I can now honestly say, “I was on the grassy knoll.” I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas when I was in the Lone Star State attending the 16th annual Women in Aviation International Conference.
I was not born when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I have seen the film of the motorcade and the black and white footage of a nation in mourning. In journalism school I learned that the bubbles and spots on the film were there because the networks, in their rush to get the pictures on the air, did not let the film dry.
My tour guide at Dealey Plaza was amazed when he found out I am a pilot because he’d never met a female pilot before. I suggested he head to the Adams Mark Hotel which, for those few days in March, was full of women involved in aviation, including a fair crop of pilots.
This was my fifth WAI conference. This was the second year we had a volunteer jazz band and the first year we had a name: Lift, Thrust and Drag. We played more charts from the Big Band-era this year, much to the delight of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. A WASP who stopped me in the elevator last year and asked for “Moonlight Serenade” positively beamed when we played it this year.
This year the modern military was represented in great numbers, with at least 300 attending. The Air Force brought with them two falcons, one named Cody and the other Aurora. The cries of the birds which, I was assured by an avian-savvy friend were the falcon equivalent of “get this hood off my head, I want to see what’s going on,” attracted a huge crowd.
The Boeing Co. was also there in force and made a big hit with its F-14 simulator. With the help of a Navy pilot, civilian aviators had a chance to fly the sim and get in touch with their inner Maverick.
The best part of these conventions is the opportunities you have to meet and bond with fellow aviators. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We stayed up late, talking about things that warm, sensitive women discuss over half-eaten chocolate cake, like where to get the most expedient and cost-effective multi-engine time.
The conference always has a plethora of seminars. One of the presentations I attended was Wally Funk’s safety seminar. Funk was one of 13 women selected for the Women in Space program in the early 1960s. Her resume includes more than 16,800 hours flying, much of that as a flight instructor. She was the first woman to be hired as an accident investigator by the National Transportation Safety Board. Her tips on how to do a thorough preflight were impressive. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, take advantage of it, especially if you are a CFI. I took notes fast and furious, and plan to work the information into flight review seminars and private pilot ground schools.
Another favorite presenter was Kate Landdeck, assistant professor of history at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Landdeck’s talk, “No Women Pilots Needed: WASP after the War,” packed the room.
Jacqueline Cochran created the WASP in 1943 to free up male pilots for combat duty. The group was disbanded abruptly in December 1944. “They were told to go home and keep their mouths shut,” said Landdeck, “so that’s what they did.”
Their records were sealed and marked “classified” or “secret” and stored in the archives for more than 30 years, where they could not be accessed by historians. That’s the reason the WASP are left out of many accounts of World War II.
The WASP kept in touch by a newsletter, but by 1951 they were moving on with their lives and the newsletter faded, according to Landdeck. Most of the WASP didn’t really talk about their wartime experiences, she noted, adding, “but the men didn’t either. After the war, everyone was anxious to move on.”
The WASP who attended this year’s conference were a kick as usual, offering encouragement to the attendees. This was poignant because when the WASP were beginning their flying careers, they often faced discouragement in some of the oddest forms. One WASP said that when she was 19 years old and went for her military physical, the flight surgeon told her, quite seriously, “If you do this, you will never be able to have children.”
She made the audience roar when she announced, “I had 10 children! I’d like to find that doctor and wring his neck!”
The hotel was hosting another convention, something to do with computer technology. Some of the other guests didn’t know what to make of all these women wandering the halls. One thing that set us apart from the other guests was a post-elevator maneuver. Riding in the elevators triggered ear block. Aviation-empowered women would get off the elevators doing the Valsalva Maneuver to clear their ears. We got strange looks from the non-aviation guests, a few of whom mistook it for a ritualistic greeting.
Meg Godlewski is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.