yes, it was true. Mount Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia had erupted, spewing lava and ash for almost three miles up into the air. So we took a breath and started over, looking for yet another alternate airport, which we did find in Thailand. Was there a silver lining here? Other than the satisfaction that we did figure it out after being very fearful that we were out of options, I was able to find a very cool aviation-themed hotel for Shaesta to stay in at that stop, the Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport.

The Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport hotel. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

The Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport hotel. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

 So remember….. Always Look for the Silver Lining! It might be hard to find, but it’s there.

Helping Dreams Soar: Collaboration Builds Community

by Jill Meyers

Our Dreams Soar outreach program would not be successful without the art and skill of networking and collaborating with our incredibly strong community of women in aviation around the world. The relationship we've built contributed to our success so far in connecting Dreams Soar with our WAI community.

Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter. (Photo: Altitudes Arabia Magazine)

Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter. (Photo: Altitudes Arabia Magazine)

Two of our most successful events so far have been in Dubai, UAE and Mumbai, India and I'd like to talk about them. During the planning phase of the Dubai events, I contacted Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter, who I had met at the 2015 WAI Conference. While we'd talked only briefly at that time, when I contacted her a few months ago to ask for help with Dreams Soar’s outreach, she jumped in with a passion. Mervat and her team planned both of the main outreach events during Shaesta’s time in Dubai. I was fortunate to be able to attend, along with Lyndse Costabile, Dreams Soar's Board of Directors Chairwoman. 

One of the outreach events in Dubai was held at the Sketch Art Café, located inside the Mattar Bin Lahej Gallery. Maryam Al Balooshi, a very accomplished calligraphy artist and member of WAI, connected us to the artist and gallery owner, who hosted the event. Shaesta told her inspiring story to a group of over 30 women (and a few men!). We also had a private tour of the gallery and spent time networking among the Dreams Soar team, WAI Middle East Chapter members, media representatives, and a few young women aspiring to get into aviation.

Joining us at that Dubai event was Fadimatou (Fadi) Noutchemo Simo, President of WAI Cameroon, and two of her colleagues, who flew all the way from Africa!  I received a text message from Fadi several weeks before the event, telling me that, although she and Shaesta had chatted by phone, they had never met in person and she wanted to be in Dubai to support Dreams Soar’s efforts. We were very excited that Fadi and her associates traveled so far to join us on our journey. It was a very special event for us all! 

The outreach event in Mumbai was just as successful as Dubai. In preparation for it, I'd spent many weeks in collaboration with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter, and her team and the end result was a well-attended event with a large audience who was captivated by Shaesta's story and her thoughts on STEM education. They also enjoyed presentations by Dr. Shefali Juneja, Director of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Kiran Jain, Commercial Director of Air Asia India, both of whom are founding members of WAI India. 

Shaesta, Maryam Al Balooshi and Shaima Alkamali (WAI Middle East Chapter) and Fadi Noutchemo Simo (WAI Cameroon Chapter). (Photo: Falcon View Films)

Shaesta, Maryam Al Balooshi and Shaima Alkamali (WAI Middle East Chapter) and Fadi Noutchemo Simo (WAI Cameroon Chapter). (Photo: Falcon View Films)

Shaesta with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

One of the great benefits of connecting with these amazing women in Dubai and Mumbai is that they were able to help coordinate and sponsor much of the support we needed for Shaesta’s visit, including airport ground support, hotels, and transportation.  The team in Mumbai even put together a special celebration for Shaesta’s 30th birthday! The generosity of these women and their respective organizations went beyond our expectations as an all-volunteer non-profit organization.

If you're considering whether or not to attend a professional conference, whether it’s WAI or the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) or the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), or any other, think about how networking at these events might further your passion in years to come.

Learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

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!