The first ride Babette DeMoe Edinger ever took in an airplane was alongside her father, Earl, who was a Chicago businessman and a recreational flier. They were a few thousand feet in the sky that day when the single-prop engine died. Earl DeMoe literally sailed the plane back to the airport and put it down "Her father took her back the next day, wondering if he'd every get onto another plane," recounts Jim Edinger, Babette's husband of almost 60 years. "You'd think the experience of losing the engine, gliding down, and making a dead-stick landing on her very first flight would have scared the heck out of her. But he couldn't keep her out of his plane. She wanted to fly."
In fact, when 15-year-old Babette returned to Carmel, where she lived with her mother, she immediately signed up for flying lessons with Fred Kane at the Monterey Peninsula Airport. A year later, she was among the youngest licensed female pilots in America. Four years after that, she was one of 1,078 (1,074) aviators in a U.S. paramilitary group known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), flying stateside missions during World War II, freeing up male pilots for overseas combat duty. They were the first women ever to fly American military aircraft, and they flew almost every type of aircraft operated by the Army Air Forces during the war, logging more than 60 million miles. Thirty-eight pilots were killed while on duty.
In July, Babette DeMoe Edinger — now 87 and living at Carmel Hills Care Center — was honored with her former colleagues for her service to country with the Congressional Gold Medal. Dementia has taken most of her memories, and it is unclear whether she recalls anything about her days as a WASP, or whether she understands that she has finally been acknowledged by the U.S. government for her service. But friends and relatives say Babette's natural humility usually prevented her from discussing< those days, anyway.
"I got a school assignment once to write about somebody who was famous, or accomplished in some way, and my mom mentioned that Babette had been flying planes when she was amazingly young," says Roslyn Riddell, a neighbor of the Edingers in Big Sur. "I was probably in middle school at the time, and that's how I learned her story. It was very inspiring to see all of the photos of her from those days, and I learned a lot about history that I probably never would have known otherwise."
Friends say Babette always was more fascinated by the other person in the conversation than she was with talking about her own life. "I knew her for years before I ever heard a word about her flying. She was so modest about it," says Cara Weston, another Big Sur neighbor. "I can remember the first time I saw one of her photos, saying, 'She did that?' She never talked about it." Jim Edinger found his future wife sitting at a table at an air base in Santa Monica in 1942, filling out a flight form, and was immediately smitten. Their romance deepened when they were assigned to fly together to Air Force weather stations all over the Western U.S. (Jim was a meteorologist.)
She turned a lot of other heads, too. When she landed at an air base in Marysville, the runway was lined with pilots who had just finished flight training and were headed overseas. "They heard that female voice when she radioed for landing instructions and came pouring out of the barracks to greet her," Jim remembers with a laugh. "There was a whole lot of hoopla when this pretty blond pilot stepped off that plane."
Unlike their male counterparts, WASP pilots rarely knew what kind of plane they'd be flying on any given day. Babette flew everything from the Lockheed Electra — Amelia Earhart's plane — to the Grumman TBF Avenger dive bomber, the heaviest single-engine aircraft of WWII.
"She was a terrific pilot. Nothing scared her," says Jim, who, at age 91, drives every day from their home in Big Sur to spend time with her at the Carmel Hills Care Center, where she's lived for about a year. "She was always very calm. She knew how to take care of any problems that arose."
Babette was athletic and hearty from an early age. Carmel residents regularly alerted her mother thatthey'd seen her walking through town with a blue hue to her skin after an early morning swim in the frigid waters at Carmel Beach. She swam and played tennis at Monterey High, then became enamored with aviation, an obsession.
She married Jim in 1950, and gave up flying to focus on motherhood after having two sons, Jimmy and Johnny (both of whom died as adults). Jim became a professor at University of California- Los Angeles, where he taught meteorology for 15 years. Babette enrolled as a student, obtaining a liberal arts degree. They lived in the Santa Monica Hills, overlooking the ocean, in those days, and drove five miles to the beach every morning for a pre-sunrise swim.
They relocated to Big Sur in 1983, buying a one room cabin, then adding bedrooms, bathrooms and dining rooms. On a clear day, they could see Santa Cruz to the north and the Big Sur Lighthouse to the south. "What we love about Big Sur is that it's very nonurban," Jim says. "We love the mountains, the ocean, the people."
Neighbor Carol Surman says locals marveled at the Edinger's daily ritual. "They were both very athletic. They live about 800 feet above the ocean, and the road to the bottom is about a mile long," Surman says. "Every day, we'd be driving up or down that road, and we'd see the two of them walking it. That was their ritual."
Family friend Jonathan Hooper says Babette was equally famous for making homemade birthday cards, overcooking everybody's steak, collecting American Indian trinkets, and taking beautiful nature photos. "She could be an odd duck at times, too," he says with a laugh. "I remember being at their house, hearing all kinds of banging and clanging going on in the kitchen, and asking what was going on. And Jimmy, her son, would say, 'Oh, Ma just read another article about mercury in tuna, so she's going through the cupboards, throwing it all out.'"
"She's always had an intelligence, a spunk, a joy about living," says Stephanie DeMoe, Babette's great niece. "She'd get so excited just tasting a peach that she'd start making these cute little noises — 'oooooo! mmmm!' — without even realizing she was making them."
Her life at Carmel Hills Care Center remains a happy one, despite her memory loss. Babette's smile is constant, her eyes sparkle, and her conversations — though mostly nonsensical — gush with enthusiasm.
"She's the most positive person I've ever met — always smiling, always happy, always saying positive things," Weston says. "What we're seeing now ... that's how she's always been."
Dennis Taylor can be reached at email@example.com