Betty Gillies WAFS Pilot
The Days and Flights of a World War II Squadron Leader
By Sarah Byrn Rickman, from Flight to Destiny Press
Release date: October 15, 2020
The sun creased the horizon.
Suspended in the bubble-enclosed cockpit of the twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, the pilot pressed her toes hard against the brakes. The aircraft trembled, ready to fly.
Eyes focused on the instrument panel, she watched the dials and gauges that would tell her when the engines reached takeoff power.
“It was still dark and smoggy—a typical morning in Long Beach with dense, low-hanging clouds. I couldn’t see very well, but when the control tower said ‘go,’ I went.”
She lifted her toes from the brakes and shoved the throttles to full power, “pouring the coals” to the engines. The surge held her against the seat as the Lightning’s wheels rolled faster, faster, faster, gaining momentum. The wind caught beneath the wings and lifted the silver aircraft from the runway. A swirling brown murk engulfed the plane. The ground vanished.
Now flying blind, she kept her eyes on the instruments in front of her. Her left hand on the throttles, her right hand held the controls that determined the aircraft’s upward movement. The silver plane climbed through the darkness.
“At nine hundred feet, the airplane burst through into a cloudless blue sky. The sun’s rays hit my silver wings and turned them to gold. I wanted to pull something and stop right there in the air.
“Below was fog and black stuff. Directly in front of me were these two snow-covered peaks, well over ten thousand feet, the sun coming up through the pass between them.
“And above it all was this sleek airplane, flying on wings of gold.”
The woman pilot flying that aircraft was Betty Huyler Gillies.
I Wanted to Write Betty’s Story
Betty: P-47 cockpit. — Photo courtesy International Women’s Air and Space Museum
Since I first learned about Betty Gillies and her role as Nancy Love’s second-in-command during the WAFS/WASP days of World War II, I’ve wanted to write about her.
Early in 2018, I emailed Betty’s granddaughter, Glen, and told her of my interest in writing Betty’s WWII story. I explained that I was the author of several books about the original WAFS, written for an adult audience, but that my last two books had been aimed instead at girls grades six to eight. Could we talk?
She and her father, Betty’s son Pete Gillies, were willing to meet with me and discuss my telling Betty’s WWII story. I went to work on yet a third book written to appeal to today’s young women, but I broadened the range. My aim now is age 12 on up to adult readers. In writing for today’s young women I hope, also, to reach their sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers.
Women Who ‘Look to the Stars’
Now, I write for all women who, like the WAFS and WASP of WWII before them, dare to “look to the stars.”
The women pilots of WWII offer inspiration for today’s young women. Girls who are searching, struggling in those middle school and early high school years, might like to read about these women of accomplishment … in unusual fields. Flying military aircraft, after all, is far afield of what is normally thought of as woman’s work!!!
The world has changed. We need to exercise the art of the possible.
Today, we encourage girls to explore STEM — education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. All those fields relate to aviation. An added enticement, those 1940s pilots were attractive, accomplished young women of their time. Yes, role models.
Betty was totally on board with Nancy Love’s determination to offer her women ferry pilots the same option enjoyed by male pilots. That was the opportunity to check out on any aircraft they could prove themselves capable of flying. No restrictions because of gender. And the men of the Ferrying Division came around to Nancy’s way of thinking.
Living Proof, Women Fly
Already, Betty was living proof that it could be done. She flew many types of aircraft before joining the WAFS. Once in a position to ferry army planes, she again flew anything she could get her hands on, from the smallest to the largest of aircraft.
She picked up her first P-61 Black Widow — the Army’s newest twin-engine night fighter — in Sacramento. With only one overnight stop enroute, she flew it across the continent to the docks at Newark, New Jersey. There, the P-61 immediately was loaded aboard a Liberty ship and sent to England and the war. That Black Widow sported two 2800-horsepower engines and had a fuel capacity of 646 gallons.
Then Betty caught the night train back to base.
The next morning, an order came to move a Piper Cub liaison plane from Richmond, Virginia, to Reading, Pennsylvania. Having just reported back to base, Betty was the only woman on base not already on assignment. The job was hers. She caught the train to Richmond and picked up the Cub.
Consider the Contrast in Those Missions
Betty had just flown the Army’s newest, best and brightest — the P-61. Now she flew the much used and abused, 60-horsepower, single-engine Cub with an 11-gallon fuel tank to Reading where it would be sold as war surplus.
Consider the contrast in those two back-to-back missions.
What, if any, was the urgency of the Cub flight? What difference, if any, did it make if the Cub was delivered today or tomorrow considering its fate? But in the Army, orders were orders.
Betty wrote in her diary that night: “Gee, I have fun. Sounds like a lot of trouble, but I enjoy it!”
That Notation Was Pure Betty!
Such was the life of a pilot flying for the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command in WWII. And that just scratches the surface of what this woman pilot, the subject of my latest book, did.
Please read Betty Gillies WAFS Pilot: The Days and Flights of a World War II Squadron Commander. From Flight to Destiny Press. Available October 15 on Amazon as well as on Kindle.
And, please, ask your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and their friends to give it a read as well!
From Sarah: “Thanks for reading my Blog!”