Female pilots then and now: From WASPs to full integration, these fliers have come a long way
by Nick Stubbs
The images in the scrapbook come alive as each page turns, the present melting into a sepia-stained past. The narrator of this journey back six decades is 88-year-old Ruth Hubert, her finger jumping from one yellowing photo to the next as she excitedly recalls old friends, places and the airplanes she flew as a member of the Women's Air Service during WW II.
She didn't know it then, but she was a pioneer for all the women military fliers who would follow, helping open a path to the day when women fliers not only serve side by side with men, but lead them as their commanders and fly beside them in combat.
But she's quick to point out she had no interest in blazing trails, and if she helped the cause of fellow female fliers, it was just a happy consequence of her pursuit of fun, adventure and service to country.
"I didn't want a woman's job when I got out of high school," says the spry St. Petersburg resident, who only recently gave up flying. "In those days you were a nurse or a school teacher or something like that."
She was a teenage photographer-in-training when her hometown of Lakeland, Fla., offered a prize for the best aerial photo of the city. She charted a local pilot to take her up.
"When I came down I had a new career path," she said. "I wanted to fly."
Not to be left out, her sister joined her in flight school and they soon had their pilot licenses, followed by commercial and instructor certifications. By 1939, it appeared the U.S. might be joining the war in Europe. The then 25-year-old Ruth Clifford got a call from a woman organizing a female flying corps to help in the event of war. She was interested but as a private instructor, she was overwhelmed with requests from young men, some still in high school, who anticipating action, wanted to get their license so they could join the Army Air Corps as pilots.
"I was booked up and very busy," she recalls. "The boys wanted to learn so badly," she added, they didn't seem to care their instructor was a woman, still unusual in those days.
Following Pearl Harbor and the U.S. joining the war, the supply of American pilots began drying up fast. It looked like the lack of male civilian pilots might actually lead to a great opportunity for Mrs. Hubert, who was almost assured the position of instructor and airport manager at the new Winter Haven airport. But a male pilot became available in the 11th hour and he got the job. Her hopes dashed, she called the recruiter and soon was a WASP training at a dustbowl called Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. One by one she was certified on military aircraft.
"I fell in love with the AT-6," she recalls of the single-engine plane in which so many fighter pilots trained. "That was my favorite."
In those days a WASP hit the pinnacle of her career as an instructor, a delivery pilot flying planes from manufacturers to bases or towing targets for gunnery training. Flying in the theater was out and combat wasn't an option. It seemed lady fliers of the time were defined more by what they couldn't do than what they did, especially as the country's focus was on the male fliers dogfighting and bombing in Europe and the Pacific.
It's a different world for Maj. Teri Consoldane, a 13-year KC-135 pilot with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron.
She flies close to the action, refueling combat missions and is in the thick of the War on Terrorism. She's tough and capable but she refers to herself and other female fliers as girls. It's enough to make any feminist cringe, but then she calls male pilots boys and says she doesn't carry water for any political or social causes.
"I don't tow a line for anyone," she said, adding she doesn't have an agenda or anything to prove but that she is an Air Force pilot, just like any Air Force pilot, be they "boy" or "girl."
But she does recognize the women who made it possible for her to enjoy her current status and of them, she can't say enough.
"I have tremendous respect for what they (WASPs) did and I think about how fortunate we (women fliers) are now," said Maj. Teri Consoldane, a 13-year KC-135 pilot with the 91st ARS. "I think about how much the culture has changed and what they endured back then for us to enjoy what we have today."
And what women pilots in the Air Force have today is equality, says 2nd Lt. Lindsay Laughlin, also a KC-135 pilot in the 91st. Flying for about three years, she is an avid WASP history buff and always has been inspired by their service at a time when "girls" were measured by a different yardstick than "boys."
"They definitely opened up all the opportunities I have," said Lieutenant Laughlin. "We have progressed so much from what things were like initially that today I live and breathe the same air as the males and we are a unified group."
The notion of women fliers being equal team members with men was unimaginable for Lenora “Nonie” Anderson, who as a WWII WASP trained male pilots and delivered planes to bases.
"We were separate and while we had respect, we were a sort of underclass," the 81-year-old recalled from her Bradenton home.
Sometimes it made her angry that she was ruled out for combat.
"I wanted to do more to help with the war," she said.
Mrs. Hubert didn't have the same hankering to fly in combat, but she knew plenty of WASPs who did and she suspects many would have performed very well. In reflecting back, she likes to think the WASP contribution was important, "doing jobs that needed to be done."
"There was a tremendous need for what we did," she said. "Someone had to train the men and there were not enough men to do it; someone had to deliver all those planes the factories were building."
And despite being ineligible for combat duty, WASPs faced danger. Towing targets for rooky gunners wasn't the safest job around and the normal hazards of flying, including bad weather and mechanical failures always loomed. For a time, Mrs. Hubert tested planes after they came out of repair. She had a couple close calls, but never came close to an accident. She knows WASPs who died, however, and she recalls a scary night she and a group of WASPs flying in pairs and returning from training in Texas arrived after dark at their destination airfield to find no one in the tower. None had ever landed at night and several didn't even know how to switch on the lights of their planes. As they circled dangerously over the field unable to see each other, a worker at the field realized what was going on and was able to get them landed one by one safely.
Such incidents always meant more to WASPs, said Mrs. Anderson, who notes that women fliers were under pressure to prove themselves and not draw criticism.
The feeling of having to perform equally or even better may be the last vestige among women military fliers, said Maj. Consoldane, who said while she has never been made to feel an outsider among the predominantly male fliers, she demands of herself a great deal to ensure she doesn't draw attention to herself.
"It's integrated and everyone is well respected but sometimes as a female you feel like you stand out in the cockpit, as if you are wearing an orange flight suit," she said. "You feel like you are expected to perform better but I'm OK with that."
Lieutenant Laughlin said she's never been treated any differently than the male pilots. But she too feels at times like the pressure is on. She was the only female in her class in flight school. For her it always has been a balancing act.
"I'm as girly as you can get," said Lieutenant Laughlin, who joked she would wear a feather boa in the cockpit if the Air Force allowed it. "But when I'm on the job I'm one of the guys and you have to have a thick skin and act tougher sometimes and generally adjust to being around guys and the roughness."
The seven female pilots of the 91st make up about 10 percent of the MacDill fliers. Women make up about five percent of fliers in the Air Force. Major Consoldane and Lieutenant. Laughlin believe the numbers are controlled in part by women who either don't realize the opportunity to fly is there or just don't have the same interest in the job as males.
"I think that's changing," said Maj. Consoldane "More mothers and grandmothers are telling their girls the possibilities are there and that all they have to do is pursue it."
Major Consoldane notes that whenever she encounters a young girl who discovers she is an Air Force pilot, it is obvious how much it opens their eyes to things they didn't think about previously.
Both Mrs. Anderson and Hubert went on to civilian flying jobs after the war, working in what remained a man's world for at least another three decades. When Mrs. Hubert was named commander of her Civil Air Patrol squadron in the 1970s, four male members up and quit, she recalled, saying they would not take orders from a woman.
"Things have changed so much over the years, but it wasn't until the 1980s that women finally started to break out a little," said Mrs. Hubert.
For those who have not taken stock of the climate in 2005, they need look no further than the example of MacDill's commander, Col. Maggie Woodward. Not only a female who pilots KC-135 Super Tankers, she is the first female commander of the base, leading 3,000 men and women of the 6th Air Mobility Wing.
"That's an accomplishment that the women of my time would have had a hard time ever imagining," said Mrs. Anderson. "Things have changed that much that anything is possible for the women today."