by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, August 26, 2020 9:33 AM
Photo credit: John Slemp
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I always wanted to fly.
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, not far from Offutt Air Force Base and even closer to the small Millard Municipal Airport, so there were always planes flying overhead. I couldn't help but look up each time one passed by. Birds always got me, too, with their wings open wide as they soared in the wind. I envied their view from above, the sensation of freedom. I knew I wanted to fly myself one day, but I didn't know any pilots or have any idea how to get started; I’d never even been on an airplane before. None of my friends shared my interest, so I didn’t talk about it much, just kept looking toward the big open sky hoping someday I'd make it into the air.
Things began to change my senior year of college. One of my history professors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Harold Smith, was an old crop-duster pilot. Upon discovering my passion for the air, he took me up in his small plane. It was my first flight in a small plane, and I fell even more in love with airplanes and the sky. Then, in an odd moment of chance, just before my graduation I got a job teaching history and government at the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I suddenly had to walk across a hangar full of airplanes to get to my classroom every day. My students were all training to be pilots. My coworkers were all pilots and mechanics. I paused my lectures when a plane taxied loudly past my classroom door. I "sandbagged" with new friends, riding in the back of the little four-seater Cessna 172s while they trained. I loved the smells, the sounds, and the people. I was in heaven.
One sunny June day, about a year after I'd started working, I decided to head up the road to Bartlesville, where the Biplane Expo was being held. I couldn't get any of my friends to go with me, so I went by myself. It was fabulous. I admired the planes — most of them historic — chatted with pilots, and generally enjoyed myself. Towards the end of the day, as I wandered slowly toward the exit, one of the pilots who had performed earlier in the day pointed out Curtis Pitts, the man who had designed the legendary aerobatic plane in the late 1940s, and he encouraged me to go introduce myself. As I was alone and in no hurry to head home, I did.
Unsure of what to say, I stumbled over myself and essentially told him he had built a neat airplane. Very sophisticated, I am sure. But Curtis was a lovely, kind man, and as we chatted he introduced me to the smiling older woman at his side. "This is Caro Bayley Bosca," he said. "She won the 1951 National Aerobatic Championship in my second plane." I was stunned. By this point, I knew hundreds of pilots, and all but a small handful were men. I knew all about Amelia Earhart, of course — everyone did — but my knowledge of women in aviation ended with her. I was shocked to learn that women had been flying — and competing — in the 1950s, but here were Caro and Curtis, telling me about how women pilots raced their planes across the country and performed aerobatic maneuvers in front of crowds. I absorbed it like a sponge until finally, worrying I was keeping them too long, I asked if they would indulge me in a photo with them before I left. They happily agreed and we walked over to get a shot with planes behind.
Women pilots in World War II? What?! Did I hear that right?
One sunny day in June 1993, the author walked up to meet famed aircraft designer Curtis Pitts at an airshow and he introduced her to WASP Caro Bayley Bosca. This moment began the journey that led to a lifetime of study and The Women With Silver Wings.
Courtesy of the author.
Just as we were grinning for the camera, a woman ran up, thrilled to see Caro, whom she knew as a real-live member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) from World War II. I turned to my new friend with a puzzled look on my face. Women pilots in World War II? What?! Did I hear that right? Caro indulgently explained that during the war, before she flew Curtis's plane, she'd flown B-25s and other sophisticated aircraft for the U.S. military. She then wrote her name and contact information on a little orange note card so I could be in touch if I wanted to learn more. I drove home that evening, squinting into the setting sun, with a new determination. How did I, a history teacher and airplane enthusiast, not know about these women? Where could I learn more?
The next day I started asking around — had any of the men I worked with ever heard of the WASP? They all shook their heads in disbelief. What was I even talking about? Some of the older pilots I'd befriended on the other side of the airfield, the wealthier guys who owned their own planes, knew one or two WASPs who were locals, but not much about the program itself. I was frustrated. This was in 1993 — before Google, before Amazon. I searched high and low trying to find all I could about the WASP, eventually finding a couple of books that pointed me in the right direction: one terrific book that Sally Van Wagenen Keil, the niece of a WASP, had published in the 1970s, and We Were WASPS, a humorous memoir published right after the war by two Winifred Wood and Dorothy Swain.
Each told only part of the story, and I was desperate to know more. The WASPs, I learned, had been proficient pilots, able to fly everything from light trainers all the way up to the hottest pursuits, such as the P-51 Mustang, and the heaviest bombers, including the B-29 Superfortress. Yet not only had I never heard of Caro and the WASP, very few of the pilots I knew had heard of them, either. What had become of them? How had they been forgotten? And how much different might the hangar I walked through each day have looked if generations of girls and boys had grown up knowing that more than a thousand women had once flown for their country?
I soon realized that if I wanted to discover the complete story of the WASP — and share it with others — I would have to learn from the women themselves.
I spent the next two decades doing just that, collecting oral histories, letters, and diary entries from the WASPs, and digging deep into archives across the country. That research eventually became a book, The Women With Silver Wings, which tells the story of the WASP from its beginnings in the “airminded” era of the 1930s to the women’s courageous fight for recognition in the decades after the war, putting their experiences in the greater context of their generation. I couldn’t have done any of it without the WASPs themselves, who gave me their time and stories, and pointed me to resources.
The WASPs have nearly all taken their final flights now. Those women who helped me for so long aren’t here to see the finished product, but I take comfort in knowing many of their children and grandchildren will see their mothers and grandmothers honored in The Women With Silver Wings. I hope the book encourages future generations, too, to face their challenges and work hard toward their goals. Almost every WASP I spoke with over the years said that she hoped their story would be an inspiration to others. I think you’ll agree with me that it most surely is.
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Katherine Sharp Landdeck Katherine Sharp Landdeck is an associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, the home of the WASP archives. A Guggenheim Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she earned her PhD, Landdeck has received numerous awards for her work on the WASP and has appeared as an expert on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS, and the History channel. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and HuffPost, as well as in numerous academic and aviation publications. Landdeck is a licensed pilot who flies whenever she can.