Monday, August 17, 2009

Pioneer of the Sky

About a month ago, Edith Beal of Bridgton got a call she never saw coming.

Beal, now 93, was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. They were the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. They took on non-combat missions, freeing up male pilots to fight overseas. They lost 38 of their comrades.

And now they were going to get their due.

On July 1, President Barack Obama signed a law awarding Beal and her fellow pilots the Congressional Gold Medal, which goes to individuals who perform an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States. A ceremony will likely be held at the White House before the end of the year to honor the approximately 300 women who are still alive.

For Beal, it is a fitting honor. The Women Airforce Service Pilots were disbanded in December 1944 after Congress refused to grant them military status, a wrong that was eventually made right in 1977. The medal is another sign that their service will not go unremembered, Beal said.

"I thought it was a good idea," said Beal. "It took them so many years before they recognized us as veterans. We were civilians."

Numbering more than 1,000, the women pilots broke important social barriers in a time of war, much like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Navajo Code Talkers, said Nancy Parrish, director of Wings Across America, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. Also, much like those groups, the women did it, not to prove a point - in this case that women could fly planes - but to serve the United States.

"They did something extraordinary that no one thought they could do, and they did it for their country," said Parrish.

Beal's journey into the skies and American military history began in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where spurred by boredom, she went with a friend to learn how to fly.

"The war was on by then. This was in '43, I guess it was," said Beal, to whom the memories come slowly, but come nonetheless. "We were at loose ends to do things. Most of the men were in the service."

She was 27 at the time, taking lessons at an airfield in Great Barrington, Mass.

"Just a grass field, you know. My solo was on skis in the wintertime," she said.

She went on to train in Hamilton, N.Y., then once in the program, in Sweetwater, Texas, where they were taught to fly like military pilots by members of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Just to get to Sweetwater, Beal had to prove herself. More than 25,000 women applied for the program, and only 1,830 were accepted. Of those, only 1,074 graduated from training.

Once in Sweetwater, Beal trained on a biplane as the primary aircraft, and the AT-6 when learning how to navigate with instruments. She remembers well her first flight at the Army base.

"When he first pulled me up in the biplane, he did a rollover. You just hope your seat belt holds," Beal said, smiling at the memory. She had her parachute, and she knew how to deploy it, but "I'm glad I never had to get out of it," she said.

Once trained, the women pilots were dispersed among 120 bases across the country. They were charged with flying aircraft from factory to port, transporting cargo, simulating missions and other non-combat duties.

In September 1944, Beal was sent to Eagle Pass, along the Rio Grande on the Mexican border, where she hauled targets so pilots could practice the accuracy of the guns attached to the P-51 Mustang, one of the Army's premier aircraft in World War II.

"I'd take a GI in the back, and when I got to a certain level, I'd go at a certain heading and the sheet would come out," said Beal. "These P-51s would come through and shoot live ammunition."

The women faced many hurdles along the way. They had to pay their travel expenses through their training. When tragedy struck, the pilots often came together to pay for funerals. They were not considered veterans, after all, and were not availed federal benefits. The Army did not allow their caskets to be draped with an American Flag.

They also contended with frequent doubts and even scorn from their male counterparts, said Parrish. In one instance, a woman pilot crashed because sugar had been placed in the gas tank of her aircraft. But the mission had to go on, and news of the cause of the crash would be devastating.

"They didn't tell anyone about it," said Parrish, whose mother flew in the program. "They just went out flying."

The program was disbanded just three months after Beal arrived in Eagle Pass, but it is a time she remembers fondly. She was, for a time, behind the controls of an AT-6, a "sweet plane," she calls it. The night flights, where she could see lights for miles, are still there for her to recall.

And it was during that time, while at a base in Kansas, that she met a flight instructor and fell in love.

Arnold and Edith Beal were married Feb. 10, 1945, beginning 53 years of marriage. They moved around a bit before coming in Maine, where Arnold's father was a school official in South Portland.

They settled eventually in Bridgton, building a house and a series of cottages near Sandy Cove Road, raising four kids along the way.

After leaving Eagle Pass and the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, Beal got behind the controls of a plane just once, after her and Arnold married and moved to Illinois. But, like other veterans of World War II in the time after 1945, the next step in her life was already on its way.

"I rented a plane once and flew for 10 or 15 minutes," said Beal. "But I was pregnant by then."

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