Some stories come together quickly. They form as whole entities and find their way into print almost overnight. Others take more time.
This particular story is in that latter group. It started in 1915. It came together just today. If you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s 104 years. Quite a gestation period.
In March 1985 a woman named Suzanne de Florez departed Rio de Janeiro bound for New York. She flew on a Pan American Boeing 747, the US flagship carrier operating the largest, most luxurious transport of the time. She’d made the trip before. Repeatedly, in fact. As a former dispatcher for the airline and a regular international traveler with business interests in South America, Suzanne was a seasoned flier.
Exactly how diverse and challenging her experiences in the air were would certainly not be evident by taking a casual glance at this businesswoman sitting quietly as she transitioned from the southern hemisphere to the northern.
Somewhere along the way, the flight’s captain exited the flight deck. He was very tall with thick dark hair. Movie star handsome with a ready smile, it would be natural for any of the passengers to strike up a conversation with a man of his obvious accomplishment and bearing.
Ironically, in this case, the female passenger had the more fascinating aeronautical resume. And when comparing a Pan Am captain to any pilot outside the astronaut corps, it’s rare for the captain to come up short.
The captain was my father, Stu Beckett. He was 50 years old, at the height of his career. The passenger was just as she appeared to be, a successful, well-mannered woman, who carried her 70 years of life with grace.
But there was another, younger version of Suzanne de Florez who had shown a talent for flying years before. A woman who embraced life, who threw herself into some of the most challenging situations imaginable for a young woman of her era. A woman who wanted to serve her country so fervently, she left it to serve in Europe when her home nation said they had no use for her.
I wish I’d known her.
Sitting on my desk in front of me is the note Suzanne wrote to my father some months after the flight where they met. It’s very warm in its tone. Friendly and gracious words written by hand with a ball point pen in blue ink. It’s written in cursive, which means I can read it, but my kids can’t as they are of the first generation to live with computers and keyboards as part of their lives from the very first.
“I can’t believe that it was the middle of March when I flew home from Rio with you and promised you these ‘Ferry Pilots Handling notes,’” wrote Suzanne.
Although past the age of traditional retirement, Suzanne, who referred to herself as Suzie, was serving as the president of Humphreys Pharmacal in 1985.
“I have been under a lot of pressure in the business and am very tired,” she admits. “But now I think things are looking up and I will have time to think and relax a bit.”
This was no shrinking violet. And her greatest accomplishments may not have been limited to those in the board room, although she did steer that company through some challenging times.
The “Ferry Pilots Handling notes” she referred to were her cheat sheets for the aircraft she flew in England between 1942 and 1945. After being rejected by the United States military, which had no use for female fliers, she crossed the Atlantic to fly for the A.T.A., which the British government referred to as the Air Transport Auxiliary. Suzie and her peers called it the “Ancient and Terrified Airmen.”
Suzie flew Mosquitos and Mustangs, Wildcats and Typhoons. Her logbooks include Spitfires and Seafires, the Boston, and Havoc, even the Corsair. By the end of the war she’d piloted 70 types or more.
Her handling notes include information about engine model, starting procedures, flap operation, fuel systems, takeoff procedures, and the like, all detailed for each type. In some cases, such as for the Typhoon, her handwritten notes include inside baseball tips like, “Never touch throttle during starting.” The word “Never” is underlined in dark ink.
“The Typhoon was a real challenge,” she wrote in 1985. “You always used oxygen when you flew her. Take off was interesting as there was only nine inches clearance of the prop and if you opened the throttle too much before the wheels came up she would try to roll over on you!!”
The double exclamation marks are hers.
She flew Dakotas, and Hudsons, and Mitchells during her final two years at Prestwick, using radio navigation, which her commanding officer turned a blind eye to, which allowed her to fly over the weather to reach and land at the American base at Bovingdon.
Before today I’d never heard of Suzie de Florez. My dad never said a word to me about her. I’d never come across her name in a book or a magazine article. Yet there she was, flying some of the most advanced equipment of her day, in wartime, with enemy fighters and bombers coming over the horizon on a daily basis. She was braver than I am, more accomplished than I’ll ever be, and almost totally anonymous.
We pass by people each day who have amazing accomplishments behind them, who perhaps have bright futures ahead of them, too. Like Suzie, they’re mostly anonymous. But they’re out there.
It’s for us to find them. Respect their achievements. Model our own pursuits after their successes. We might even thank them for their service, whether public or private.
I think I like Suzie de Florez. I’m honored to have her notes on my desk, and her story in my heart. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to share just a bit about her with you. I hope you’ll do the same. She deserves that much, at least.