Ruth Helm: "We Got To Do What We Loved To Do In A Time Of War"

by Logan Walker

Ruth Helm in her Class A WASP uniform. (Photo: Jay Helm via Arizona Public Media)

Ruth Helm in her Class A WASP uniform. (Photo: Jay Helm via Arizona Public Media)

For Ruth Helm, WASP, businesswoman, community worker and recreational aviatrix were all titles she could claim with some pride at points in her life. Her career, relatively varied as it was, could be in most cases tied to the sky and the aircraft that glided through it. Such a life might never have been expected for the daughter of an auto dealing family in rural Texas, but neither was the flimsy plane that landed in the small town of Grapeland one ordinary day in 1927. The pilot of the vessel was a barnstormer, one of the stunt pilots whose industry had seen a surge of popularity in earlier days, and who could count among their former ranks one Charles Lindberg, whose much publicized air exploits would seize the nation within the same year. Plagued by mechanical issues, the pilot of the broken aircraft eventually found his way to the auto dealership that Helm's father owned, borrowing some tools and returning later to offer thanks for aid in rehabilitating his vessel. The barnstormer’s offer of a plane ride was turned down by Mr. Helm, whose seat in the cockpit was instead taken by his eleven-year-old daughter. High above the ground, young Ruth Helm felt the beginnings of a passion for flight that would last much of her life. As her son Jay recalled later, “She said the houses looked like dollhouses down below, and it was that moment she knew she wanted to be a flier.”

Though Helm may have made up her mind about what she wanted to do, family responsibilities cast a weighty shadow over her personal ambitions.  Having made a promise to her family to complete her education before embarking on her chosen career path, Helm graduated from Baylor University with a business degree. When her father died abruptly soon after, she was compelled to return home and take up the reigns of the family’s auto business. But Helm had not given up on her dream quite yet. Soon enough her success as a businesswoman enabled her to earn the money required to enroll in the Civilian Pilot Training at Tyler Community College, where in early 1939 she earned her pilot’s license. Determined to push forward in her chosen field, Helm next took out a bank loan to buy a private plane, and joined the international organization of women pilots known as the Ninety-Nines.

At Love Field in Dallas, 1943. (Photo: Wings Across America)

At Love Field in Dallas, 1943. (Photo: Wings Across America)

With her skillset and qualifications, it’s little wonder that Jacqueline Cochran wasted no time in recruiting Ruth Helm for the WASP program in the early days of the organization. With America engaged in the onset of WWII, Helm jumped at the chance to aid her country but was poised to enter the program’s very first training class with just three days’ notice. Ruffled by the lack of practical preparation time, she chose instead to join the second WASP class, 43-W-2. For the piloting hopefuls who would converge in Texas, the process of gaining WASP wings required all women to have obtained pilot’s licenses prior to training, and to further go through the same Army Air Corps flight training as male recruits. But unlike the men, who usually earned qualifications to pilot four or five different aircraft, the WASP trainees had to learn to fly a far wider spectrum of planes. As Ruth’s son Jay would explain, for the WASP, it was important to have the skills necessary “to fly one airframe into an airfield (and) be immediately tasked to fly another airframe of a different model perhaps to another location.” Helm would become qualified to fly over 20 kinds of military aircraft over the course of her career.

Helm with unidentified pilots preparing to ferry a P-63 headed to Russia. (Photo: Jay Helm, via Arizona Public Media)

Helm with unidentified pilots preparing to ferry a P-63 headed to Russia. (Photo: Jay Helm, via Arizona Public Media)

Following Helm’s graduation from training she was given her first posting and sent to work in the Ferrying Squadron at Love Field in Dallas. There she flew Pursuit, Transport, and Bomber planes, and also found the time to undergo Officers Candidate School in Orlando, Florida. Despite working in a male-dominated field, Helm found the atmosphere between the two sexes friendly and congenial. As her son remembered, Ruth maintained “that the male pilots treated the gals with just phenomenal respect. The guys recognized that, ‘Hey, you’ve been through the same training I have. You know, you wear the same wings.’” But as Jay Helm would be forced to acknowledge seconds later, this was not strictly true; “Well (the men) wore wings the WASP didn’t get to wear - military wings. The military wouldn’t let them do that, but the guys knew they still earned their wings the same way they did.” Such details would foreshadow the struggle that former WASP would face for years after, one that Ruth herself would be directly acknowledged as a part of.

On the heels of the dissolution of the WASP program in December 1944, Helm’s next significant career move would build on her flight credentials. Along with four WASP friends, she purchased a plane and relocated to Tucson, Arizona where she proceeded to open the Thunderhead Fly-in Ranch, one of the first fly-in ranches established in the U.S. For roughly 10 years, stretching from the late 1940’s to 1950’s, Ruth would operate the ranch. She also started a family of her own with the ranch’s cowboy horse handler Walter “Slats” Helm, who she married in 1951. The couple would go on to have 2 children. 

By 1962, Helm earned a Masters Degreee in Business from the University of Arizona and would play an active part in her community, becoming the Treasurer of the Institute of Better Education and an active member of the Old Pueblo Foundation, a provider of halfway house for men and women. She also became involved with the fight to earn the WASP military status. She'd met with Representative Martha McSally when McSally was still an A-10 pilot at Tucson’s Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The meeting had a significant influence on McSally. She said, “These feisty women came in for this luncheon and sat down and introduced themselves to me, and they were just so excited that we had women who were flying fighters and I was part of that. And I was on the front of that.” Years later, on the floor of the House of Representatives, McSally again evoked Ruth’s name extolling the importance of the WASP, stating that “(WASP pilots) were more than role models who broke down gender barriers to serve in the military, they were my personal wingmen-or wingwomen-and I will be forever grateful to Ruth and all the WASP women for paving the way for me, for serving as my friends and mentors, and for proving that women could be exceptional pilots too.”

(Photo: Legacy.com/Arizona Daily Star)

(Photo: Legacy.com/Arizona Daily Star)

Ruth Helm passed away in 2015 and had no wishes to be buried at Arlington but her son Jay speculated that his mother would approve of the recent news that the WASP had finally won the fight to be buried there; "They served. I think she'd be delighted that for the gals that wanted that option, they had it." Reflecting on his mother and her career in flight, Jay notes that even though his mother stopped piloting in 1958 at the end of her time running the ranch, her love of flying and the pride she took in serving her country were unquestioned. “My mom never talked about what she did as pioneering,” he recalled, adding “She said, ‘We got to do what we loved to do to in a time of war.’”

From the 11-year-old girl who sailed above the rows of dollhouses high in the Texas sky to the 25-year-old woman who boarded military aircraft with the easy professionalism of an experienced pilot, Ruth Helm viewed her time at the controls of an aircraft through the lens of love and responsibility, and few could argue that there are better reasons to do anything.