Taking Flight

champ_picture_4November 13, 2009 — Friday the 13th — was not the day it all began, but it was the day I soloed.

Solo. A simple four-letter word. A four-letter word of such magnitude — and so long coming. A lotta takeoffs, a lotta landings, and a whole bunch of stalls for good measure. The ones I performed in the air AND the ones I encountered on the ground when life got in the way of my pursuit of my Sport Pilot license.

Truth: it all began when, at age 13, I read about Amelia Earhart — the world famous lost aviatrix. But the desire to fly, to follow Amelia into the wild blue but NOT into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, got put on hold for many years while life occurred.

The spark was lit again when I met my first WASP, and then another and yet another, and then many. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, the women who flew for the US Army in World War II. It is because of them, because of their profound influence on me over the last 22 years, that I took flight and stayed with it. I earned my license on July 1, 2011. My biggest cheerleaders were my 90-year-old WASP friends who had done the same so very many years ago.

40495_144115335618321_144096568953531_312944_6882691_nI know the WASP. I am friends with many WASP. I travel with the WASP to aviation events. I am, to some degree, a combined escort and mascot. I write about them. I edit their newsletter. I do oral history interviews with them. I have written numerous magazine articles about them. I have written seven books about them — four of them published to date.

So, being a modern woman, I am going to try blogging about the WASP in an attempt to better acquaint a still non-believing / unbelieving world about what these women really did way back in 1942-44. Their story is a remarkable as well as many-faceted one. Stay tuned.First post


Nancy Batson Crews: Alabama’s First Lady of Flight

Bookcover: Nancy Batson Crews

… the story of an uncommon woman:

  • high school cheerleader
  • campus queen
  • airplane pilot
  • wife
  • mother
  • politician
  • businesswoman

Born in 1960, right? Just in time to benefit from the Women’s Movement.

Wrong! Born in 1920. As a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), she flew airplanes for the U.S. Army in World War II.

Nancy began her aviation career in 1939 — one of five young women chosen for civilian pilot training at The University of Alabama.

She became the 20th woman of 28 to qualify for the FIRST WASP squadron employed during World War II. The women shuttled top-priority P-38, P-47, and P-51 high-performance aircraft from the factories to staging areas.

After the war Crews raised a family then returned to aviation when in her forties. She flight instructed, flew in air races, towed and also flew gliders, and owned her own flight service business in California. Returning to Alabama, she flew as copilot in a corporate turbo jet at age 80, and finally returned to her airplane of choice, the J-3 Cub.

An excerpt from Nancy Batson Crews, Chapter One:

The same Tuesday in November 1944 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his unprecedented fourth term as president of the United States, Nancy Elizabeth Batson of Birmingham, Alabama, tried to crowd FDR off the front page of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, daily newspapers. She would just as soon have skipped the whole affair; she would have much preferred a quiet, uneventful delivery of her airplane to Newark, New Jersey, without all the fuss.

Nancy was a ferry pilot with the women’s squadron, 2nd Ferrying Group, Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, and she had orders to take a plane–destined for combat in Europe–from the Lockheed factory near Long Beach, California, to the docks at Newark.

“I picked up this brand-new, shiny P-38 in California and took off cross-country, made my last stop in Pittsburgh to refuel, and headed for Newark. About twenty minutes out of Pittsburgh, I noticed that the two engine coolant needles were oscillating–moving back and forth erratically instead of holding steady.”

Too many P-38s already had lost engines. That was one of those vagaries for which the sleek, twin-engine Lightning was known. A lost engine on takeoff had killed fellow woman ferry pilot Evelyn Sharp the previous spring. Nancy knew that all too well. She had accompanied Evelyn’s body home to Nebraska for the funeral.

No sense taking unnecessary chances. Nancy decided to return to the airport and let a mechanic check it out.

“I turned back to Pittsburgh, called the tower to get permission to land, and was cleared for a straight-in approach. I reached down, activated the landing gear handle, and listened for the hum of the wheels descending into the down and locked position. But the lights on the instrument panel showed that the nosewheel was not down and locked. The lights are in a triangle. The two at the bottom showed green, meaning that the main gear was down, but the nosewheel light was red. That meant it wasn’t down and locked.

“Now the P-38 has these aluminum reflectors on the side of the two engine nacelles and they acted as mirrors–so the pilot can check and see if the nosewheel is in the down and locked position. This nosewheel was just hanging there.

“I called the tower and advised them of my situation.

“They asked me to do a fly-by–low–and raise my left wing so that they could see for sure that the nosewheel wasn’t in the landing position.

“I did the fly-by and they looked and they determined that no, it wasn’t locked in place. By then the coolant needles seemed to have stabilized. So I flew out away from the airport and away from traffic. I was going to try to pump the wheel down manually.

“The hydraulic pump, called a wobble pump, was there for the pilot to use to do exactly what I had to do, pump the faulty nose gear down by hand. Well, I started pumping. Then I stopped and looked out at the mirrors. That wheel hadn’t moved. So I pumped some more. Nothing!

“The tower called periodically and asked, `how are you doing?’

“I told them, `I’m still flyin’ over Pittsburgh and still pumpin’ and I still have a red light.'”

Every airplane within earshot of the Pittsburgh radio frequency heard the exchange between Nancy and the tower. A woman–particularly one with a Southern accent–flying around in a P-38 wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.

“I tried climbing to eight thousand feet and diving the airplane, to see if centrifugal force would push it down. I did that several times. It didn’t work.”

Nancy had one more tool in her flight kit. Under the pilot’s seat in the P-38 was a button connected to a CO2 cartridge–there to aid a combat pilot trying to land a shot-up airplane with both a damaged hydraulics system and a useless wobble pump. The cartridge could be exploded as a last resort to force the nosewheel down.

“At the factory, they told us very emphatically not to use the CO2 cartridge because it might damage the landing gear. They told us that it was there to save some combat pilot’s life.”

Nancy figured the pilot whose life might need saving was the one currently flying the airplane. She wasn’t flying combat, but she very definitely had a life-threatening situation.

“I could see that what I was doing wasn’t working. I was all pumped out and by now the needle on the fuel gauge was telling me that I was getting low on gas. Now, I was going to have to do what I call creative flying. As a last resort, I decided to shoot off that CO2 cartridge. I climbed back up to eight thousand and dove the P-38 one more time, horsed back on the controls, pulled up sharply, pumped the manual pump, reached under the seat, and fired the cartridge.

“When the smoke cleared, there they were–three green lights! Then I looked down at the aluminum mirrors on the nacelles and that nosewheel was down and locked, just like it was supposed to be!”

“I was cleared for a straight-in approach and I greased it! I put that sick airplane in the proper landing attitude and touched down on the main wheels. Then I held that back pressure on the stick–back, back, back, all the way into my stomach–and kept that nosewheel up as long as possible. Then finally I let it touch down and did the roll out. I was pleased!

“As I was rolling down the runway, out of the corner of my eye on my left I noticed this Jeep running alongside, and this guy signaling me to stop. I thought, oh my golly, NOW what have I done?

“So I stopped. This guy jumps up on my wing. I push back the canopy. `G-g-get out, I’ll taxi it in.’ He was kind of wild-eyed and nervous.

“I said, `Well, no. I’ll do it. I’ll taxi it in.’ I wasn’t fixin’ to get out at that point.

“When he got off the wing, I looked over my left shoulder and here came a couple of fire engines, an ambulance, several Jeeps–a whole line of vehicles, all following me.

“I taxied it on in, stopped, and cut the switch. Now here was a line of people waitin’ for me–photographers, Red Cross ladies who said, `we’ve been prayin’ for you, honey,’ airport officials, and lots of other people. That’s when they took that picture that ran on the front page of the Pittsburgh paper the next morning–along with the news that Roosevelt had been reelected.


Flight from Fear

Bookcover: Flight from Fear

A World War II adventure/romance
by Sarah Byrn Rickman

It’s been a year since the U.S. joined the fight, but World War II is not going well for the Allies. Lacy Stearns’ pilot husband, John, has been killed in the crash of his B-24 in England. Now Lacy has one burning desire — to fly for her country in her husband’s place.

Swallowing the fear that turns her stomach to jelly when she sets foot in an airplane, Lacy earns her private pilot’s license, is accepted into the WASP program in Sweetwater, Texas, and learns to fly “the Army way.” She is assigned to ferry Army airplanes around the U.S.

New friends she meets along the way help her begin to live beyond John’s loss and teach her how to survive. But the war is far from over, and fate still has other obstacles for Lacy to overcome.

Flight from Fear (fiction, from Disc-Us Books, Inc, 2002) was a Finalist in the Original Softcover Category of the 2003 WILLA Literary Competition, sponsored by Women Writing the West.

This book is available for purchase directly from the author.
Email Sarah to request information on how to order your copy today!

Also available from other sellers via Amazon.com.

An excerpt from Flight From Fear, Chapter 24:

When it came, she knew instantly what it was — that small but distinct metallic rip she first heard on the training flight at Avenger Field when she and Cin lost their airplane. But it was louder this time because she was sitting in the front nearer what she was certain was the source of trouble and the sound wasn’t distorted by her lack of visual and aural orientation under the black cotton hood.

Lacy looked down at the instrument panel again. The first dial she checked was the cylinder head temperature. She didn’t have to look any further. The needle was rising. Dreading what she would see, she raised her head to look out. Sure enough, a jet of slick black oil was pulsing onto the front of her canopy.

“Oil line rupture,” — Lacy breathed into her microphone. Her throat was constricted and she could barely get the words out.

The smear of oil shut off her forward visibility. Then the big, four hundred fifty horsepower engine — deprived of its lubricant — seized up, coughed like a dying man, and quit. Lacy, an awful sinking feeling in her stomach, knew instantly she had only minutes to find a place to land. Remembering the instructions in the Flight Manual as well as Shorty’s and her other instructors’ warnings, she reached over and turned off the gas and the ignition and lowered the nose of the airplane.

“We’ve got to bail.” Cin’s voice, through the earphones, contained the same element of terror Lacy felt. Cin opened her canopy. A rush of cold air filled the airplane. “Now, Lacy!”

Lacy remembered Jacqueline Cochran’s words as if she had heard them just yesterday. “If you two had been more experienced pilots, you might have been able to land in a field.”

“No! I’m going to try to land it.” She’d be damned if she’d lose a second airplane the same way without a fight.

“You’re crazy!” Cin shouted.

“We could be killed jumping into those rocks.” — Lacy fought to keep reason in her voice.

“We crash, we die. I’ll take my chances,” was Cin’s response.

The silent, powerless BT-13 has begun its gliding descent. Lacy checked again to be sure she had established the optimum angle so that it would descend slowly, but not so slowly as to stall and kick over into a spin that would mean certain death for both of them. But, ultimately, it had nowhere to go but down.

She has two choices. Jump, while she is still high enough for her chute to open, or make a deadstick landing. Right now, looking frantically out the sides of the airplane, she could see no possible place to put it down.

“I’m bailing, Lacy. I’d advise you to follow me.”

Lacy felt the plane tilt slightly to the left, and looked back to see that Cin had one leg over the side.

“Cin, don’t.”

Cin dropped her headphones on the seat and disappeared over the side.

“Wait!” Lacy’s frantic cry echoed in the emptiness of the rarefied air. Out of the corner of her eye, moments later, she saw Cin’s chute open and hold her, suspended, as she floated downward toward some of the sharpest rock spires Lacy has ever seen.


The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II

Bookcover: The Originals

Who were The Originals?

  • Experienced women pilots – the first to fly for the U.S. military
  • 28 women who dared to challenge 1940s barriers of gender, politics and bureaucracy
  • Farm girls, socialites, daughters of working families, college graduates; from 15 different states; married and single; three with young children
  • Young women – ages 21 to 35
  • Three of them died serving their country
  • World War II heroines with “the Right Stuff”

The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II, by Sarah Byrn Rickman (non-fiction — from Disc-Us Books 2001), is the story of the WAFS, the first 28 women to fly for the U.S. Army in World War II.

Based on personal interviews with the nine who were still alive as of 2000, on papers and diaries, and on interviews and correspondence with descendants and others who knew them. This book tells the story of the WAFS, who they were, how they are different from the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and how they ultimately became part of the WASPs. A must reference book for libraries in aviation communities, but it reads like a novel.

The Originals is available for purchase directly from the author.
Email Sarah to request information on how to order your copy today!

Also available from other sellers via Amazon.com.

An excerpt from The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II, Chapter Nine:

On October 22, 1942, six WAFS were assigned to deliver six L4-B’s, or Cubs, from the Piper factory in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to Mitchel Field on Long Island. Nancy Love appointed Betty Gillies flight leader. With her would be Fort, Rhonie, Clark, Scharr and James.

Their new gray-green wool uniforms — fitted by a tailor in Wilmington — had arrived, just in time for them to wear on the trip.

In 1942, the world was not used to seeing women in slacks. In fact, women in slacks were most often refused entrance into restaurants — something the WAFS contended with early on. The only answer to a snobbish maitre d’ was for a WAFS attired in trousers to accept the snub, be turned away, and hope for a more liberal policy elsewhere. The WAFS were not out trying to prove they could wear pants. They only wanted to prove they could fly.

On this, their first official outing, they wore the slacks under their flight coveralls and packed their skirts, their proper brown medium heeled shoes, and brown leather handbags with shoulder straps in their B-4 bags.

The six ferry pilots, anxious to shake the down from their wings and fly for real, boarded a Boeing twin-engine transport, piloted by none other than Col. Baker, for the short flight to Lockhaven. “Black Bob,” as they called him because of his black mustache, had taken pity on them and decided to send them off for their first trip by air — far preferable to spending four hours in a Pullman car and rising at five in the morning to get off the train in Lockhaven.

Even though the Piper factory employed numerous women, the arrival of women ferry pilots was a big deal. According to Teresa, “necks stretched and eyes popped. They couldn’t have stared any more had we been freaks from the circus side show.”

The six inspected their ships. They climbed in and prepared to take off. A twenty-five-mile-an-hour wind was blowing from the west, promising them a hefty tail wind all the way to Long Island.

“Those little four-cylinder go-carts actually leaped into the air,” Teresa remembers. “Clark had never flown such a light ship and we laughed when she said later, ‘Jeepers, I just couldn’t keep the thing on the ground.’

“We RONed in a hotel in Allentown, Pennsylvania — two to a room. We had been thoroughly trained and familiarized with how to fill out the necessary RON (Remain Over Night) forms, but that’s like making an “A” in geometry at school and trying to apply the knowledge when you need to build a fence later in life.

“Then we got a glimpse of ourselves in a full length mirror for the first time. BOQ 14 had no such luxury. We were horrified. The pants bagged in the seat and the legs were big enough for two. The tailor, used to measuring male legs and rumps, had mis-configured the trousers meant for a female form!”

As per Betty’s orders, they were up at sunrise the next morning.

Nancy had already warned them not to fly in formation like the men. Her instructions were, “Stay at least five hundred feet away from each other and anything else as well — and that includes clouds — and high enough over towns that you can deadstick outside them in case of emergency.”

Deadstick means no power. If the engine quits, the pilot needs to be high enough to, hopefully, spot an open space in which to land the little ship and then establish a glide path to get her there.

The night before when Betty talked to her husband, Bud, he had warned her that bombing practice was planned the following day in the area where they would be flying. All flying was ordered grounded during the bombing. So Betty wired Mitchel Field operations to let them know the WAFS were coming in with deliveries that morning and to call off the guns until they could get the planes safely on the ground.

“They were expecting us at the airport and every man who could leave his post was outside to watch us land. I can just imagine the remarks that flew right and left,” said Teresa. “‘Those dames! Why don’t they get smart and let the men run this Army.’ ‘Steady, men, we’ll probably see some high bouncing and modernized ground loops!’ ‘Line up, fellas, and protect the buildings.’

“Well, six little Cubs came in and made six perfect landings. We had made the trip in sixty-five minutes. Betty was pleased!”

Flight leader Gillies then signed over the planes to a thunder-faced officer, who told her — in no uncertain terms — that he needed them two months ago, not now.

“That’s not my problem,” she said, sweetly. “I’m merely following orders. You may speak to my commanding officer, Col. Robert Baker at New Castle Army Air Base, or call Col. Tunner himself at Ferrying Division headquarters.” She gave the man a big smile.

Considering the man’s rudeness, and knowing Betty, the others knew that her smile was delivered around clenched teeth. About then the phone rang. It was the telegram Betty had sent asking them to call off the bombing until the Cubs were safely in. Only it was a couple of hours late being delivered.

“Betty paled when she heard the news,” Teresa remembers. “But the Cubs were safely in, no thanks to either Western Union or Operations at Mitchel Field.