Women’s Airforce Service Pilots visit for brown bag luncheon

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stacy Sanchez
  • 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In honor of Women's History Month, Edwards held a brown bag luncheon March 27 at the Conference Center here for five members of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots program. 

Flora Belle Reece, Ty Killen, Pearl Judd, Jean McCart and Betty Jane "BJ" Williams were all present at the event to share some of their experiences as WASP members during World War II. 

In 1939, with the shortage of male combat pilots and warplanes, female pilots named Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the Armed Forces Division encouraging the use of women pilots in the Armed Forces. 

Military leaders remembered Love's proposal and hired her to find 25 of the most qualified women pilots in the country to ferry military aircraft. These women pilots were called the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS. In August 1943, after Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold approved another program to allow other female ferry pilots, the name of the organization was changed to WASP. 

At the luncheon, Ms. Reece said she still remembers when she joined the WASP in 1938. 

"I became a utility pilot who flew officers where they need to go during World War II," she said. "I enjoyed every minute of that war. I enjoyed anytime I was in the air." 

When Ms. McCart read in the paper that the Airforce was recruiting pilots, she jumped at the opportunity. Back then, women in the military only performed non-flying duties such as secretaries, bookkeepers and nurses. 

"I was so gung-ho about joining," Ms. McCart said. "My friend and I both joined immediately." 

Ms. McCart said she was fortunate enough to get several opportunities to fly outside the continental United States. 

Ms. Killen was 19 when she received a telegram about the WASP program. She wasted no time and applied on the spot. She was then interviewed at Jackie Cochran's headquarters at the Pentagon and was accepted immediately.

Ms. Killen was one of the 25,000 women who left their homes to join the men fighting during World War II by becoming a pilot for the Army Air Corps at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. 

"I flew AT-6s, AT-11s and BT-13s with missions that included two- and four-hour missions, six nights a week, with several other bombardier missions," Ms. Killen said. "These are experiences I will cherish with me forever, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world." 

Ms. Judd said her most memorable experiences as a WASP was her first day in Sweetwater. 

She said she remembers what the bus looked like when they were picked up and what their room looked like. 

"We walked to our room and were told to throw our gear and line up," Ms. Judd said. "There were seven cots, seven chairs, seven desks and seven sets of wardrobes. 

This room was built to house only two male cadets, she said. 

So to have seven sets of everything kept the room tight. About 14 other females also needed to share a four-person bathroom. 

"But I still wouldn't change those memories for anything," Ms. Judd said. 

Ms. Williams, who grew up in Pennsylvania, realized she wanted to become a pilot at an early age. 

"I told my father that one day, there could be a terrible accident and the only way to save that person's life is to get to the hospital immediately," she said. "I wanted to be the person who got them there." 

When she graduated from Sweetwater, she was sent to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas where she became an emergency engineering test pilot along with eight other men and one female. 

She said one flight she remembers the most is on an AT-6. 

Ms. Williams said for some reason none of the eight men she worked with would fly it. They all refused to. 

This one plane was in one accident after the next, but her crew chief ordered that someone had to fly it. 

"I took on the challenge to test fly it, and I remember one of the male pilots asking me 'what kind of flowers would you like,'" Ms. Williams said. "So I did my research about this crazy aircraft that had caused so many problems, and I took it up for a test fly. After I test drove it, I remember coming back down and telling my crew chief, 'that was a sick aircraft,' but was glad I took the challenge to fly it when no one else would." 

Before the luncheon, Lt. Col. Kerry Beaghan, deputy director for the 95th Mission Support Group, escorted the members of WASP around Edwards. 

"The five ladies were amazing," Colonel Beaghan said. "They are extremely active, engaged in the world around them and passionate about flying." 

Colonel Beaghan said the five WASP members got the chance to see the F-22. 

"They were like kids in a candy store," Colonel Beaghan said. "They wanted to get up and see the cockpit, which they did, and they were thrilled at seeing the next-generation aircraft." 

Colonel Beaghan felt it was particularly appropriate for them to visit Edwards. 

"They were pioneers in doing what they did as pilots," Colonel Beaghan said. "Women flying military aircraft and events that have been happening and still happen today at Edwards are typically pioneering feats in the aerospace realm." 

The ladies were thrilled with the welcome from the base and pleased with the enthusiasm with which they were received, Colonel Beaghan said. 

"I believe they felt extremely appreciated, as it should be," she said. "They got to tell their story everywhere they went, and the pride in their voices was priceless."