Mickey Brown got her first airplane ride from her brother-in-law and immediately fell in love with being in the air. She earned $12 a week working for some attorneys and spent $8 for each flying lesson.
She did earn her ticket, but didn’t have a lot of hours when she was accepted as a WASP. “I couldn’t afford it.”
Fast-forward to her WASP training.
“We were doing aerobatic training, and I was told to do figure-eights. But I became so entranced I lost track of how many I was dong.”
That is, until the radio cracked in a not-so-pleasant tone from a commanding officer, “How many of those damn things are you going to do?”
No matter their reason for getting involved in aviation, the group of women who made up the Women Airforce Service Pilots played an important role in America’s history. With limited aviation opportunities for women in the 1940s, the military program turned out to be a blessing for those females who wouldn’t accept traditional roles. And those women, in fact, turned out to be a blessing for the many women who since followed their love and passion for aviation.
With a severe shortage of male pilots in 1942, American pilot Jacqueline Cochran convinced military officials that she could bring together women pilots and train them to fly the “Army way” and thus free up America’s male pilots for overseas combat. Nearly 25,000 women volunteered for the job, yet only 1,830 were accepted, and of that only 1,078 graduated and went on to become a member of WASP, training at Avenger Field near Sweetwater, Texas.
WASP flew 44 different types of airplanes in all types of weather and conditions. They ferried personnel and hauled cargo, they delivered aircraft from factories to bases and elsewhere, and they test-flew new, old and rebuilt planes and even some planes that male pilots refused to fly. They towed targets for ground-to-air and air-to-air gunnery practice, and they delivered old planes to America’s junkyards. Simply put, they flew every type of mission the Air Force had except combat.
They flew more than 60 million miles for their country in less than two years, and then, in December 1944, the WASP were disbanded; the women were told to pack their bags and go home.
Almost all of the WASP applied for airline jobs after they were deactivated. But the world wasn’t ready for a female in the cockpit for a long time, the women agreed. So some WASP went back to the regular world of being a wife and mother after their stint in the service and never flew much again.
However, a number of those women kept flying. Some went into competitive flying and flew in air shows; others worked as flight instructors.
Ringenberg is one of those. In 1994, she had 40,000 hours in the air and said, “I haven’t been counting since.” The 85-year-old also has competed in air races for 49 years. She missed the Air Race Classic this year because she was ill, but says she’ll be back next year.
And in 2002, she was able to meet the astronauts and fly their best flight simulators. She proudly adds she made two landings without crashing.
Like many of the others, Ringenberg can’t imagine her life without the WASP in it. “I was elated with the opportunity to serve my country and fly,” she said.
And Ringenberg and the rest of the WASP are elated to tell their story today.
WASP: How women helped win a war, By Barbara A. Schmitz