Part II: Teresa James, an ORIGINAL
Wind Singing in the Wires
Picking up where we left off last Friday…
Gradually, Teresa began to follow his movements and, soon, she thought she was simply moving the stick and rudders in concert with him. They would be back on the ground before she learned that, by then, she was flying the airplane. Harry had taken his feet and hands completely off the controls.
“That airplane had no airspeed indicator — your own ears and the singing of the wind in the wires told you how fast you were going. There was an oil gauge and an altimeter on what passed for an instrument panel. The fuel gauge was a wire on a bobber. The Travel Air had no brakes — I found that out when he had me land it. And no tail wheel, just a skid, which was fine because we were landing on grass. You had to learn how to taxi.”
She took a couple more lessons then, two weeks later, on August 3, Harry called her early.“He said it was a good morning to fly, so come on out. I had a total of four hours and twenty minutes in the air when, after two practice landings, Harry got out of the airplane, picked up the tail, turned it around, and told me to take it up — solo!”
Teresa James would remember the monumental implications of that moment ten years later when —once again — she sat, alone, on the runway, ready to make her first flight in the seven-ton, 2,000-horsepower single-seater, flying arsenal known as the P-47 Thunderbolt. But that’s another story. (See photo left.)
How Do I Stop This Thing?
Without Harry’s weight, the Travel Air literally jumped into the air as she ran it along the grass. By the first turn at Grand Boulevard, I was two hundred feet too high.
“By the second turn, over the house that was our landmark, I was four hundred feet too high. My legs were shakin’ on the rudder bar and I’m really praying. I’m prayin’ I’ll get back on the ground safe. I hadn’t been to Mass that mornin’ because Harry called me so early and I’m thinking, Blessed Mother, don’t desert me now. I’ll go to Mass every mornin’ I’m alive if you’ll only help me land this thing.
“When the wheels hit the grass, I tried to remember how Harry stopped the thing, but all I could remember was taxiing for a long time and then the tail skid settling into the grass and the airplane just kinda stoppin’ of it’s own accord. So that’s what I did. I let it roll. I was shaking so bad, I swore I’d never get back in an airplane again. But, of course, I did.
“A few weeks later, a flying circus came to town. And there was this stunt pilot who was trying to date me. He kept tellin’ me he wanted to get me up in an airplane and teach me all these maneuvers. Yeah, what kind of maneuvers, I wondered.
Me, a Stunt Pilot?
“I liked the sound of that. And there was Francis, again, telling me how Bill would be so proud of me, learning how to fly, and how if I could do all these fancy maneuvers, he’d be even more impressed. Remember, I was really in love with this guy Bill. But, of course, he had no idea I had this crush on him and he was off in Chicago.
“So I went up with this stunt flyer. We did a wing over and there I was hanging in my seatbelt in mid-air. The sky had disappeared and there was nothing but air between me and the ground. And I thought, stomach, stay with me now or somebody down below will get rained on. Then we did a hammerhead stall with the plane fallin’ back on its tail, and a loop and, once again, I wanted to grab for the sissy bars on the side of the cockpit. But then he had me try it and I began to get the hang of it. Damn if I wasn’t on my way to becoming a stunt pilot. I was already starting to add up all that money I was gonna make and we hadn’t even landed.”
26 Tailspins and a Series of Loops
And eighty-six-year-old Teresa James sitting across from me who, but for the gravel in her voice, sounds like she’s still nineteen, pauses and fixes me with those sprightly eyes of hers and laughs.
“Not long after that, we got word that Bill had gone and got married. I was devastated. He had no idea I had this crush on him. Breaks o’ the game.”
But by then, Teresa was doing stunts with the best of them — twenty-six tailspins followed by a series of loops in an OX-5 — though she claims that even when she had more than fifty hours in the air, she still was scared.
“That helped me later on when I began instructing ’cause I could relate to how the student felt, how scared he might be. I could always tell by their body language. I’d been there.”
Teresa James received Private License #31249 on October 12, 1934.
The world of flight was waiting for her on an 65-horsepower, single-engine platter. The war, the WAFS, and the events that would change her life were still eight years away.
(Right) Three Original WAFS — Florene Miller Watson, Teresa James Martin and Nancy Batson Crews — in June 1999. They are celebrating the conclusion of their first WAFS reunion since the women pilots were sent home in December 1944, before WWII was over. Nine were still alive in 1999 and six attended the reunion.