Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Military pilot getting highest civilian honor

Military pilot getting highest civilian honor

By Ellen Sussman, Special to the Green Valley News

Published: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 9:15 PM MDT

Sixty five years after Edith Smith served as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot, she and about 300 other “WASPs” are receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

President Obama signed Public Law 111-40 on July 1, and surviving WASPs are waiting to be notified when they will be honored. Smith, 88, anticipates receiving the honor in the fall.

“As a kid I was always interested in flying,” she said, noting she had her pilot’s license at 18. “I was in high school when Amelia Earhart went down.”

Smith, who finished her WASP service when the program ended in December 1944, thinks about 100 women will attend the service in Washington — and she

’ll be among them.

Though the WASP program lasted only 28 months and ended abruptly, it wasn’t until Nov. 3, 1977, that the women were commissioned retroactively. They were given veteran status on March 8, 1979.

The journey begins

Smith said she was invited to join the Women Airforce Service Pilot group by an elderly man. “He was probably about 40,” she said truthfully yet humorously.

She applied in January 1944 and was accepted.

“Over 25,000 applied for admission. Just 1,830 were selected (all had previous flight training, many were licensed pilots). There were 1,074 who were granted and certified with commercial licenses with instrument and instructors’ ratings and deferred lieutenant rank,” she said.

Of the approximately 300 who are still alive, most are in their 90s, Smith said.

Piloting Piper Cubs, the Luscombe Silvaire, B-24s and B-25s, she said her mother was encouraging, and always felt she and her four siblings could do anything they set their minds to.

As demands for military pilots in the U.S. grew from 30,000 in 1941, to 100,000 in 1942, Gen. Henry ”Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, saw the value of using women in stateside missions.

“We had the same training as men, but there was a lot of resistance,” Smith recalls. “We had to buy our own uniforms. When we graduated, we were just civil servants... there were no military honors, no commissions, but we did what we intended to do.”

During her service she said there was a time when she was the only female pilot among 14 males.

“They gave me no static. They saw I could solo, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said.

Memorable moments include a time when she was flying in Bryan, Texas, and an engine went out.

“When an engine went out (and you were coming in for a landing) everyone was out watching — especially since a girl was flying.

“I had the best landing I ever made. I had never taxied on one engine before,” she said.

Smith said when the WASP program ended the women had to find their own way home.

Finally honored

Asked what receiving the Congressional Gold Medal 65 years after WASP ended meant to her, Smith’s feelings weren’t about herself.

“It’s partly sadness because so many are gone now and weren’t aware of being recognized... what we did was finally recognized.

“It’s sad that the families didn’t get the recognition.”

Though her mother and one sister lived to 102, and one sister lives alone and still gardens at 101, Smith said she’s making her “bucket list” — a list of things she wants to do before kicking the bucket. The term was coined in the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

Included in her short list are making contacts with some of her fellow WASPs and reading the Bible as literature, which she has started.

Smith was in high school when Amelia Earhart’s plane went down. But she pursued her passion to fly. Photo by Ellen Sussman | Special to the Green Valley News

Ellen Sussman is a freelance writer in Green Valley. Contact her at

(Class photo courtesy Wings Across America)

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