Tribute to a Sweetwater Fly Girl

The Law of Attraction is simple: like attracts like. I’ve found the theory to hold true when it comes to the kinds of people we meet in life.

In the early 90s, Jim and I were riding our motorcycles in the Bay Area when we met Nancy, an 80 year-old woman who was riding a Gold Wing.

I was dumbfounded that a woman her age was on a bike, but then she told me she used to be a World War II Ferry Pilot, which made motorcycling look like child’s play. As one of the few women bikers at the time, I felt an instant kinship with her.

To this day, her courageous spirit still influences my life, even on our trip across Texas.

Flying Across Texas Into WASP History

In World War II, while the men-folk were off fighting the war, a small group of gutsy women were recruited by the US Air Force to fly military planes from factories to air bases. They also towed targets on the back of these planes while male fighter pilots practiced firing at them with live ammunition!

About 2,000 WASPS trained at the Sweetwater, Texas airport and just over 1,000 women graduated as the first non-combat US military pilots, known as “WASPS” (Women Airforce Service Pilots). As non-combat pilots, these women freed up male pilots from “drudge work” so they could fight on the frontlines.

Nancy was one of these courageous gals. Even after the program was disbanded at the end of the war, she continued flying until one day when she decided to fly a small plane underneath the Golden Gate Bridge!  That’s when she was banned forever from flying. So instead she hopped on a bike and continued riding for decades.

A recent story about the WASPs on NPR reminded me of her. That’s when I also learned that the official WASP museum is located in Sweetwater, Texas, which happened to be on this year’s “Eating Across Texas” route. Jim and I were headed there to do another round of home cookin’ at Allen’s Fried Chicken, and once I heard the NPR story, I put the museum on our itinerary.

The WASP Museum: Frozen in Time

The WASP museum is housed in the original 1920s-era aircraft hanger where the WASPs trained.

Inside, a collection of memorabilia, video and props tells the story of these heroic women who came from all walks of life to train as pilots, for a meagre $150 a month salary.

The program was controversial and had its detractors but these women endured to become the first military pilots in the country.

But because the Air Force hired them as Civil Service employees, the WASPs never received military status or benefits because the war ended before a congressional act could be enacted to give them military recognition.

The WASPs were nearly forgotten in history until the 1970s, when the Navy announced that women would be allowed to fly combat planes. As more military women aspired to and became fighter pilots, the story of their WWII  predecessors was resurrected.

The WASPs Get their Props

Years went by until these courageous women were finally recognized by our government. Just a few months ago the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington.

WASP Pilot Betty Wahl Strohfus, pictured getting her medal, is one of just 300 surviving WASPs.

I don’t know what happened to Nancy, but my memory of our run-in has always stayed dear to my heart. I can’t help but think that much of my good fortune in life comes from that chance encounter I had with such a courageous soul who wasn’t afraid of taking chances. She influenced me more than she’ll ever know.

Seeing the actual spot in Sweetwater where she and so many brave women earned their pilots wings will always serve to inspire myself (and many, many other women) toward more adventure in our lifetimes.

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11 Responses to “Tribute to a Sweetwater Fly Girl”

  1. Thanks for your heartfelt post – I’m a Navy vet and I’ll be visiting Sweetwater very soon, just to see this museum. Love the story about Nancy!

  2. I love that! The depth, the energy, the spirit behind such people….no matter their age or circumstances. I hope I’m the same way.

  3. What a fascinating story!!! Thanks so much for including so much detail and the photos. Fascinating. The danger, however, in writing such a blog post, is that someone may come along one day who invokes this story in trying to persuade you to do something adventurous like travel to Mexico next winter. 🙂
    Glad to hear your travels continue well.
    Cathryn and Bob

  4. Thanks for reading everyone, I’m so glad I could share this little bit of herstory with the world (and I don’t even like flying but how can you not be impressed by their guts?). What an incredible bunch of aviation pioneers!

  5. Great story. I’m a former army medic, so this was very interesting to me! The first line of your post is so true….like attracts like!!

  6. I realy enjoyed this post. Tributes to vets are very important but they’re so easy to forget sometimes. Very nice web site.

  7. A beautiful post. I can’t believe you met one of these women!

    Posts like yours continue to bring this important women’s history into everyone’s consciousness. I’d just barely heard of these women, but I wasn’t really sure what it was all about, so thank you for sharing this story.

    Jennifer

  8. I did a quick search for her via the internet. Did you see this article? http://www.womenspress.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=22&ArticleID=3358&TM=19601.8

    I was surprised to find that she was from or lived in MN. Great post Rene.

  9. Very interesting, thanks for sharing that..
    You never know, Nancy could still be out there and read this.

    Kelly

  10. What a great post! Thank you for the mini history lesson.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. live. work. dream. | Full Time RVing Sabbatical Lifestyle Blog | A Vegetarian Watches Amateur Rodeo in Sweetwater Texas - May 31, 2010

    […] When we were in Sweetwater, we happened to camp out at the fairgrounds the same weekend the West Texas Rodeo Association was in town. For just the price of our campsite, we had the option of checking out two days worth of events, free. Jim assumed I would want to leave, or at least organize a protest. But something compelled me to check it out. Being a cheapskate I figured I had nothing to lose if I found it as horrible as I always heard it would be. At least I would know PETA wasn’t exaggerating. After all these years, this veggie-burger eatin’, sprout growin’ hippie was going to judge rodeos for herself, I thought. […]

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