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Flying High

Local women recount their experience as WASPs, or women airforce service pilots.

On a slow train to Texas, Gayle Reed celebrated her 25th birthday. She'd never forget it, because that day would also be the start of her training as a WASP, or a woman airforce service pilot. The Kansas City native read about the program in the newspaper in Atlanta, where she taught simulation training to Navymen. She already had her pilot’s license, so getting into the program wasn't hard. It was March 1943.

"I wanted to fly. And to fly the real grown-up military stuff was very exciting to think about," Reed said, who resides in Vienna.

Reed became one of 1,830 women who participated in the WASP program, created by the federal government during World War II to help ferry planes across the U.S. and assist in training male war pilots.

The program was the brainchild of Jacqueline Cochran, a pilot. She approached the Air Force in 1941 and President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow female pilots to perform noncombatant duties. She had been the first woman to fly military aircraft to England on ferry command in June 1941.

Over 25,000 women applied to the program that ran from Sept. 1941 to Dec. 1944. Out of the 1,830 were accepted for training, 1,074 completed it, or earned their wings.

The program ceased towards the end of World War II, when there was no longer a pilot shortage. Public opinion also swayed Congress to discontinue the program in 1944.

"It gave all of us a confidence, because we went through the same training that the men did," said Lorraine Z. Rodgers, who now lives in Alexandria. "After some of the experiences we had, there wasn't much we were afraid of."

WHEN THE TRAINEES arrived at the training base in Sweetwater, they inherited the men's coverall uniforms, or zoot suits. The day consisted of two components, school and flight training. All the levels of flight training, from primary to advanced, were conducted on the same field.

After the training, women were stationed in Michigan, Deleware, California or Texas. As WASPs, they ferried warplanes across states, worked as test pilots, towed targets for gunners, instructed male pilots, and flew weather reconnaissance missions.

But whenever the former pilots reminisce at local schools and civic associations about their experiences, it's not the details that the pilots relate, but their stories of insubordination and close calls. Reed likes to tell listeners about the fighter planes she liked to fly. One of her favorite planes was the P-51.

"Flying it was like silk. It was very responsive," Reed said.

One day, Reed was assigned to fly a P-39 from Texas to California. The P-39 is a one-seater pursuit plane.

After she got take-off permission, she marveled at how quickly the plane ascended from the runway.

"I have never felt such power," Reed said.

Shortly afterward, she received instructions to come back down. Not wanting to leave the skies, she took off her headset and ignored the command. Feeling playful, she decided to measure the cloud she was riding on. She flew down to the edge of the cloud, and then weaved along up to the top of it. Once satisfied, she radioed for landing permission. When she got called back to the operations building, she got reprimanded for insubordination. Yet she said she would do the experience over again if she could.

"The funny thing is, you're not afraid of hurting yourself. You're afraid of messing up," Reed said.

For Rodgers, she also had her story of insubordination. As she was wrapping up her ferry command assignment, she decided to hedge hop, or come down low and skim the tops of edges. She was bored.

"After awhile going back and forth…it got kind of monotonous," Rodgers said.

When she landed at a base in Arizona, she was reprimanded by a commanding officer. As she was hedge hopping, she caught a cactus on the tail wheel, and had been dragging it along behind her. She promised the officer she wouldn't hedge hop again.

"But even he had a twinkle in his eye," Rodgers recalled of the officer.

Rodgers also tells listeners of the time she had to bail out of her plane. The plane got caught in an inverted spin, meaning that it was flying upside down and in reverse. When she saw how close she was to the ground, she knew she had to get out. She had problems opening the canopy, but once she did, she waited three seconds before pulling the ripcord, instead of counting the ten seconds as standard procedure.

AS SHE LAY ON THE GROUND trying to decide if she were alive or dead, two cowboys came up to her. One pulled off her helmet, surprised the see the long hair that cascaded down. The other grabbed cotton from the field. She started crying not because she was hurt, but from fear of not being able to fly again.

"He said, my gosh, it's a little girl," Rodgers said.

The next day, she heard her name called over the loudspeaker. She didn't believe it when the instructor told her that she could fly again. Rodgers discovered that the mishap was due to a cut rudder, not to pilot error. Rodgers was ecstatic.

"When you're up there, all by yourself, it's so clean, so beautiful, you've never felt freedom until you're up there. You put your hand out, you feel like you're touching God," Rodgers said. To this day, Rodgers has the ripcord from the accident. And three years ago, one of the cowboys tracked her down. They've been emailing and exchanging family pictures ever since.

Rodgers' classmate at field training, Springfield resident Phyllis "Toby" Felker, likes to tell people of the mischievous male pilots they flew to Pierre, SD. Felker and another female pilot were assigned to take them to the gunnery range. As they were flying, the two male pilots ran back and forth inside the plane. Felker and the other pilot panicked, unable to keep the gauges at balance.

"Those guys decided to play a trick on us," Felker said.

Felker said that besides flying, the camaraderie of the other female pilots made her time as a WASP memorable. She ran into Rodgers several years ago in a department store. They recognized each other instantly.

"It was so wonderful, because all these women, they all loved to fly. We made such good and lasting friends because we had that one thing that happened," Felker said.

Indeed, the WASPs hold reunions every two years, and for several years, the WASPs who lived in the Washington area met twice a year at luncheons. They relive their experiences, as well as give each other updates on what has happened to them since. Reed was married twice and worked odd jobs before working for the FAA. A Vienna resident since 1962, Reed last flew a plane in 1976 or 1977, and decided that flying hobby planes wasn't for her. Rodgers married a Navy man and traveled with him around the world. They settled in Alexandria in 1972, and Rodgers took up oil painting. Felker married a military man, and has lived in Springfield since 1955.

Yet all relate their WASPs stories as if it were yesterday.

"It was really a treat," Felker said.

Said Rodgers, "I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to do all the things that we've done while we were WASPs."

Reed agreed, "It was a high spot in my life. At one time, you were flying with the best of them."