We Represented All Women
During World War II, WASPs proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot.
- By Jonna Dootlittle Hoppes
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 22, 2009
Courtesy Jonna Hoppes
(Page 4 of 4)
You are washed out in three days if you can’t make the grade. And on that third day, I was really worried.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “this is probably going to be it.”
I went up with our instructor that morning and he was on the controls the whole time. I mean, I never got the feel of that airplane—ever.
When we landed, he looked over at me and said, “You know, that was a lousy landing.”
“I know,” I said. “That was yours. You know, you haven’t let me fly one time! I never got a chance to fly at all!”
He looked at me. “I’ve never flown with a woman before. I just knew I couldn’t let you go. I would feel responsible if something happened to you.”
“Well, look,” I said, realizing that I had nothing to lose. “I’m here. I’m volunteering. And if I am stupid enough to make a mistake, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
“Well,” he said after a moment of silent contemplation, “you can fly again tomorrow.”
He was really surprised that I could fly. It never occurred to him that a woman would be able to fly a pursuit plane.
And that’s exactly what I did! My orders would have me taking a P-51 from Dallas, Texas, to Long Beach, California. In Long Beach, I would pick up a different plane and fly to Newark, New Jersey. Or we’d fly to Wichita, Kansas, to pick up a Bamboo Bomber. We’d kick the tires and if the wings didn’t fall off, we’d climb in. Once you got your orders, you checked out an airplane. I mean, what you really did was buy that airplane. It was yours. If you had to stop halfway to your delivery point, you sent a message back to the base so they would know where that airplane was and where you were.
One night I sent a message that said, “Delivered a P-51. Mother and plane doing fine.” The guy reading the messages at about four o’clock that morning got a kick out of it.
I was an eager beaver and would happily pass on my seven-dollar per diem and sleep overnight on an airliner so I could start another round of deliveries the next morning. The WASP had very high priority with the airlines. Only the presidential party could bump us. One time, I kept track of my meals: I didn’t eat two meals in the same state for three days.
I only experienced one close call. I flew from Dallas to Long Beach. I called in for my landing instructions and the tower called back.
“You’re on fire. You need to circle the field and we’ll clear the area for your landing.”
I couldn’t see the fire, but I circled as instructed, and set the plane down on the runway. My training taught me to evacuate as soon as possible, so I grabbed the plane’s papers, my sock full of make-up and scrambled out. I stood there about 10 feet away from my plane—its locked wheel on fire, spewing smoke from the friction—with my ship’s papers in one hand and my sock of make-up in the other. “Oh, my gosh!” I thought to myself. “I’m such a girl!”
I never lost that quality…I mean being a girl. My room in the barracks at Love Field reflected my feminine side. It came with a single metal bed and a board along one wall for hanging clothes. I fixed that room up. I made a bedspread and curtains for the window and a curtain to hang over the makeshift closet. It looked so cute! Even my base commander appreciated my efforts.
One night he asked me to hang around the barracks to greet some special guests. I wasn’t happy about the assignment.
“But there’s a dance tonight!” I argued. “I want to go to the dance!”
“I think they’ll come in early and you can still go to the dance.”
I could hear the music from the club as I sat fuming in my room. But it all worked out in the long run. President Truman had called Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell back to Washington. The general, his pilot, copilot and their wives were our guests for the night. I felt really bad for the women. Here they’d flown in from San Francisco with their black negligees and plans for a romantic rendezvous, and they were stuck in our barracks!
“What are you flying?” Vinegar Joe asked me.
“I can’t believe you’re flying the Mustang!” he said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
He asked me to join them for breakfast and I did. What an amazing man!
General Stilwell wasn’t the only one who didn’t realize women were flying pursuit planes. I landed the P-51 at one field, pulled over to the hangar area, and a guy jumped on the wing.
“Where’s the pilot?” he asked.
“What do you think?” I responded. “That the pilot jumped out and I was just playing around and decided to jump in?”
* * *
I was flying on December 20, 1944—the day they disbanded the WASP. I could not believe we were being deactivated. I stood at the airfield and looked across a sea of P-51s just waiting to be delivered. Most of the guys coming back were bomber pilots, not yet cleared in pursuit planes. We volunteered to deliver them. For a dollar a year, we would have flown those things for them…heck, forget the dollar!
It was the saddest day of my life. You see, I had this job to do, and it was just about finished, and they told us to go home. Just like that.
I think I felt the prejudice at that time more than any other. I felt that I was doing a great job, helping my country, sacrificing my ordinary life. Then a decision was made: they no longer needed me. I almost felt like what we did didn’t matter that much. It was so easy for them to disband us. Like we were used, but not appreciated. I think most of the WASP felt that way for a time.
But we did matter. Our job was important. It just took 33 years for us to get our veterans benefits.
And now, when I look up at a hawk soaring, I share his exultation. In fact, at 89, I jumped out of a plane with the Golden Knights. My partner was a black aviator and as we were drifting down, floating through that capsule of air, it dawned on me just how much things had changed.
“Mike, do you remember all the prejudice against black pilots and all the prejudice against women pilots? And here we are just floating down together and having such a wonderful time.”
And he said, “You know, Vi, things have changed.”