Many airports have an official greeter — someone who meets the airplanes at the GA terminal and drives the passengers to where they need to be. At Sebring Regional Airport (SEF) in Sebring, Florida, the person behind the wheel of the six-person golf cart is 90-year-old Barry Benson Smith. She works long hours during the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in January or when the races are underway at the Sebring Speedway across the street from the airport.
But she’s used to hard work, she says. “I was a WASP for two years and two months,” she said proudly, “Class of 44-6.” During the Expo she wore her WASP attire as she filled bags of popcorn for exhibitors at the show. In between filling bags she told her story.
“My brother flew B-17s during the war,” she said. “He was stationed here in Sebring for a time. He wrote to me in September of 1942 and told me ‘you need to learn to the fly, they are taking women in the army as WASPs but you need 35 hours’. The next day I started lessons.”
At the time, Benson was living outside of Syracuse, New York, working at the telephone company. “I took a bus that took me a half hour west of Syracuse. The lessons were $14.50 an hour and I was making $25 a week, so an hour of dual took a little over half my pay,” she remembered.
She soloed at eight hours, and moved to an airport closer to home. She hitchhiked to the airport. “It was a very different time then,” she notes. “No one cared about hitchhiking then and most of the people I met were thrilled when I told them what I was doing.”
After she reached the 35 hour mark, she went to New York to be interviewed by Jacqueline Cochrane. “25,000 women were interviewed, 1,830 were chosen and 1,074 of us got our wings. I was one of them,” she said proudly.
The reaction of the men when “the new pilot” turned out to be a woman was comical, she said. “When I was stationed at Blackland Army Air Force base in Waco, Texas, I reported to the captain as his new test pilot and he took one look at me and said ‘Jesus Christ!’ and I said ‘no, Barry Benson’. He said right way no woman had been in that hangar before and no one told him I was coming. But they got a twin engine airplane, an AT-10 trainer, and an instructor and a parachute and gave me three hours of dual and said ‘there, you’re a test pilot’. I thought later, why does it take the men five months to learn to fly this airplane and I get three hours dual and I am a test pilot? But I could do it.”
She remembers the AT-10 as being a nice, easy to fly airplane. It was the first multiengine airplane men going into bombers flew. “There were eight of them at the base to be tested and I did it. I flew about 1,500 hours that year, mostly in the multiengine airplanes.”
When the WASP were disbanded, Benson held a commercial multiengine rating. “But nobody would hire a woman,” she said with a shake of her head. “I never flew again because I wasn’t just going to rent a little airplane and fly around town. I could have gotten my instructors rating but in the meantime I got married and was busy with that. I wore my uniform as civilian clothes for a time.”
She notes with pride that the aviation gene runs strong. “My son flew F-4 Phantoms in the Air Guard and he has an aviation room with all my pictures,” she said.