Verneda Rodriguez McLean: WWII pilot, artist, teacher, lover of poetry.

by Logan Walker

Verneda Rodriguez McLean (Photo: Texas Woman's University, used w/permission)

Verneda Rodriguez McLean (Photo: Texas Woman's University, used w/permission)


No one can tell me,
Nobody knows,
Where the wind comes from,
Where the wind goes.

It's flying from somewhere
As fast as it can,
I couldn't keep up with it,
Not if I ran.


Like the opening stanzas of The Wind on the Hill, a poem from one of her favorite writers A.A. Milne, Verneda Rodriguez McLean was a woman who spent her life in the pursuit of travel, discovery and movement.  As a WASP pilot as well as an artist and traveler, she left her mark across the boundaries of international soil and through the sky above it, as she navigated the air carried by the wind under her metal wings. Her destinations were varied, but her trajectory was always one of forward motion, driving her toward the next station or pursuit.

Born on January 11, 1918 in Chicago, McLean’s mother was Danish and her father, a native of British Guyana. The family made their home in one of Chicago’s Hispanic American colonias, small residential communities located in the city’s industrial sectors. After graduating high school, McLean attended a Chicago Teaching College, but soon the onset of WWII would prompt a significant career shift for McLean in the form of her application and acceptance into the WASP program, joining class 44-W-6. McLean was one of 78 newly minted WASP who graduated at Avenger Field on August 4, 1944.  A noted lover of poetry, the inscription she left under her photo in the 44-6 WASP class book quotes the first line of the A.A. Milne poem Disobedience, reading “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”.

Roddy Rodriguez McLean (top row, middle) with classmates at their graduation from flight training, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX, August 1944. (Photo: USAF, No. 1330 N-1)

Roddy Rodriguez McLean (top row, middle) with classmates at their graduation from flight training, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, TX, August 1944. (Photo: USAF, No. 1330 N-1)

Having received her wings, McLean, nicknamed “Roddy” by her fellow WASP, was assigned to tow gunnery training targets for male soldiers’ shooting practice at Moore Field in Mission Texas. The close proximity to gunfire made this an especially hazardous task and completing training duties required a particular courage and unshakeable temperament. McLean also carried out the occasional transport duties of aircraft from various airfields and factories that was standard for WASP.

Following the end of the war, McLean moved back to her hometown of Chicago, taking a job with the Weather Service before moving to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. There, she met and married former WWII B-25 bomber pilot Edward R. McLean, whose Air Force career sent the couple traveling to such places as Japan and the Philippines.

It was during McLean's stay in Tokyo that the former aviatrix became an accomplished painter, studying and practicing the traditional oriental brush technique. When her family relocated back to Virginia, she taught art classes and held occasional exhibitions of her paintings. She became an entrepreneur, opening an artwork and gift shop with friends called The Late Possum, and in the late 1960’s, co-owning The Place, a coffee house that featured folk music.

Despite the decidedly grounded nature of her life, McLean's piloting past would resurface later when she became an active force in the WASP struggle to gain veteran status with military benefits, a fight she was joined in by her daughter Mary Lynn.

McLean passed away in March 1982 at the age of 64. It had only been five years since she and her fellow WASP had won their battle for veteran status. She is interred at Arlington National Cemetery and it is believed she was the first WASP to be buried there.  A pursuer of adventure, a lover of art and aviation, and a woman unafraid to join a fight to achieve her valued goals, McLean dictated the terms of her own path to the end. Just as she recalled his writing at the end of her WASP training, it may be fitting to let the words of A.A. Milne provide an addendum to her life and career:

And then when I found it,
Wherever it blew,
I should know that the wind
Had been going there too.

So then I could tell them
Where the wind goes...
But where the wind comes from
Nobody knows.


Graciela Tiscareño-Sato: Decorated Air Force Veteran, Aviator, Author, Entrepreneur, and Mentor to Latino Youth

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato (Photo: Goodnight Captain Mama)

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato (Photo: Goodnight Captain Mama)

From Goodnight, Captain Mama:

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, School of Environmental Design, where she earned a degree in Environmental Design/Architecture while completing the Aerospace Studies program as an AFROTC scholarship cadet. She was commissioned as a Distinguish Graduate and second lieutenant atop the Campanile on the Berkeley campus. After Berkeley, she joined the active duty Air Force and completed Undergraduate Navigator Training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. She graduated in the top 15% of her class of 25 students as the only woman in the class. She then trained in the KC-135R refueling tanker at Castle AFB in California before reporting to the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB in Spokane.  Her first deployment was to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On that trip, she was a member of one of the first few aircrews to patrol and enforce the Southern NO FLY Zone in Southern Iraq after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. Flying two or three combat sorties a day over and near the city of Baghdad to prevent Saddam Hussein’s air forces from targeting Iraqi civilians earned her crew the prestigious Air Medal.

During her military career, Graciela lived on or visited four continents and flew for thousands of hours. As an instructor, she taught GPS systems, navigation systems and more in the classroom and in the cockpit. Her favorite rendezvous for refueling was with the SR-71 Blackbird as it came out of its high-altitude missions over the Earth at supersonic speeds.

Graciela was one of very few women that served on the NATO Battlestaff in Vicenza, Italy during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Later she led a multi-service group of communications technicians at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador in counter-narcotics operations.  Her last mission abroad was planning and leading a two-week CAPSTONE mission to Asia Pacific theater to introduce newly – minted generals to their new posts in Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Hawaii, Okinawa, Japan and more. She spent almost ten years on active duty as a navigator and instructor, eventually also becoming a wing contingency planning officer. During her active duty service, she earned a Master degree in International Management from Whitworth University in Washington. She speaks English and Spanish fluently.



Graciela is the Founder of niche publishing, marketing and communications firm, Gracefully Global Group, LLC. She is the author of the award-winning book Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them, which highlights Hispanic entrepreneurs innovating in the green economy. In between military service and entrepreneurship, she spent nine years in global marketing roles at Siemens, where she applied her military career lessons in a global, multicultural, corporate environment. Her thought leadership pieces have published in the U.S. and Europe including American Careers, Huffington Post, Fox News, Hispanic MBACommunications News and many other publications.

Graciela is a sought-after speaker on entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, personal branding and the "STEM of Aviation." She speaks to a wide variety of audiences ranging from young children to corporate professionals and university students.  Graciela actively mentors students needing education and career roadmaps. LATINAStyle Magazine named her “Entrepreneur of the Year” in Washington D.C. and the Business and Professional Womens Foundation in D.C. honored her in 2014 with a National Business Women's Week Award.


Graciela is the author of an Amazon bestselling bilingual children's book titled Good Night Captain Mama/Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá, the first bilingual children's book about why mommies serve in the military. This ground-breaking book was honored at the American Library Association National Convention (2014 International Latino Book Awards) in the category of "Best Educational Children's Book - Bilingual." Since then, it's won awards in competitions among military writers, independent publishers and the prestigious Writers Digest Magazine (1st Place, Children's Picture Book.)

Captain Mama and her children will star in a bilingual aviation travel adventure series in the years to come; the second award-winning book in the series (Captain Mama's Surprise) published in summer 2016. It won First Place in the "Most Inspirational Children's Picture Book - Bilingual" category at the International Latino Book Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Read more about Graciela's work at

Helping Dreams Soar: The Team at Universal® Weather & Aviation, Inc. in Houston Gives It Their All!

by Jill Meyers

Last week I wrote about my own round-the-clock efforts to support Shaesta Waiz and the Dreams Soar team and mission, and how the reward far outweighs the fact of not being paid. This week I am writing a special tribute to our all-volunteer support team at Universal® Weather & Aviation, Inc. Why am I doing this? Because they are located in Houston, Texas. Yes, Houston. Their continued support to us (and other clients) during Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, is stunning and admirable beyond description. They are true examples of people who are so passionate about their work and so dedicated that they go to great extremes, with personal sacrifice, to fulfill their mission.


Universal’s Aviation Weather department is an experienced team of aviation meteorologists who “predict and adapt to weather conditions impacting your missions.” They have an amazing team assigned to Dreams Soar, headed up by their manager, Jack (I am using all fake names to protect their privacy), who was a Meteorologist in the U.S. Air Force, and who runs this team with compassion and a great sense of humor. He calls their Dreams Soar team “The Women of Meteorology”! The team includes three Master Meteorologists: Kim and Tara, both military veterans with over 25 years of experience; and Leah, with 18 years of experience. We also have two Senior Meteorologists: Alison, who also holds a dispatch license and specializes in weather flight following; and Wendy, newer in her career but a real role model for young women hoping to move into the science of Meteorology. 

Universal provides Shaesta a weather report prior to departure, with information that helps her make go/no-go decisions. When Shaesta is enroute, they do “flight following”, meaning they follow Shaesta’s flight plan and provide her real-time weather data - information that helps her make the best decisions on things like avoiding storms or minimizing turbulence. The Universal team and I are able to exchange messages and pictures with Shaesta using a private and secure onboard system. We usually have two people from Universal working each flight. In addition to exchanging weather information, we try to have fun too! Sometimes we play “Marco Polo”, a game I loved playing in our backyard pool as a kid. Alison or Tara will type “Marco”, and Shaesta will provide her exact position from her flight computer, and I’ll take a screenshot from a map-based tracking system I use and post it with the reply “Polo”! And sometimes Universal will provide a satellite or infrared photo that looks like this:  

Sample weather photo (Photo: Universal)

Sample weather photo (Photo: Universal)

The Universal team provides all of this support on a volunteer basis, day and night. Some of them work from home after their normal work shift ends, and some will drive into the office in the middle of the night to get online. Then, Hurricane Harvey came, during a time in August when Shaesta was scheduled to fly every other day, hopping across the South Pacific with questionable weather conditions. When I learned of Harvey’s path heading to Houston, I immediately contacted Jack, who assured me that Wendy, Alison, Tara, Kim and Leah would all be available as needed, even if they were stuck at work or stranded at home. My emotions bounced between shock and gratitude. The day after the hurricane devastated Houston, I texted Jack to see how he was doing. He replied by telling me he and his wife and dogs had to be rescued from their home by boat, and then he sent me photos of his neighborhood that brought tears to my eyes. He later told me that Leah’s home was also under water, and that she stayed at work to be online with Shaesta, while her husband dealt with the flooding until she got off shift.

Shaesta and I were so grateful for their continued support over this difficult time, and we reminded them of this during every flight. Wendy and the others would reply by simply saying how much they love what they do, and that they were just happy to be a part of our mission to inspire the next generation. It touched our hearts, and still does.  

The cleanup in Houston continues and Jack tells me it will take a year to rebuild his home. Leah and her husband are in a similar position. Luckily, the others on our Universal Dreams Soar team had no catastrophic losses. Throughout the past two weeks, we have witnessed this incredibly dedicated group of people giving support to Shaesta during a time when they had serious issues to deal with at home. They made this decision out of compassion for us, love of their own work, and dedication to supporting their customers no matter what the situation. It takes a very special kind of person to do this, and we are forever thankful. To the team at Universal, your devotion and altruism made moments like this one below possible. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Shaesta in Nadi, Fiji (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta in Nadi, Fiji (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Helping Dreams Soar: The Joy I Get From This Journey Beats Any Paycheck!

by Jill Meyers

When I first contacted the Dreams Soar organization back in March, I asked Lyndse Costabile, the Chair of their Board of Directors, if they needed help connecting to Women in Aviation International (WAI) chapters around the globe, to inquire about collaborating on planning the Outreach events. I really expected to just send a few emails and make a few calls to contacts I had from being a WAI Chapter President since 2012. Little did I know that this would turn into me supporting Dreams Soar 24/7 on a volunteer basis, quitting my job in the process to support Shaesta Waiz and the organization full time. I thought I’d write a bit about what it’s like giving every ounce of yourself to something you are passionate about, even when you are not getting paid.

 As the person handling Shaesta’s outreach events and logistics, it requires me to be available all day and all night to support needs in almost every time zone around the world. In the early months, I needed to be up in the morning to support Shaesta while she was in Canada and then in Europe. At the same time, I was on conference calls with our planning teams in places like Dubai, Singapore and New Caledonia, which often had me on calls very late at night. And then my phone would ring at 2:00 or 3:00 am, when folks overseas forgot to pull up a time zone chart to see what time it was here in California! And once they called, I really couldn’t be rude and say “I’ll call you back when I’m awake”, because by then, their business day is over and they are asleep! So I’d crawl into bed around 4:00 am, until around 5:00 am, when Lyndse and the Dream Soar folks on the East coast would get up and start texting me. I was never one to keep my mobile phone on my nightstand, as I always figured “no call in the middle of the night can be that important”. But as soon as Shaesta departed on May 13th, my watch with the Indiglo night light went into the drawer, and my iPhone took its place, with the ringer and text volumes turned up loud.

Shaesta on the day of her departure (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta on the day of her departure (Photo: Jill Meyers)

An interesting phenomenon started to happen in June after Shaesta crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in Europe. It was as if my body clock knew it had to align with hers. One of the Board members said to me one day, “You pretty much have to be up when Shaesta’s up, right? No matter where she is?” and I replied “Yes!". I started naturally waking up when she did without setting my alarm or I would set my alarm for the time I knew Shaesta would be heading to the airport in Athens or Bahrain and wake up right before it went off. But here’s the surprise: I have been getting very little sleep since May, often in 2-4 hour bursts, yet I have a lot of energy and am not really that tired, and I don’t mind sharing the fact that I am in my mid-50s, so it’s not like I’m “twentysomething” and used to lack of sleep.

People often tell me that they are amazed and impressed and even astonished by the fact that I left a high-paying job to do this full time for the duration of Shaesta’s global flight. From the day I started supporting Dreams Soar full time to the day that Shaesta will land in Daytona Beach, I will have been doing this for six months. Yes, it’s been challenging to give up a paycheck as I am not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I respond to people by saying that this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and that I am having the time of my life!

Supporting Shaesta and this team and seeing the looks on the faces of the young people that Shaesta has inspired fills my heart with love and hope for the future. Knowing that I am part of this team that is helping underprivileged kids understand that they can let their dreams soar is an incredible feeling and you just can’t put a price tag on that.

Young women in Kabul, Afghanistan listening to Shaesta's speech (Photo: UNDP Afghanistan)

Young women in Kabul, Afghanistan listening to Shaesta's speech (Photo: UNDP Afghanistan)

Shaesta with girls at an orphanage in Mumbai, India (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with girls at an orphanage in Mumbai, India (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Helping Dreams Soar: Every cloud has a silver lining!

by Jill Meyers

I have been managing projects and programs of all shapes and sizes for 25 years. I worked hard and studied hard to qualify for and obtain my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification 10 years ago, and have stayed current all these years by continuing my professional education and training in Project Management. I have an Aerospace Engineering degree from a top university with a specialty in Astronautical Engineering and do consider myself fairly intelligent most of the time. But nothing prepared me for the very challenging task of . . . Managing Shaesta’s Schedule. I learned an important lesson early on in my career, which has done me well during my support to Dreams Soar, which is: Always Look for the Silver Lining. It allows you to overcome challenges with more ease and less stress! Let me share some examples.

In addition to being the Outreach Coordinator for Dreams Soar, I also manage Shaesta’s schedule and handle the logistics for her journey. Our flight planning partner, HADID International Services, handles things like permits and route planning overseas, but I do the rest. I coordinate with the local civil aviation authorities and Fixed Base Operators (FBO) regarding ground support. I ensure hotel and transportation and meals are provided, along with seeking out donors to help offset the cost to our all-volunteer non-profit organization. All of this is fairly straight forward until something unexpected happens. 

In the early part of our Global Flight for STEM in late May and early June, Shaesta experienced weather delays in the Northern Atlantic region and was stuck in Canada for longer than we anticipated. We were on a “day-for-day schedule slip”, as PMP-certified people call it, making go/no-go decisions daily. Back then we had 32 stops ahead of us and about 20 of them had Outreach event planning going on. I spent a lot of time on the phone and emailing people all over the globe, shifting the schedule around and trying to keep everyone happy. Not an easy task! There were times when I was fearful of people being really upset, but for the most part, everyone was very supportive and willing to roll with our schedule changes, as they were also passionate about our mission and anxious for Shaesta to arrive.

 One truly difficult week occurred when the site leads in the Middle East contacted me after seeing my new schedule. They all said “Jill, you cannot have Shaesta come during that time. It’s during our Eid holiday and no one will be here! We all go on vacation after Ramadan!” The guidance I was given was to delay Shaesta’s arrival into Cairo, Egypt until early July. I had to work with Shaesta and our team to figure out a new plan, to balance out the fact that we had to extend our entire Global mission by several weeks. So what was the Silver Lining here? We were able to fly Shaesta to London on a commercial flight (we had previously removed the U.K. from our route), and she had three days of amazing Outreach events there. And, we were able to add Athens, Greece to our schedule, where Shaesta met with aviation students and visited children in an orphanage, giving them hope for their future. These events would not have been possible if we had stayed on schedule!

Shaesta with a group of kids at the Athens International Airport. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with a group of kids at the Athens International Airport. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Another crazy time was during the monsoon season in India, which we were up against because of prior delays pushing our schedule out. We had to remove three locations from our route and look for a more southerly path for Shaesta to fly from Dubai to Singapore. We spent days looking for airports that carried the fuel used in a Bonanza A36, called Avgas. It turns out that hardly anyone in that part of world carries Avgas, nor will anyone ship it there, so it was a real challenge. We finally figured it out and had our new route planned, and I was so relieved! The next day Shaesta and I were messaging back and forth with our weather team, and Shaesta sent this simple question to them: “Did you see the SIGMET about the volcanic ash over my destination airport?” WHAT? All I could think of is “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!” Yes, it was true. Mount Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia had erupted, spewing lava and ash for almost three miles up into the air. So we took a breath and started over, looking for yet another alternate airport, which we did find in Thailand. Was there a silver lining here? Other than the satisfaction that we did figure it out after being very fearful that we were out of options, I was able to find a very cool aviation-themed hotel for Shaesta to stay in at that stop, the Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport.

The Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport hotel. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

The Marina Express-AVIATOR-Phuket Airport hotel. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

 So remember….. Always Look for the Silver Lining! It might be hard to find, but it’s there.

Helping Dreams Soar: Collaboration Builds Community

by Jill Meyers

Our Dreams Soar outreach program would not be successful without the art and skill of networking and collaborating with our incredibly strong community of women in aviation around the world. The relationship we've built contributed to our success so far in connecting Dreams Soar with our WAI community.

Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter. (Photo: Altitudes Arabia Magazine)

Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter. (Photo: Altitudes Arabia Magazine)

Two of our most successful events so far have been in Dubai, UAE and Mumbai, India and I'd like to talk about them. During the planning phase of the Dubai events, I contacted Mervat Sultan, President of the WAI Middle East Chapter, who I had met at the 2015 WAI Conference. While we'd talked only briefly at that time, when I contacted her a few months ago to ask for help with Dreams Soar’s outreach, she jumped in with a passion. Mervat and her team planned both of the main outreach events during Shaesta’s time in Dubai. I was fortunate to be able to attend, along with Lyndse Costabile, Dreams Soar's Board of Directors Chairwoman. 

One of the outreach events in Dubai was held at the Sketch Art Café, located inside the Mattar Bin Lahej Gallery. Maryam Al Balooshi, a very accomplished calligraphy artist and member of WAI, connected us to the artist and gallery owner, who hosted the event. Shaesta told her inspiring story to a group of over 30 women (and a few men!). We also had a private tour of the gallery and spent time networking among the Dreams Soar team, WAI Middle East Chapter members, media representatives, and a few young women aspiring to get into aviation.

Joining us at that Dubai event was Fadimatou (Fadi) Noutchemo Simo, President of WAI Cameroon, and two of her colleagues, who flew all the way from Africa!  I received a text message from Fadi several weeks before the event, telling me that, although she and Shaesta had chatted by phone, they had never met in person and she wanted to be in Dubai to support Dreams Soar’s efforts. We were very excited that Fadi and her associates traveled so far to join us on our journey. It was a very special event for us all! 

The outreach event in Mumbai was just as successful as Dubai. In preparation for it, I'd spent many weeks in collaboration with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter, and her team and the end result was a well-attended event with a large audience who was captivated by Shaesta's story and her thoughts on STEM education. They also enjoyed presentations by Dr. Shefali Juneja, Director of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Kiran Jain, Commercial Director of Air Asia India, both of whom are founding members of WAI India. 

Shaesta, Maryam Al Balooshi and Shaima Alkamali (WAI Middle East Chapter) and Fadi Noutchemo Simo (WAI Cameroon Chapter). (Photo: Falcon View Films)

Shaesta, Maryam Al Balooshi and Shaima Alkamali (WAI Middle East Chapter) and Fadi Noutchemo Simo (WAI Cameroon Chapter). (Photo: Falcon View Films)

Shaesta with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta with Radha Bhatia, President of WAI India Chapter. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

One of the great benefits of connecting with these amazing women in Dubai and Mumbai is that they were able to help coordinate and sponsor much of the support we needed for Shaesta’s visit, including airport ground support, hotels, and transportation.  The team in Mumbai even put together a special celebration for Shaesta’s 30th birthday! The generosity of these women and their respective organizations went beyond our expectations as an all-volunteer non-profit organization.

If you're considering whether or not to attend a professional conference, whether it’s WAI or the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) or the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), or any other, think about how networking at these events might further your passion in years to come.

Learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

WASP Alta Corbett Thomas: A passion for flying!

by Logan Walker

Alta Thomas, 1943. (Photo: Women's International Air and Space Museum, Virginia Thomas Collection)

Alta Thomas, 1943. (Photo: Women's International Air and Space Museum, Virginia Thomas Collection)

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Alta Corbett Thomas had the kind of upbringing that many would envy; “Early on my life consisted of horses... (and parents who) believed there was more to life than horses,” she would later recall.  Alta’s father had raised his five daughters to “stand on their own feet” rather than enter into hasty marriage, like so many of the Corbett girls’ peers. When she was unoccupied in the stables, Alta passed time reading books, especially those written by author, poet, and aviator Antoine St-Exupery. His Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars were piloting themed novels that captivated Alta with tales of the immenseness and beauty of the sky and the adventurers who glided through it, and the former would prove to be a kind of holy book throughout the future aviatrix’s life. Moved by Saint-Exupery’s heartfelt words, Alta would later point to the novel as her first entry point to the world of flight. 

The first steps toward Alta's career happened just after her graduation from Smith College with a degree in history and a resolution to get her pilot’s license. Fortunately, her father was understanding once he overcame his initial surprise. “When I said I would like to be a pilot…it wasn’t what he had in mind. And he thought that would be sort of like investing in a ski bum….(but) he said, well you’ll just have to get your flying time on your own. But you can live at home, and so you don’t have to pay for room and board while you’re learning this. And that’s what I did. I went to Swan Island to try to get a job down there and be paid in flying time.”

Alta Thomas. (Photo: Flying Heritage and Combat Armour Museum

Alta Thomas. (Photo: Flying Heritage and Combat Armour Museum

Having succeeded in obtaining her personal and commercial pilot’s licenses, Alta went about searching for flying jobs, but even against the backdrop of the war, positions for women in the field were negligible. Help came in the form of Alta’s old alma mater, Smith College. The College's vocational office notified her that the War Department was looking for employees with a college degree and pilot’s license. She applied and was given a position in the Pentagon, working as a research analyst, compiling information on the military capabilities of countries like Russia and Norway. It was a hefty position and one that allowed her to take an active role in the war effort, but Alta’s passion was in the sky beyond her desk job and when she became aware of the WASP program and the possibilities it offered for young female pilots, she jumped at her chance to join.

Leaving her position with the War Department proved to be harder than Alta had expected. Her boss threatened to blackball her if she left her “frozen” position, but thanks to the intervention of another superior in the office, she soon found herself enrolled in the WASP class 43-4 in the early months of 1943. “It took me awhile. I struggled to get in. I really clawed my way in,” said Alta of her desperate efforts to fly military planes. But further efforts lay on the horizon.

Reporting for her pre-training military health exam at Torren Field in Texas, Alta was dismayed to find the Army doctor was concerned that a slight defect in one of her eyes could hinder her ability to fly. Recalling her medical test, she noted, “I flunked it the first time. And I said, I just can't because this is, it just seemed like I was meant to do it. And he, I had to go back. To Tarrant Field and finally he said, do you really think you can fly military ships? And I said, without a doubt. And he said, go for it. So I went. Even if it was a little not quite 20/20 in one eye.” 

Alta joined her class at their original training base in Houston, Texas, where she and her classmates were shuttled to training in a cattle truck and engaged in exercises like marching to build group morale. The girls were, in Alta's words, “…a scraggly bunch, and that pulled us together, and I think in Houston we probably had PT too…It seemed like we were just getting used to what it was like to be in the military at Houston.” Soon the girls received news that their base would be changed to Avenger Field in Sweetwater. “Everything was, I felt it was quite militarized," she said. "We marched to classes and we had a scheduled ground school in the afternoon. We were the flight line in the morning and at night when we were listed in operations that we had night fly. And we lived in barracks all of us, six in a barracks and then they had the big showers and a bathroom in between and another in our bays. They were divided into bays and it was very ordered.”  Alta remembers that flight training occurred in mainly Fairchild and BT-13 aircraft, and was fraught with a very real sense of danger underneath the exhilaration of soaring. Accidents were known to happen, as in the case of one WASP who took Alta’s place in a night flying exercise and “…crashed, didn't come back. They had an accident. It's easy at night, if you take your eyes off the instruments, you can get awfully disoriented.”

WASP wings: class 43-4 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

WASP wings: class 43-4 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Upon graduation,  Alta was assigned to the Tow Target Squadrons at Camp Davis, North Carolina and Liberty Field in Georgia. It was a dangerous job that put her in the regular vicinity of gunfire. Towing targets was a duty that was much disliked by male pilots for this very reason. Although the rope for target practice was 2,500 feet long, it wasn’t uncommon for WASP to return to the ground with bullet holes in the tales of their planes. “When I went down to Camp Davis, we thought it was a great adventure” Alta mused, “but apparently the morale was very low. They'd had two accidents, I guess, and, well, here we came in as I said.” A series of tragedies prompted a visit from WASP leader Jacqueline Cochran. “I thought she was worried about a couple of us wanting to leave the program. Yes, that's what I’d say I was very aware of by the time I'd been there for, that … they wanted to resign even. I remember one of them said, ‘I want to live to be a grandmother.’”

Alta and her peers flew a variety of planes during their tenure; After first arriving at Camp Davis “…we had these l5's. I think there was an engine, and we were over the camp and all over to have to go round and around and figure eights and circle. Certain places we were told to circle. It was just maneuvering to get us, I guess, used to what we would do towing. And what we did towing, we flew the A- 24, the Douglas Dauntless, And later on, the 825, the Curtis Helldiver.”

More often than not, the planes given to Alta and her peers weren’t fresh from the factory, rather they were considered the “dregs of the Army”. Plane tires were sometimes worn to nearly nothing and rumors circulated throughout camp that the gasoline that fueled the planes was watered down. Despite this, Alta’s attitude remained unflinchingly optimistic; “I never gave a thought to the gas and the to the water and the gas or running rough. I think there is a difference between being recruited and being asked to belong to something when you want it desperately. And it just never would have occurred to me to criticize it. Because I was very aware that, and this doesn't say that I'm holier than thou, but I was aware that the ones overseas deserved the good stuff.. But the E- 25 was in good shape when that came but Camp Davis was It was all right.” Throughout her career, Alta's favorites remained the reliable and powerful A-25 and the SB2C Helldiver.

When the WASP program came to a sudden end at the close of 1944, so would Alta's career as an active pilot. Nevertheless, she took a pragmatic view of the situation, remarking that, “Someone asked me were you disappointed when you found out about deactivation, disappointment wasn't the word because I'd felt we had a lot and was glad that the was winding down but it never occurred to me there wouldn't be a place that we would serve after all of this training and experience…But, the men were coming home and they really deserved the jobs, they had been overseas and they said that they weren't needed…”

In search of a new position, Alta sent inquiries to a number of aircraft companies but had little success in the wake of a sudden influx of pilots home from the war. Finally, she found a position with the CAA which was in the process of recruiting personnel for air, ground, and weather communications in Alaska. Reporting for training at Boeing Field in Seattle, Alta was pleasantly surprised to find that she was just one of several former WASP to apply for such a position. Describing the feeling of camaraderie that she felt with her former peers, Alta recalled a short passage from a WASP newsletter many years later; “…it spoke of a high school basketball coach. He'd led his team all through the quarter-finals, all through the semi-finals, and here they were at the championship and it was halftime. And he spoke to his men and he said, you go out and win this tonight and you will have shared a moment in time that touched and shaped you deeply. And no matter how many miles separate you, no matter how many years go by, you will walk together forever. And I thought, you know that's just kind of how it is with the WASP.”

Alta Thomas (left) with fellow WASP Dorothy Olsen, Betty Dybbro and Mary Jean Sturdevant pose in front of a P-51. (Photo: Joan Brown, website: Northwest Military )

Alta Thomas (left) with fellow WASP Dorothy Olsen, Betty Dybbro and Mary Jean Sturdevant pose in front of a P-51. (Photo: Joan Brown, website: Northwest Military )

During the 1950s, Alta lived a quiet life out of a cabin in Oregon’s Willamette National Forrest, where she wrote verse for fun and took care of her household pets. In the early sixties she married Ralph Thomas, a Dam worker, and despite her apprehensions ("Three. Meals. A day . . . I just didn't think I could.”), she settled into family life as a wife and mother of four---two stepsons, Ralph Lee and John, and two daughters Kelly and Debbie. They eventually moved to Sequim, Washington where they ran a fifteen-acre farm.  

Alta's days of piloting planes ended on the day she resigned her WASP uniform in 1944, and her experience as an aircraft passenger speaks to her somewhat conflicted stance toward women in the modern world of aviation. Recounting the last minute flight complications during a return trip from Seattle with her daughter, she says, “…it was terrible weather, and they weren't going to let us take off for a while, and then it got just enough of a break that we did, and this girl got into the pilot seat. And I said to Kelly, ‘You think she's gonna know what to do?’ And Kelly looked at me and said, ‘mother being a woman yourself, flying, would you doubt her?’ And I don't know why I did. I'm just not driven to causes. I just feel things happen when they're ready to…And yet, I don't see why they shouldn't, unless it's hard to cope with both men and women.”

Alta Thomas at an aviation event on the grounds of the William Fairchild Int'l Airport in Port Angeles, WA, 2017 (Photo: KSOM 91.5 Community Radio Facebook Page)

Alta Thomas at an aviation event on the grounds of the William Fairchild Int'l Airport in Port Angeles, WA, 2017 (Photo: KSOM 91.5 Community Radio Facebook Page)

Alta is now 99 years old and still lives in Sequim. Her children praise her as a role model and trailblazer for women. She taught her daughters they could be anyone they wanted to be and to never accept "You can't". Alta feels privileged to have had the opportunity to fly and no words express her love for flying quite like those of John Gillespie Magee's poem, High Flight, which she is known to recite with a wave of emotion.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Helping Dreams Soar: Outreach is EVERYTHING!

by Jill Meyers

As I mentioned in my introductory segment last week, one of my roles for Dreams Soar is to oversee the planning of our Outreach events all over the world. Each location is different depending on how long Shaesta will be there, how much support we get from the local community, and what kind of STEM activities already exist in the schools and local aviation organizations. I have support from several different groups of people to plan and execute these Outreach events and I couldn’t do this without them.

First and foremost is our own Dream Team, an amazing group of talented and passionate college students (and recent graduates) who are the heart and soul of our organization! Several members of the Dream Team are assigned to help with Outreach planning. Dreams Soar also has strong support from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as part of their Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) program. I am able to collaborate directly with ICAO’s delegates at the headquarters in Montréal, Canada, and they connect me with their local Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) representatives at every international stop.

Part of The Dream Team. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Part of The Dream Team. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Madrid is a good example of Outreach planning at its best. The first Skype call had me and Dream Team member Jessica talking with Jose Ramón and Pedro from the Spanish CAA office. They had not planned anything like this before and wanted our inputs and ideas, so Jessica and I talked about Dreams Soar’s vision to inspire kids to pursue STEM education and aviation careers. We gave them a few ideas of types of events they could hold, and they agreed to do some research. Very soon they added Almudena to their team, an energetic young woman in her first job at the CAA, who is very passionate about our mission! After several weeks of collaboration, we had seven events planned over the course of three days!

Shaesta met with over 40 kids at the Madrid Air Museum, sharing her story with them and talking about aviation. She participated in a forum with Aviation Management Degree students and women from the Gender Equality Unit at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Shaesta met with Spain’s Director General of Civil Aviation and also spoke with the “Balance for AESA” team, a group chartered to empower the role of women in aviation in Spain. She met with a group of young student pilots at Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos Airport, where our Bonanza aircraft was hangered, and also spent time with members of Aviadoras, a group of women pilots from the Spanish Pilot Association. Shaesta also visited the Escuelas Aguirre School in Madrid, the only bilingual elementary school in the city. And finally, she was interviewed by Fomento magazine and the Spanish Guild of Commercial Aviation Pilots’ magazine, as media interviews are also a big part of our Outreach program. As you can imagine, a great deal of planning went into this Madrid stop! All of our Outreach stops are not this complex, but they are equally important and powerful in our efforts to inspire the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals!

Shaesta takes a selfie with kids at the Madrid Air Museum. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta takes a selfie with kids at the Madrid Air Museum. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

"I wanted to serve my country in a very active way." --WASP Dawn Seymour

by Martha Magruder

WASP Dawn Seymour (Photo:

WASP Dawn Seymour (Photo:

By the time she was 26 years old, Dawn Rochow Balden Seymour had logged 700 hours in the Boeing B -17 "Flying Fortress" and was training young gunners in preparation for D-Day and war in the Pacific.  Just a few years earlier, the ambitious 22-year old native of Rochester, NY, who had never stepped foot on a plane, graduated from Cornell University’s College of Home Economics and was hired as an instructor at the school. While volunteering in a research study, she was approached by Dr. Richard Parmenter, a veteran WWI pilot who saw her potential and asked if she was interested in Cornell's new Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT) and not long after, he took her for her first plane ride. She recalled, “So he took me up in a yellow [Piper] Cub on an October day when, of course, the leaves have turned, and suddenly the world is completely different. There's a sense of freedom. I was hooked with this love of flying.”

Seymour became the first woman pilot accepted into the CPT, “one out of every ten—nine men, one woman—was acceptable,” and in 1940, she earned her private pilot’s license. December 1941 brought about America’s involvement in World War II and Seymour found herself working for the New York State War Council on the same committee as Eleanor Roosevelt. Seymour, however, wanted to do more for the war effort: "I wanted to serve my country in a very active way.” In March 1943, she applied and was accepted to Jackie Cochran’s WASP program. “I was on the sidewalk and I flipped a nickel. Heads, I go that month, or, tails, I stay home [and get more flying time]. And it was heads. So I quit my job...And I joined the class of '43-5.”

Training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Seymour recalled a rigorous five months of “getting up and falling in line, going to breakfast, going to the flight line, going to ground school and to link training." Jackie Cochran presented Seymour with her wings on graduation day, September 11, 1943.  “The wings were cold, though it was a ninety degree day, and I said to myself, oh my goodness, I did it! It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.”

Dawn Seymour in the B-17. (Photo: CBS News)

Dawn Seymour in the B-17. (Photo: CBS News)

Though the WASP remained on home soil, they were by no means out of harm’s way. Seymour remembered, “Ten days before I graduated, my best friend, my buddy, Peggy Seip, was killed with her instructor and a fellow WASP pilot, and no reason was given for the accident. There was no ceremony held, they just disappeared. And it was a heart wrenching event….And Peggy had left a garden, the only garden any WASP had ever grown in Sweetwater, Texas, and it bloomed on our graduation day.”

Upon graduation, Seymour was sent to the Second Ferrying Command in Wilmington, Delaware and after just two weeks there, she completed ground school and checked out in the PT-19. Soon after, she transferred to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio where, after more rigorous training, she became one of only thirteen WASP, known as the “Lucky Thirteen” chosen to pilot the B-17. Seymour subsequently relocated to Buckingham Army Air Field at Fort Myers, Florida where she flew gunnery missions in the B-17 F/G and towed targets in the AT-23.  She trained gunners, mostly very young men no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and who had never been in the air. During those training missions, Seymour piloted the plane towing the target or “sleeve,” for the trainees to shoot at with live ammunition. She recalled, “Sometimes I'd see tracers in the B-17 going toward the plane, the B-26, and you'd put on the mike and say, "The sleeve, guys! Aim at the sleeve!"”

In early 1944, Seymour transferred to Roswell, New Mexico, to fly more training missions. In December of that year she and her fellow WASP received the devastating letter from General Hap Arnold notifying them of the disbandment of the WASP program. “The message we received was, 'Girls, go home, we don't need you anymore.'"  The women immediately packed up their things and without ceremony or fanfare, departed the military lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to and returned to their former lives. It would take 33 years for the United States government to officially recognize them as military veterans.

Dawn Seymour on the flight deck of the 445th Airlift Wing C-5 Galaxy aircraft in 2009. (USAF photo/Senior Airman Mikhail Berlin,

Dawn Seymour on the flight deck of the 445th Airlift Wing C-5 Galaxy aircraft in 2009. (USAF photo/Senior Airman Mikhail Berlin,

In 1982, five years after the WASP received military veteran status, Dawn Seymour was elected President of the WASP organization. She made it her mission to share the WASP story with the world. To commemorate the lives of those lost, she authored a book titled, IN MEMORIAM: Thirty-eight WAFS/WASP who gave their lives during training and service.  Seymour campaigned for Jackie Cochran's induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame and for ten years she worked tirelessly for a U.S. postal stamp honoring Cochran, which finally made its debut in 1996.  In 2005, Seymour was awarded the Keeper of the Flame award by the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Dawn Seymour strove to inspire women to pursue their dreams and proved a gifted speaker and storyteller as she shared her memories of of the WASP and WWII with audiences around the country. She was extremely proud to have had the opportunity to fly and serve her country while doing it.  “We were volunteers going in, and we were volunteers going out, and our motto was, “We live in the wind and the sand, and our eyes are on the stars.””

On July 18, 2017, Dawn Seymour passed away at the age of 100. Tributes poured in and fueled the American public's growing interest in the WASP. Given her unwavering resolve during her lifetime to share the WASP stories and preserve their legacy, Seymour would no doubt have been proud that even in death she was able to carry out that mission. 

During a 1999 interview with Rebecca Wright for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Seymour was asked how she'd sum up the contributions and sacrifices of the WASP:

"So I think my advice, as you asked me before, what difference -- what were the WASPs and what was their meaning in this particular time? And I think it is they listened to a voice inside that urges each one of us--we each had this--urges us to try. Find a way. You do the hard work. And I think that's my message." 

Dawn Seymour's service to her country and contribution to changing the course of history, especially for women, will forever inspire and influence generations to come.

Helping Dreams Soar: Aviators Jill Meyers & Shaesta Waiz are on a mission to help young women realize their dreams!

"Helping Dreams Soar" is a new Sunday segment that will run throughout August and September and is written by Jill Meyers about her experiences working with Dreams Soar, Inc. and the history-making flight of its founder and pilot Shaesta Waiz. Shaesta is piloting a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 solo around the world. Her mission is to inspire girls and young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and aviation education and careers.

by Jill Meyers

There is nothing more rewarding than finding your true purpose in life, and I believe it’s even more rewarding to find it later in life!

Four months ago, after more than three decades in the aviation and aerospace business, I quit my job. I didn’t have a plan --  I just knew that I needed to find a way to help the next generation find their passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, specifically in aviation. I have been a STEM advisor since the 1980s (before they called it STEM!), but only a few hours a month here and there at most. It wasn’t enough.

Two weeks after I left my job at a major defense contractor, I received a text message from Shaesta Waiz, Founder, President and Pilot for Dreams Soar, Inc., a non-profit, all-volunteer organization working to inspire young girls to pursue STEM and aviation education and careers. I had never met Shaesta at that point, but I knew Lyndse Costabile, their Board of Directors Chairwoman. I had contacted Lyndse earlier in the year, offering to help connect Dreams Soar with WAI chapters worldwide.

So -- back to the text message. I had been on a couple of conference calls with Shaesta and the team, providing a few suggestions on their Outreach program. A few days after a very long meeting, I received the text message which led to a phone call with Shaesta, and before I knew it I was their new Women in STEM/Outreach Coordinator.  What an incredible four months it has been!

Shaesta & the Dreams Soar Bonanza A36. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta & the Dreams Soar Bonanza A36. (Photo: Jill Meyers)

Shaesta is flying around the world solo on a Global Flight for STEM, piloting a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 with five of the six seats ripped out and replaced with extra fuel tanks for the two ocean crossings. She is currently about halfway around the world on a route that stops in 34 places in 18 countries on five continents, and we are holding Outreach events in about 20 of those stops. Shaesta has already completed hugely successful Outreach events in Columbus, Ohio; Montreal, Canada; Madrid, Spain; London, UK: Athens, Greece; Cairo, Egypt; Dubai, UAE; and Singapore, and she has been to seven additional countries for fuel and rest stops.

Why is Shaesta's story inspiring to young girls?

Shaesta was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and her family fled to the U.S. when she was very young to escape the Soviet invasion. She does not come from wealth. English was her third language as they spoke Farsi and Pashto at home. She did not excel in school yet at the age of 30 she has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Aeronautics and holds a commercial pilot’s license. She is the first woman from Afghanistan ever to hold a civilian pilot’s license.

Shaesta talks to children at the Madrid Air Museum in Spain. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

Shaesta talks to children at the Madrid Air Museum in Spain. (Photo: Dreams Soar)

As Outreach Coordinator for Dreams Soar, I assist local organizations worldwide in planning outreach events. I also manage the logistics and scheduling of Shaesta's flight and act as her primary point of contact during her journey. We talk every day and have a private messaging system to communicate while she is in flight. This, along with being given the opportunity to spend a week with her in Dubai, has offered me the rare gift to get to know Shaesta very well. It is fair to say that she is one of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met.  Shaesta’s story is one of finding your passion, working hard, and letting your dreams soar.

In the weeks to come, I will tell you about what it's like to support this organization, to choreograph Shaesta's activities, and to help thousands of young girls around the world let their dreams soar!

Read about Shaesta's May 13th launch event and learn more about Dreams Soar on their website!

Elizabeth Harmon Bane: A Strong, Determined Woman Who Approached Life with Zest and Enthusiasm

by Susan Bane Summers

Elizabeth Harmon Bane, Class 43-W-4 (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

Elizabeth Harmon Bane, Class 43-W-4 (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

My grandmother Elizabeth "Liz" Harmon Bane earned her WASP wings on August 7, 1943 at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She began flying while attending the University of Alabama and had well over the required flight hours before heading to Texas.

During her training she flew the PT-19, AT-6, AT-10, BT-13 and twin engine Beech UC-78. Her assignments included Love Field, Dallas, Texas; Gunter Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama; Randolph Army Air Base, Universal City, Texas; Eagle Pass Army Air Base, Eagle Pass, Texas.

During her service, Liz met my grandfather, Major Mark C. Bane, Jr. and they married at Gunter-Maxwell Field in Alabama.  Mark served until 1969 and the couple spent many years abroad including in Occupied Japan after the war. They raised four children; Liz, Laurie, Mark Jr. & Helen.

My grandmother was a strong, determined woman who approached everything she did in life with perfection, zest and enthusiasm. She was an amazing mother, gardener, talented chef, always stylishly color coordinated and loved taking me shopping for clothes when I visited. I'm the youngest girl of six so her distaste of me in my brothers' hand-me-downs worked out well for my dress wardrobe. She "spoiled me ripe", called me 'little fish' because I loved swimming and the water and let me climb up in her lap and fall asleep long after I had grown too big to do so.

We lost my grandmother to cancer my freshman year of college.  Her passion for life, learning and flight lived on and inspired her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to this very day. In fact, one of her great granddaughters has completed over 1,000 hours of flight training at the age of 12. 

My grandparents had a set of portraits of them painted in Japan in 1949 and today they hang in my dining room. I think of them both every day. I can hear my grandmother complimenting my cooking, telling me to stand up straight and watching over my children she never got to meet.

Elizabeth Harmon & Major Mark C. Bane when they first met. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

Elizabeth Harmon & Major Mark C. Bane when they first met. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bane Summers)

She's Got Grit: Navy Pilot and Commander Karen Fine Brasch

by Shannon Huffman Polson

“Someone once asked me how I became a Navy pilot,” Karen Fine Brasch says. “I responded without thinking, 'It never occurred to me that I couldn't.' " 

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch (Photo: The Grit Project)

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch (Photo: The Grit Project)

One of three girls with a father who had been an Air Force fighter pilot, Brasch picked up the flying bug early. Her father was thrilled that one of his children wanted to follow him into the skies. When she was nine years old, he bought her a book "Anyone Can Fly," by Jules Bergman. It still sits on her bookshelf today. He built model airplanes with her and took her to nearby airfields to watch the planes. Her dad instilled in her the belief that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anyone she wanted to be. She didn’t set a path for the military initially, heading to college instead and taking classes while working full time to pay for school. Humble beginnings and upbringing required her being able to independently set goals and deliver on them. On one tough day of class, she stood in the elevator heading to another class and saw a poster that read: “Learn to fly with Bubba.”

“I took the poster off the wall, skipped class, drove over to the little airfield, set the paper on the guy’s desk, and said ‘I want to learn to fly.’ He took one look at me and laughed. I was a twenty-one year old, big haired Texas co-ed sorority girl.”

The instructor composed himself, and offered to take Brasch up flying on the spot.

“I was wearing a jeans mini-skirt and holding a can of Diet Coke,” she remembers. “We preflighted and got in the aircraft. I remember handing him my Diet Coke because I had nowhere to put it. He just laughed. So I dumped it out and put the can on my lap. He gave me the controls and told me to take off. I did. I was the opposite of scared. It was exhilarating!"

After eight lessons Brasch started her application to Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), a four month boot camp and accelerated officer training program for flight candidates. That’s where things got tough.

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch in the cockpit. (Photo: The Grit Project)

LCDR Karen Fine Brasch in the cockpit. (Photo: The Grit Project)

"Adversity tempers steel." That was the sign hanging in the entrance of AOCS. "It became the voice in my head over my flying career as I sought one challenge after another," says Brasch. "As we lined up to enter training, a big burly instructor came up behind me and grabbed the car keys I had hanging from a shaking hand. 'Trying to get away already?' he boomed. 'You wont be needing these anymore.' Strangely enough, I wasn't nervous anymore. It felt like an acknowledgement that my new adventure was beginning."

“I could not have been more of a fish out of water,” Brasch says. “I had hair down to the middle of my back when they cut it all off on the first day of indoctrination. Even with incredibly short hair, I did not fit in. I was weak academically. I was weak physically. And it showed. I realized how different I was when I was picked last in some silly swim competition. I felt the sting of humiliation and exclusion. Even my class didn't think I should be there. I remember wishing I had studied harder in school and spent more time in physical training."

The USMC drill sergeants running AOCS had no patience for weakness. “I had a lot of extra time with the drill instructors,” Brasch remembers. “Their job was to weed out the weak. I pushed through, because I had literally nowhere else to go, and no where I would rather have been. I was up for the challenges, and I did not want to be treated any differently just because I was a woman."

“I did not want to be treated any differently because I was a woman.”

One challenge required of candidates was getting themselves over an eight foot wall without assistance. “I just could not get over the wall,” she remembers. A small group of women including Brasch realized, then, that there was a wall in the barracks showers exactly the same height as the obstacle they were required to climb. “After the guys went to bed, we would run at this concrete wall in the shower,” she said. “There wasn’t room to get much of a running start, but we worked it anyway. We were all black and blue down one side of our bodies. I remember the day I finally got myself over the wall on the obstacle course. The drill instructor happened to be standing right there. He stood back and just said in his disgusted gruff drill instructor voice: 'Oh. My. God.'"

There were many more challenges to come. One was the fifteen-foot high dive. 'We had to jump in with full flight gear and swim twenty meters underwater without coming up for air."

“I wouldn’t jump off of it,” Brasch says. “I was inexplicably terrified. Another woman was assigned to walk me down to the pool every day and sit there while I waited to go jump and swim. I wasn’t allowed to speak. She just marched me there, and I would stand on the high dive and stare down at the pool-- paralyzed with fear and unable to jump. One day I decided she shouldn’t have to babysit me anymore. It was one more thing I needed to do. I thought to myself, 'there's always going to be one more thing, so what the heck?' I jumped. It was her quiet support that helped me jump.”

Whatever the Navy threw at her, however unprepared she was at times, “I was 100% all in," Brasch said. "The only thing I wanted to do was fly. I was going to do whatever was required to get there.”

Brasch started flight school in 1993, just after combat exclusion was lifted and all aircraft were opened to women. She remembers her training class being really angry because 'the women were going to steal all the pilot slots." Despite the gender protests, by the end of flight school she was qualified in the Navy T-34C fixed wing aircraft and TH-57 helicopter.  At the end of flight school she was qualified in flying the Navy Seahawks.

“The men didn’t want to fly with us,” she remembers. On one of her final primary flights with an instructor she'd never flown with before, she landed, feeling great about the flight, but her scores were low. Low scores were not necessarily an aberration, but this had been a particularly great flight. She could navigate, hold altitude, perform aerobatic maneuvers, nail the emergency procedures and fly in formation.

“I went in to the instructor’s office and asked him to explain. I told him I thought I’d nailed each part of the flight. He looked at me wearily and uninterested and said ‘Look, I’m retiring from the Navy in a week, and I only signed up to fly with you so I could say I had flown with a woman.’”

That was the end of that.

Brasch headed to California for her first assignment, flying the SH-60/HH60H Seahawk helicopter. She was scheduled to deploy on a six-month carrier rotation after initial Seahawk training on the U.S.S. Nimitz. She would be the first female pilot in her squadron and on the second aircraft carrier ever to deploy with women on board. "I should have been more nervous," she says, "but I could not have been more excited about my first deployment. The adventure, the responsibility and the patriotism I felt was indescribable."

“The week before I deployed I met a friend at the Officer's Club in Miramar. I lived just across the street. We were having a drink when one of the F-14 Tomcat flight officers came over to my table and said: “The only role for women on carriers are as surrogate wives, whores or mothers to the men on board. Your flying is inconsequential.”

My first book on flying when I was nine years old.

I read it on my first Navy deployments to pass the time. It was a great story to escape into while at sea. I read it several times and loved it. My first lab was named Monte.

Slow burn descriptive books transform you completely to another time and place with breath-taking descriptions of scenery and life from a time gone by. I also love Jane Austen novels for the same reason.

I've been learning a lot about classical music. I have also always regretted not taking more science and math in school. This book creatively brings it all together in a captivating story told through human experiences. It was completely above my head and I loved it. I learned a lot, too, but still haven't learned to break the code that is on the first page.

I read it in high school, and it always really stuck with me. I didn't love the book, but I've never been able to forget it or the symbolism and how it relates to our society.

Or any of his books. I like the fast-paced spy adventure novels. Also Robert Ludlum's Parisfal Mosaic and original Bourne series.

She laughs. “That pretty much summed up the feeling of a lot of the men,” she says. “Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

On deployment, she flew Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions and sub-hunting missions, flying the HH-60 and the SH-60. 

“Anytime the jets were flying we had one helicopter in the air for SAR, and another one farther out conducting training,” she says. “One day we were the helicopter doing training. The weather was terrible. We were more than twenty miles away from the carrier. The ceiling came down to three to four hundred feet, and it was rainy, stormy, really unusual weather,” she recalls. “There was no visibility above us, and max of a thousand feet in a given direction. The carrier called all the aircraft back for inclement weather, but they forgot about us. We were out over the ocean, bingo fuel, with nowhere to land.”

Brasch and her crew were twenty miles off the coast of Iran, but landing there wasn’t an option.

“We started to go through the ditching (when a helicopter is forced to land in the water) checklist,” she said. “We knew there would be a lot of shrapnel once the blades hit the water, so we planned to drop the crew with a boat a distance off. We came down to a hover and they prepared to get out, when the carrier called and came back for us. We were below bingo fuel.”

Brasch 3.jpg

“By my second deployment, the men were a little bit more used to women,” she said. “On February 17, 1998, I came back from my second deployment (on the U.S.S. Nimitz), an around the world tour. I returned exactly five years to the day from when I joined the Navy.”

“There are so many stories,” she laughs. “On another flight, we were cleared back to the carrier on the fantail (the rear of the carrier). Usually we came in from the side, matched the speed of the carrier and landed. On approach I saw an F-14 Tomcat on the catapult preparing to launch. I called the air boss and asked him if the jet would be taking off. He said no, so I made the approach. Just as we were about to land, the Tomcat launched. We sucked in all that exhaust, and it caused a dual compressor stall and we barely made it to the deck.”

Looking back over her career (Brasch retired as a Navy Commander), Brasch appreciates the bonds that form among diverse groups of people all going through challenging circumstances together. Nothing was ever easy; she remembers a time on a deployment when she went to her department head and asked why she wasn’t slotted on any of the night CSAR operations.

“He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his desk and looked at me and said, 'It has nothing to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it's because you don't remind us of ourselves. We all (the men) like to fly with young bucks that remind us of ourselves. And you don't remind us of ourselves. I’m just being honest with you.”

“It does not have to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it’s because you don’t remind us of ourselves.”

What would Brasch recommend to new leaders starting out? 

1. Respect is more important than being liked. It takes a long time to earn and seconds to lose it. ”I remember a commander calling me into his office,” Brasch says. “He told me ‘Everyone likes you, but what will you do when they don’t? You need to know that not everyone is going to like you...and that's ok.' I thought about his words a lot. I decided I would rather be respected for what I knew than liked for any other reason.

2. Be present in the moment. If you're flying, the aircraft neither likes nor respects you.  It doesn't care where you went to college or where you grew up. The difference between living and dying is attention to detail, situational awareness and competence.” She pauses. “You have to respect yourself,” she says. “Many will doubt you along the way. The bigger your dreams, the bigger the doubts.”

3. Be adaptable. Brasch remembers the change in identity necessary as well. “Sometimes you have to alter who you are to adapt to a situation," she says. “I had to ask myself: how much do I have to change? How much am I willing to lose of what I am? I had to learn to speak guy,” she says with a laugh. In a commencement address Brasch gave to a local high school, she suggests: “Expect a lot of change. Plan on it. Learn to reinvent yourself, while still remaining you."

4. Be okay with being alone and self reliant. “You will be your own obstacle or propellant,” she says. “You have to learn to thrive alone. That was one of my hardest lessons. Every woman should be her own worst critic and her own biggest advocate.”

5. Practice resilience and reflection. It takes more than passion and perseverance. You have to be able to bounce back from adversity. You have to be willing to risk failure in order to succeed. Replay your actions in your head and determine what you did right and what you can do better. 

6. Don't let fear control you. Build up the skills you need to face your fears. At the moment of truth, those skills will make all the difference. 

“Grit isn’t something you learn. It’s something you do.”

As for grit, Brasch clearly has it. “Grit comes from within. It starts from something feeling overwhelming or even impossible. It requires all of your focus and fortitude as you’re going through it. You might think you will fail all the way up until the moment you succeed. Grit isn’t something you learn, but it’s something you do. And it’s something you do alone. Grit is meeting a seemingly insurmountable challenge head on despite adversity."

For someone who wants to build grit, she suggests “Take on challenges outside your comfort zone. Start small and build up endurance for things that make you feel uncomfortable. Learn to rely on yourself.”

Now a mother of three and a program manager, Brasch has taken on additional challenge and passion: playing the cello. “I’ve been playing for three years now,” she says. "It's complicated and requires 100% focus. The first time I played gave me the same exhilaration that I felt the first time I flew. I love a good challenge."


Meet the Rogue Women Astronauts of the 1960s Who Never Flew

But they passed the same tests the male astronauts did—and, yes, in high heels

By Kat Eschner
June 16, 2017

Valentina Tereshkova was the first-ever woman to fly a spacecraft, on June 16, 1963. But even before Tereshkova took off, the United States was researching–and discarding–the idea of sending women into space, for reasons that had nothing to do with their abilities. It would take another twenty years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

This is the story of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, an elite group of women pilots who underwent astronaut testing and seemed like they might be on track to become astronauts in the early 1960s.  The best remembered of these women is probably Jerrie Cobb, a record-setting aviator. Even though Cobb and twelve others did extremely well in the astronaut tests, none of them went to space and the program they were part of was killed, speaking to the unwarranted sexism of the early American space program.

Read more:

She's Got Grit: "The Navy Doesn't Reward Pioneers"

by Shannon Huffman Polson

Jane O'Dea in front of a C1-A

Jane O'Dea in front of a C1-A

Jane O’Dea was born to a father who was a World War II pilot and a mother who was a WWII Supply Corps Officer. She grew up in the Iowa countryside outside of Ames and Des Moines, graduating from Iowa State University in 1972.

“I always wanted to be a pilot,” she says, “but little girls didn’t dream of being pilots in the 60s.” Still, she admits that “I was a rough and tumble girl growing up.” Both of her parents raised O’Dea and her sister to be tough in the face of the neighborhood bullies, and she attributes that to the grit she developed and brought with her through her life. 

O'Dea planned to go to law school, but when she heard that the Navy might open flight training to women, she signed up right away. She was sent to Newport Rhode Island for Women’s Officer School (WOS).

“I figured if I wasn’t selected (for flight training), I’d get out of Iowa for a few years and finance law school through the GI Bill,” she says. Four women, including O’Dea, were selected for flight training. Three graduated, earning their wings in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1974.

“My dad dressed up in his service dress blues which I had never seen him wear,” she remembers. “He was the 1st man to pin wings on his daughter. That was a special day for both of us.”

Despite earning their wings, the women pilots were not allowed to carrier qualify (CQ) as part of their training, though it was required of all the male pilots. This exclusion wasn't the only indication of challenges ahead. O’Dea was warned another way as well in WOS.

“The commander, a pioneer in her own right, was excited for me but cautioned me to be careful saying “The Navy does not reward pioneers.”” She was right,” O'Dea says.

As a Lieutenant Junior Grade in 1976, O’Dea was flying C-130s when she discovered she was pregnant, prompting a two page article in the local paper. Despite the headline, “Rota’s first pregnant pilot continues as ‘a competitive asset to squadron’” O’Dea hints that things were not nearly as smooth as the article attempts to illustrate, though the extent of information provided on her circumstance in the published article alone suggests difficulty. It did give her the opportunity even in the 1970s to speak up about the balance of military duties and family: 

“I hope career-type women of the Navy will be a thing of the future. Childbirth is a natural thing and all organizations employing women will have to learn to deal with it.”

Her commander is quoted as saying “her pregnancy has probably complicated her personal and career life more than it has made problems for me.”

When O'Dea was halfway through her career, as a field grade officer, an unexpected opportunity materialized.

“When I was a Lieutenant Commander I was given the opportunity to carrier qualify on the USS Lexington in a C-1A,” O’Dea says. 

It was a big risk. “I already had a perfectly good reputation as a pilot,” O’Dea said. “I risked losing that if I didn’t do so well.”

She knew what she was getting herself into. “I’d been exposed to it enough having been ship’s company for over a year,” she says. “I’d seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d watched a cold CAT (catapault) Shot where something happened and the catapult misfired and the plane dribbled off into the ocean. The possibility of a cold CAT was especially scary for the plane I was flying because we didn’t have ejection seats so there was an additional risk.”

She pauses, remembering the cold CAT. “The guy I watched on a cold CAT punched out but he almost died anyway. He landed on the deck of the ship and was almost sucked into the intake of the aircraft waiting to take off behind him. Fortunately several brave sailors jumped onto his parachute and saved him.”

O'Dea, top left, with her fellow department heads on the U.S.S. Lexington, 1984

O'Dea, top left, with her fellow department heads on the U.S.S. Lexington, 1984

It wasn’t only the danger of a carrier landing itself that worried O’Dea. “I was worried I could let my dad down, too,” she says.

“Did I follow a life long dream? Or should I play it safe and say no, I don’t want to take this risk?” 

O’Dea took the risk. 

“It was very scary, very intense,” she says. 

A normal runway has thousands of feet for takeoff. On the USS Lexington, O’Dea had 200 feet. The first time she went off the ship “I looked back once we were in the air and the ship looked like a postage stamp,” she says. 

The carrier landing was the biggest challenge. “You learn to fly the Fresnel Lens,” she says. “There is a row of green lights on either side of a yellow or red light. This is referred to as the meatball. It goes up and down depending on whether you are above or below glideslope. If it turns from yellow to red, you are way below glideslope. When you roll onto final you call “roger, ball,” and your fuel status.”

In order to maximize space on the carrier, the deck was also angled ten degrees to the left. “With a fixed runway you correct for crosswinds but the runway doesn’t move,” O’Dea says, “but on a carrier you have to keep correcting because the runway is drifting away from you and you have to make constant left corrections. It’s the Skipper’s job to keep the wind within ten degrees of the nose of the ship. Carrier landings require you to put your life completely in someone else’s hands.”

Because the USS Lexington was a smaller World War II era carrier with a shorter runway, O’Dea had additional landing requirements. 

“We had to do what they call a “blue water cut,” O’Dea says, “bringing our throttles to idle while still over the ocean. I looked down at the water while bringing my throttles to idle, and had to have total faith in that Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on the deck.”

She landed it. “I faced the fear and lived to tell,” she laughs.

What would O’Dea tell new young women leaders today?

“Even after all these years women are still up against tough situations. If they make it to flag rank, it is automatically assumed that they are tokens and they don’t deserve it. They are still harassed at all levels. All the sexual harassment training has done is to drive the resentment underground.”

O’Dea is perplexed at the effort by today’s women officers to save the skirts in uniform.

“I simply don’t understand. All we had were skirts and high heels when I was in the Navy. I and many others fought the battle with the Navy to get us trousers and comfortable shoes.”

She has specific thoughts on careers as well.

“The uniform doesn’t make the person wearing it. Performance is everything. Nothing will be given to you. Unfortunately, you will have to work harder and be good if not better than your male counterparts to prove yourself.”


O'Dea's flight suit is in the museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station

O'Dea's flight suit is in the museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station

What does O’Dea think about grit? “Merriam Webster says grit is toughness and courage. There were times in my career that required great mental toughness. I first stuck it out through survival training in the February cold and rain. I flew down the Suez in the Yom Kipper War. I left my two small children to go on deployment for six months. I took off into the sunset in a C-130 only to know that I would still be flying when it rose 12 hours later. Oh, but the stars out over the ocean were incredible!”

Not only can anyone develop grit, but “we are all born with grit. It is a matter of whether or not we want to nurture it.

O’Dea recognizes different kinds of grit, though, too.

O'Dea's youngest daughter dressing up in her mom's helmet

O'Dea's youngest daughter dressing up in her mom's helmet

“There is the toughness that pushed the adventurer like I am to embark on a non-traditional career. My sister and I have discussed this. She cannot understand how I was able to do what I did. She has a different kind of grit. She was a flower child of the 60s when I was flying airplanes. We could not have been more different. She became a nurse which I could never have done. It took all the grit I had to change my babies’ diapers. For many years she worked in LA juvenile hall helping troubled teens. She was attacked and had to carry mace with her to protect herself at work. In my mind, that takes a type of grit I don’t have.”

Even so, O’Dea is still facing the fear. The weekend before our conversation, she headed to a wind tunnel to simulate skydiving with her grandchildren. 

O’Dea retired in the Navy as a Captain (0-6).

Shannon H. Polson is a speaker, author of North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, mountain lover, mom and founder of The Grit Project. She is one of the first women to pilot the Apache attack helicopter in the U.S. Army. She is also an Ambassador for FlyGirls the Series. Read more about Shannon at


Wall of Honor - The 38 Fallen WASP

We honor the fallen...

               Hazel Ying Lee       Aug 24, 1912-Nov 25, 1944

               Hazel Ying Lee

      Aug 24, 1912-Nov 25, 1944

         Mabel Virginia Rawlinson         Mar 19, 1917-Aug 23, 1943

         Mabel Virginia Rawlinson

        Mar 19, 1917-Aug 23, 1943

     Virginia Caraline Moffatt      May 22, 1912-Oct 5, 1943

     Virginia Caraline Moffatt

     May 22, 1912-Oct 5, 1943

        Marie Michell Robinson        May 23, 1924-Oct 2, 1944

        Marie Michell Robinson

       May 23, 1924-Oct 2, 1944

         Gertrude Tompkins Silver          Oct 16, 1912-Oct 26, 1944

         Gertrude Tompkins Silver

         Oct 16, 1912-Oct 26, 1944

                Mary P. Hartson          Jan 11, 1917-Aug 14, 1944

                Mary P. Hartson

         Jan 11, 1917-Aug 14, 1944

  Betty Louise Taylor Wood   Mar 13, 1921-Sep 23, 1943

  Betty Louise Taylor Wood

  Mar 13, 1921-Sep 23, 1943

              Elizabeth Mae Scott             Jul 26, 1921-Jul 8, 1944

              Elizabeth Mae Scott

            Jul 26, 1921-Jul 8, 1944

              Dorothy F. Scott         Feb 16, 1920-Dec 3, 1943

              Dorothy F. Scott

        Feb 16, 1920-Dec 3, 1943

         Lea Ola McDonald    Oct 12, 1921-Jun 21, 1944

         Lea Ola McDonald

   Oct 12, 1921-Jun 21, 1944

          Jane Delores Champlin         May 14, 1917-Jun 7, 1943

          Jane Delores Champlin

        May 14, 1917-Jun 7, 1943

         Beverly Jean Moses     Dec 21, 1922-Jul 18, 1944

         Beverly Jean Moses

    Dec 21, 1922-Jul 18, 1944

       Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck        Nov 14, 1912-Oct 16, 1944

       Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck

       Nov 14, 1912-Oct 16, 1944

        Susan Parker Clarke      Aug 5, 1918-Jul 4, 1944

        Susan Parker Clarke

     Aug 5, 1918-Jul 4, 1944

     Bonnie Jean Alloway Welz      Jun 22, 1918-Jun 29, 1944

     Bonnie Jean Alloway Welz

     Jun 22, 1918-Jun 29, 1944

  Evelyn Genevieve Sharp (WAFS)         Oct 1, 1919-Apr 3, 1944

  Evelyn Genevieve Sharp (WAFS)

        Oct 1, 1919-Apr 3, 1944

       Betty Pauline Stine   Sep 13, 1921-Feb 25, 1944

       Betty Pauline Stine

  Sep 13, 1921-Feb 25, 1944

      Mary Ann "Marian" Toevs        May 13, 1917-Feb 18, 1944

      Mary Ann "Marian" Toevs

       May 13, 1917-Feb 18, 1944

    Marjorie Laverne Davis    Dec 20, 1922-Oct 16,1944

    Marjorie Laverne Davis

   Dec 20, 1922-Oct 16,1944

       Marie Ethel Cihler Sharon        Apr 21, 1917-Apr 10, 1944

       Marie Ethel Cihler Sharon

       Apr 21, 1917-Apr 10, 1944

     Helen Jo Anderson Severson        Nov 2, 1918-Aug 30, 1943

     Helen Jo Anderson Severson

       Nov 2, 1918-Aug 30, 1943

     Margaret June "Peggy" Seip       Jun 24, 1916-Aug 30, 1943

     Margaret June "Peggy" Seip

      Jun 24, 1916-Aug 30, 1943

      Gleanna Roberts Jan 11, 1919-Jun 20, 1944

      Gleanna Roberts

Jan 11, 1919-Jun 20, 1944

       Margaret Sanford Oldenburg           Jul 29, 1909-Mar 7, 1943

       Margaret Sanford Oldenburg

          Jul 29, 1909-Mar 7, 1943

   Dorothy Mae "Dottie" Nichols       Sep 26, 1916-Jun 11, 1944

   Dorothy Mae "Dottie" Nichols

      Sep 26, 1916-Jun 11, 1944

              Mary Elizabeth Trebing             Dec 31, 1920-Nov 7, 1943

              Mary Elizabeth Trebing

            Dec 31, 1920-Nov 7, 1943

     Marjorie Doris Edwards     Sep 28, 1918-Jun 13, 1944

     Marjorie Doris Edwards

    Sep 28, 1918-Jun 13, 1944

             Peggy Wilson Martin            Feb 8, 1912-Oct 3, 1944

             Peggy Wilson Martin

           Feb 8, 1912-Oct 3, 1944

                 Alice E. Lovejoy           Aug 15, 1915-Sep 13, 1944

                 Alice E. Lovejoy

          Aug 15, 1915-Sep 13, 1944

     Katherine Dussaq Mar 14, 1905-Nov 26, 1944

     Katherine Dussaq

Mar 14, 1905-Nov 26, 1944

Elizabeth "Jayne" Erickson Apr 24, 1921-Apr 16, 1944

Elizabeth "Jayne" Erickson

Apr 24, 1921-Apr 16, 1944

            Cornelia Fort (WAFS)         Feb 5, 1919-Mar 21, 1943

            Cornelia Fort (WAFS)

        Feb 5, 1919-Mar 21, 1943

            Paula Ruth Loop       Aug 25, 1916-Jul 7, 1944

            Paula Ruth Loop

      Aug 25, 1916-Jul 7, 1944

   Frances Fortune Grimes   Oct 7, 1914-Mar 27, 1944

   Frances Fortune Grimes

  Oct 7, 1914-Mar 27, 1944

         Mary Holmes Howson       Feb 10, 1919-Apr 16, 1944

         Mary Holmes Howson

      Feb 10, 1919-Apr 16, 1944

        Edith "Edy" Clayton Keene          Dec 19, 1920-Apr 25, 1944

        Edith "Edy" Clayton Keene

         Dec 19, 1920-Apr 25, 1944

       Kathryn Barbara Lawrence         Dec 3, 1920-Aug 4, 1943

       Kathryn Barbara Lawrence

        Dec 3, 1920-Aug 4, 1943

       Mary Louise Webster     Jun 30, 1919-Dec 9, 1944

       Mary Louise Webster

    Jun 30, 1919-Dec 9, 1944

In the Face of Rampant Sexism, Aviation Pioneer Beverly Burns Conquered the Odds in a Male-Dominated Industry

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

It was early in her career that Beverly Burns heard the words that would cement her fate as pilot: “Women are just not smart enough to do this job.” The speaker was a first officer of American Airlines and his audience was a group of fellow crew members, gathered for a casual conversation in between flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Burns, a young flight attendant among the group that day, recalled, “I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth…that I wanted to be an airline captain immediately.”  

That Burns would eventually achieve her goal in the face of the rampant sexism of the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. airline industry and become not only a captain, but also the first female pilot to helm a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, is a testament to a unique and extraordinary drive and perseverance.

Beverly Burns was born on August 15, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. From her early years, her family expected her to follow a typical route of marriage and subsequent reliance on a bread-winning husband; however, Burns' passion for airplanes led her toward other aspirations. During her high school years she had made up her mind to work in the travel industry, prompting her school counselor to recommend to her a career as a flight attendant. 

In 1971, Burns took her guidance counselor's advice and embarked on a career in flight -- working for seven years as a stewardess for American Airlines while enrolling in flight school at Hinson Airways, located at Baltimore Washington International Airport. From the very beginning of her flight school training she encountered problems and went through eight different instructors before she finally found one that she felt took her seriously--Robert Burns, Hinson’s lead instructor who would eventually become hers husband. Robert Burns was predisposed to be sympathetic to the plight of aspiring female aviators; he had been taught to fly by a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who had flown in service to their country during World War II but once disbanded, were thereafter excluded from airline service. The former WASP urged him that if he ever found a woman pilot he thought was ready for the opportunity, he should try to get her on board an airline. Without hesitation, Robert Burns agreed.

Although Beverly Burns earned her flying certificate, Hinson demurred at bringing her on as a pilot until Robert Burns intervened and secured her a place as his co-pilot on a string of flights, finally satisfying the airline as to her proficiency and earning her a spot on their professional roster.  

The world that Burns hoped to break into as a pilot at the end of the start of the 1980s was a boys' club that no doubt seemed exasperatingly exclusive to any would-be aviatrix. Female pilots were restricted from using the public address system to address passengers because of the fear that it might unsettle clients. Peggy Chabrian, then-president of Women in Aviation International and former dean of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University remembers the 1980s as a decade in which some passengers would indeed walk off of aaircraft if they learned their pilot was a woman.

Despite a spike in female pilot recruitment that remains unparalleled even today (in 1980, one in 4,224 pilots was a woman, today the number is closer to one in 5,623), the male pilot who Burns once heard refer to women as “too small, too weak, and not intelligent enough,” was representative of a persistent opinion within both the industry and the general public. Other problems also awaited women who commanded planes, as Burns found out when she was fired from one corporate flight job after a businessman’s wife was displeased at the idea of a pretty, young pilot joining her husband on trips.

Still, Burns pressed forward, accruing flight hours and experience as well as graduating to larger planes. By 1981, after a short stint as a captain at Allegheny Commuter she accepted a job at People Express, alternating an unusual schedule of duties as a flight attendant, gate agent, baggage handler, dispatcher, and avionics trainer as well as line captain.  Her record-breaking Boeing 747 flight from Newark to Los Angeles occurred in 1984 and earned her an Amelia Earhart Award.

For many years after, Beverly Burns continued to demonstrate the capability and ambition that allowed her to excel in her field. In 2001, she assumed the captain’s seat in a Boeing 777 with Continental Airlines, becoming the first female Continental captain to fly the large and sophisticated aircraft (by this time People Express had been absorbed into the larger Continental). A year later, on a flight that Burns piloted out of Hong Kong, the plane’s floor began to vibrate violently at the onset of the journey, causing her three alarmed co-pilots to request a swift return to the city that they had just left. Burns kept a cool head and succeeded in keeping the flight on track, helping the crew pinpoint the source of the problem, and designing an effective solution.

Toward the end of her career, Burns expressed her resolute love of flying while voicing her takeaway from a long experience in the sky: “All good pilots have some fear in them. That’s what makes them good pilots. It’s that knowledge that you have a vehicle that your operating and if you don’t operate it right, you can kill yourself- just like in a car.”

When she retired in 2008, Burns had clocked 25,000 hours in flight and operated a series of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft across the world. With her early aspirations fulfilled and considerable challenges surmounted, Beverly Burns finally settled into a permanent life on the ground, with another future goal in sight. In the absence of a significant amount of recorded female stories and achievements, the pilot and former stewardess has announced that she plans to publish a book about her life, adding that, “We need to write our own histories."

WASP Ruth Adams: Flying Gave Her Courage

by Logan Walker with special thanks to Dylan Almendral and the American Legacy Museum

Ruth Adams with her chute posing in front of a C-47 before ferrying it to another base. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum

Ruth Adams with her chute posing in front of a C-47 before ferrying it to another base. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum

“I’m a fairly cautious person. I remember the first time it crossed my mind that anyone would be interested in flying besides those men out there. A couple of girls that I knew…said, ‘We want to be flyers when we grow up.’ And my response was, I was fourteen, fifteen, I wasn’t—I thought, what a dumb idea. It’s dangerous.”

That was Ruth Adams’ earliest recollection about flying, and few impressions could prove more comically inverse. For Ruth, who would one day find herself piloting a “dangerous” vessel thousands of feet above the ground, the journey from a safe college life to the cockpit of a plane was one that wound through a maze of personal difficulties, preconceptions and fears. It was also one that would leave her with the courage and skill set to pursue her most daunting ambitions and start over again and again with startling success.

Born in Ohio in 1917 to George Dana and Pearl Adams, Ruth’s childhood in the Cleveland area was beset by obstacles. Although her family lived in an upper class neighborhood, the family was relatively poor and Ruth and her sister were just two of just a few neighborhood children who did not attend a private school. A tomboy who rarely mixed with her community peers socially, Ruth suffered from a form of dyslexia that prevented her from reading until she was in the third grade; “…I was convinced I was stupid. I read a lot because I was rather isolated. The boys wouldn’t let me play with them because I grew up in an upper class neighborhood.”

Things began to change for Ruth in her late teens, as she began to feel more assertive and comfortable with her unique skills. Having played baseball as a hobby for many years, Ruth found an opportunity to prove herself and shatter expectations when she and a friend happened upon a boys' baseball game during summer camp. As she watched the boys show off their prowess on the field, she felt a resentment build within her. She knew she could play just as good as them. Boldly, she decided to make her move. She recalled, “I said timidly, pretending to be a timid girl, ‘Can I play? Will you let me try it?’ And they said ‘Alright, let her try it.’” She asked the boys to “throw her an easy one” and proceeded to hit the ball out of the field, never to be found again. “They had no business showing off like that and expect[ing] me just to stand there wide-eyed and admiring. And I thought, the hell with that, you know. Why can’t girls do anything?”

Ruth’s streak of courage faltered at times in the face of air travel. Although her attitude had softened somewhat toward flying as she grew older, an incident during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 gave her a serious scare. Her family had flown to Chicago for the Fair and were enjoying sightseeing around the city just a day later when they learned that the plane they had traveled on had crashed in a bout of harsh wind over Lake Michigan. Once again in Ruth’s mind, flying was crossed with an unmistakable aura of danger.

After graduation from high school Ruth moved on to study at Wellesley College, earning her undergraduate degree in Art History in 1939. In Boston she found work as a research assistant at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and was confronted by another chance encounter with planes. On the way back from visiting a friend out of town, a roadside school caught her attention with its advertisement for five dollar and under flying lessons:  “But I thought, oh, that dumb stuff, and went by.  I was saying disparaging things to myself. Five miles beyond that I decided, ‘are you afraid to go up?’ And I said, ‘Well, I will just see if I was afraid.’ And I turned around.” Ruth signed up for lessons with the school, practicing in an open cockpit biplane, and found to her surprise that she wasn’t afraid of flying at all. As she recalled, “It was simply an interesting sensation, and also intellectually appealed to me. Things looked so different. So, I liked it so much that I would take myself—it was near Worcester and I would go all the way out there…Then I thought, well maybe this is something I could do, because I was very dissatisfied.”

Ruth Adams dressed and ready for flight. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

Ruth Adams dressed and ready for flight. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

With a growing ambition to be a professional pilot, Ruth investigated the possibility of enrolling in a flight school run by pilot and future WASP executive Nancy Love. With lessons at the school running up to $2000, she decided against enrolling; however, before long she heard about the new Civilian Pilot Training Program. As a college graduate, Adams only had to pay the registration fee at Northeastern University and after a string of free flying lessons she received her private pilot’s license. “Of course it was kind of fun and I enjoyed it and that’s where I discovered that I was a really good flyer,” she remembered many years later. As a licensed pilot, Ruth continued to take lessons, hoping to log the requisite 500 hours to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Her plans changed when she heard about the WASP program, which required applicants to log less hours. She applied quickly, and after a successful interview, she was accepted.

Landing in class 44-W-2, Ruth left for training in Sweetwater, Texas. Life as a trainee presented its own set of challenges but Ruth was determined to succeed, sometimes too her own detriment; her eagerness to follow an instructor’s comments about head movements to a literal degree resulted in the man failing her during a test ride. Fortunately, she persisted in retaking tests and absorbing in-flight lessons, eventually becoming glowingly proficient in basic flight as well as acrobatics and navigation.

Ruth’s dyslexia, which caused her to transpose numbers and letters and often painstakingly slowed her reading abilities, was another hurdle. While flying she learned that her condition, which had long been an embarrassment to her, could be navigated around with enough willpower and creativity. “I’ll tell you that flying gave me a lot of courage because I found that I could read all of the instruments on the dashboard,” She recounted. “Of course we learned where to focus, and to focus fast, but nevertheless by the time I was doing pursuit, or even at the AT-6, there were a fair number of instruments to take in at a glance. I thought if I could do that then I’m a pretty good flyer. I think that I could do anything if I really pay attention and try to learn it.”

After graduating from WASP training in March 1944, Ruth was assigned to Ferry Command at New Castle Army Base in Wilmington, Delaware, later moving to take up a place in pursuit school in Brownsville, Texas. “[In] Brownsville…I was always afraid I’d wash out. I’d do something dumb and wash out,” remembered Ruth, who added “I didn’t at Sweetwater, but when I got to Brownsville I was flying in the backseat of the AT-6…for the first two weeks, and then the next two weeks we just flew various pursuit planes. At first oh, P-39, and then the King Cobra, and then the P-40, and the P-47.” Ruth may have been nervous about passing her courses, but time would prove her fears unfounded, as she was the only woman in her bay to pass primary training.

On duty as a ferrying pilot, Ruth not only loved flying but found herself impassioned about her role in the war effort; “I hated Hitler and really wanted to see us win this war. I had political orientations from the time I was an analyst.” As many of her WASP peers also learned, flying was a dangerous and unpredictable job, even outside of combat. Ruth's experienced this first hand when a UC-78 plane she was flying began to emit copious smoke mid-flight, forcing Ruth and her co-pilot Esther Manning Shively to make an emergency landing in a farm field. A further investigation showed that defective wiring insulation had caused the landing gear to burn. Both women where cleared of any responsibility, but the incident recalled that upsetting moment Ruth experienced years ago at the World’s Fair. “I think I could have gotten killed easily,” she remarked. “I think I’m lucky I didn’t…I’m very lucky. [I was] relatively inexperienced. I did everything by the book pretty much. And I was careful. I had to be because I was afraid of things.”

By October of 1944 the WASP program was officially disbanded, but contrary to the abject disappointment experienced by many women in the organization, Ruth viewed the end of her WASP career with more relief than anger; “…when we were deactivated I wasn’t of two minds. The goddamn planes could kill me, or I could kill myself, you know, by doing something dumb. And so I think my main feeling, about sixty percent of me, was glad that I had made it and was still alive.”

Ruth may have had misgivings about flying, but she hoped to continue her career as a pilot even after she retired her WASP uniform. Despite her efforts to secure a job in the field, she was faced with the post-war reality of an America that was less than ready to see a woman at the helm of a plane, in a commercial sense at least. After a meeting with a business head about a potential job flying the company's planes, Ruth remembers the man “…looking me up and down like a piece of meat. You know, particularly my legs…He told me he didn’t think that the officers of the company would be comfortable flying with a woman. And that was the end of that.”

Ruth Adams' assorted photos and WASP paraphernalia. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

Ruth Adams' assorted photos and WASP paraphernalia. Courtesy of the American Legacy Museum.

While Ruth continued to pilot Cubs on occasion and even took helicopter lessons at one point, flying was no longer a viable career path for the former WASP. She took a several jobs in New York, first as a welder and later as an electrical technician, where her WASP credentials were a definite advantage; “They were very impressed. They really hired me because I was a WASP I think. An ex-WASP. That made me very attractive to them.”

When a psychiatrist she was seeing suggested that Ruth pursue a job in the medical field, the former pilot embarked on a career that would dominate the rest of her life. After gaining admission to NYU's prestigious medical program, she studied hard and rose to the top of her class. After finishing her studies in psychiatry, Ruth went on to practice at New York’s William Alanson White Psychiatric Institute as well as the Youth Authority of the City of New York, where she worked extensively with young patients. In the early 1970s she relocated to California to be near family and settled in Oakland where she served as a psychiatrist for the Alameda County emergency juvenile psychiatric facility.

On December 16, 2005, Ruth, who had retired nearly twenty years earlier and had devoted her later years to painting and sculpting, died suddenly after suffering a massive stroke. A self-proclaimed “independent” woman to the end, Ruth's inspiring career and service to her country and to the medical health profession are enduring reminders of the power of a woman determined to pursue her own goals as well as rise above adversity in any time period. For Ruth, whose courage was outstanding even in the face of perilous flying conditions, dramatic career changes, personal disadvantages, fear was never enough to keep her down.

"We all wanted to do something to help the war effort." --WASP Lucile Doll Wise

By Logan Walker

Lucile Doll Wise. (Photo: Texas Woman's University)

Lucile Doll Wise. (Photo: Texas Woman's University)

With the onset of U.S. involvement in WWII, much of the youth in America found themselves united in a common employment; aiding the country’s war effort. Such work was not just the purview of men, as evidenced by the scores of American women who functioned in military and paramilitary roles during the conflict. Kansas native Lucile Doll Wise was one of many such women who wished to help in service to her country, but the job she had her heart set on was one that had been unprecedented for women in the nation’s military history.

“We all wanted to do something to help the war effort. All my women friends were joining the military,” Wise remembers, reflecting on her decision to join the WASP so many years ago. “I did it for a lark, to add a little excitement to my life.”

For Wise, who took her first flying lesson on December 6, 1941, just a day before the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor, her attachment to the job went beyond a mere bit of fun; “I loved flying, it’s such a wonderful feeling, you know, to be up in the air. It’s exhilarating, everything looks so beautiful. And then you’ve got the challenge of making the plane do what you want it to do.”

Fifty hours of logged flight time later, Wise was ready to add her talents to the war effort. In May 1943 her application to join the WASP was approved at nearly the same time that her brother, fresh out of high school, enlisted to join the Navy. While he would go on to return “…safely, but perhaps a bit damaged emotionally,” Wise’s own experience would be unforgettably exciting and empowering.

On her arrival at the WASP Sweetwater, Texas training camp, Wise soon realized that the flying preparation regimes for the female pilot hopefuls would be no different from that of the men; “We lived in barracks, we slept on metal cots, and we learned to march, and we were under military discipline, under demerits- we had to make our beds a certain way, and we had inspections. It was very stressful because we had to meet the requirements.”

Wise and her fellow trainees spent long hours in the air, at times seven days a week. Even more time was spent worrying about meeting graduation standards and even more pressingly, avoiding the hazardous and all-too-easy piloting mistakes that could have fatal consequences. As she noted, “…those of us that were left were really proud of those wings, because they worked hard for them.”

In November 1943, Wise was one of the successful WASP graduates to earn her wings and embark on a future flying military aircraft. Her first assignment was to the Asheville Weather Wing of the Army Airways Communication Systems in North Carolina, but soon after she was reassigned to the Army Air Forces Weather Service Region in Kansas City, Missouri.

Like many WASP, Wise's duties included ferrying military aircraft between bases, but most often she was assigned to fly weather officers to meetings and inspection trips at air force bases in the region.   During those trips, she flew quite a bit and covered a seven-state regional territory. While her passengers were always men, they seemed very comfortable with her piloting skills. That’s not to say that Wise had no issues with her position as a WASP;  “We had a handsome uniform and officer privileges, but I really wanted to be militarized and get a commission. We were working hard and did not realize that we were making history as the first U.S. women to fly military aircraft.” It was an issue that she would add her own weight to in years to come.

Lucile Wise poses with her basic trainer. (Photo: Denver Post)

Lucile Wise poses with her basic trainer. (Photo: Denver Post)

Constant contact with a variety of military planes was one of the perks of the job. Wise says, “When I started, we had a twin-engine Cessna. It was about a five passenger Cessna, it was kind of slow, but it was a nice, safe plane. And we had short hops between these air bases, so it was okay. But then we got a C-45, the Beechcraft C-45, which carried about ten passengers, and that was much more fun to fly.” Her favorite plane to fly was the AT-6 Texan, an apparent favorite among the girls. During her tenure as a WASP, Wise would fly a range of planes, including the Cessna UC-78, AT-11, C-60, B-25, and C-45.

“When traveling, I usually stayed on base in the nurse’s quarters, although sometimes we stayed in hotels,” Wise explained, adding that “one base in Nebraska had no women on base, and the small town had no hotels, so I was given a room in the hospital.” Wise’s trips were usually for periods of four to five days, with a day spent at one airbase at a time within her assigned seven-state region. Recalling this period in her life, she muses that “I loved every minute of it, but it was not easy. It was hard work, and I came back from trips pretty tired.”

When the news that Congress planned to disband the WASP, Wise joined many like her in feeling lost and disappointed in the wake of the sudden decision. “It was pretty much a shock,” she recalls. “We just didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had been doing something that was just wonderful, and it was very hard to get our lives started again.“ After 19 months and 700 hours flying planes in service of the war effort, Lucile took off her wings and headed on to a more grounded life. After all that time, she noted with equal parts playfulness and pride, “[I] never scratched a plate.”

Adjusting to her new status wasn’t easy; “I missed it dreadfully for a while, but it was expensive, and going back to the small planes wasn’t nearly as much fun,” stated Wise. “We were spoiled. And then I married, and raised a family, so, I got involved in other things. I missed it very much. But I finally got over it. I still love to be around airplanes.”

Wise and her husband settled with their two children in Washington, DC, where she would be conveniently placed when the subject of the WASP re-emerged once again in her life many years later. In the late seventies, the issue of bestowing veteran status on the WASP was a much-contended topic in the government with groups like the Veterans Administration and the American Legion among other powerful organizations opposed granting the WASP this level of recognition. “Those groups had so much power, and they feared this would open the floodgates,” Wise asserted, presumably referring to other non-military groups who might hope for similar privileges.

Wise’s geographical location made her a perfect ally to her fellow WASP in their quest for recognition.  She happily added her support and lobbying efforts to the cause; “It was a thrill to attend the hearing and have contacts with Congressmen. It was a great help for a few of us who were without health insurance or in financial trouble to be eligible to be treated at military hospitals.”

The result of the hard work, by Wise and her fellow WASP was the 1977 legislation signed by President Carter recognizing the WASP and bestowing upon them military veteran status.

In recent years, Wise, who resides in Arvada, Colorado, has remained close to her WASP roots, meeting old colleagues and even flying occasionally. Through WASP reunions and meetings, she has made kept in touch with many fellow WASP. “I made some great friends in the WASP program,” she stated, adding “We all looked alike in our ‘zoot suits’…I am grateful for my opportunity to serve and I believe we all feel the same way. The WASPs went through a unique experience and I believe we all have a close bond.”

Lucile Wise, 92, awaits pilot Chad Graves as the two prepare to fly in a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane at Centennial Airport. (Photo: Denver Post)

Lucile Wise, 92, awaits pilot Chad Graves as the two prepare to fly in a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane at Centennial Airport. (Photo: Denver Post)

In 2012, at the age of 92, Wise took a very decidedly hands-on trip down memory lane when she took over the controls of a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane, one she may have remembered as a military training aircraft used during WWll. Stylishly outfitted in goggles, a headset, and a leather bomber jacket, she started the plane with the same giddy smile she might have worn almost seventy years ago.

“I’m so impressed by what women pilots are doing today, especially flying into combat,” the aging aviatrix said, reflecting on the modern state of women and flight. “They are doing some great flying and proving once again that women can fly military aircraft as well as men.”

To Wise, one of the courageous women who once flew planeloads of military officials state-to-state and fought victoriously to change government legislature, the vast extent of women’s competency is, without a doubt, very old news.