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SunLit Interviews

Earning the trust of a heroic woman World War II pilot proved challenging for a Colorado author

Sarah Byrn Rickman has spent 30 years chronicling the lives and aviation careers of the unsung WASP pilots. This no-nonsense character was different.

Sarah Byrn Rickman is the author of nine books about the WASP — the women pilots who ferried Army aircraft in WWII. Number Ten is due out in 2020. 

Sarah has twice received the Combs Gates Award from the National Aviation Hall of Fame. The Combs Gates Award is given annually for “creative projects that reflect an emphasis on the individual pioneers – the people – who defined America’s aerospace horizons.” 

A former reporter/ columnist for The Detroit News, Sarah later served as editor of the Centerville-Bellbrook Times.  A member of the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots, Sarah holds a Sport Pilot License and is qualified in vintage tailwheel aircraft — like the WASP flew.

The following is an interview with Sarah Byrn Rickman.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

I was fortunate enough to have known my subject — Barbara “BJ” Erickson London — for several years. I did her oral history and we talked a lot about her WWII service. After her passing, I contacted her daughter about writing BJ’s biography. She and I talked at length and she helped me collect the many photos and news clippings I needed to further enhance and inform my story of BJ’s flying life. 

By fall 2016, I already had written seven books about the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew in World War II — three biographies, two histories and two novels. I was ready to begin the full-length biography of yet another incredible woman I actually got to know and whose story really needed to be told.

Author Sarah Byrn Rickman.

Then two of my fellow authors — both retired teachers — asked me why I wasn’t writing my books about these women for the young girls of today who really need to hear these stories? I decided they were right. Young people today are our future and the girls need to know that women did avant garde things like fly airplanes “back in the old days.”

In early 1940s America, the WASP were ahead of their time. Gutsy, not afraid to push the envelope, in today’s parlance they would be termed “Bad-Ass Girls.” Nevertheless, these 1,102 patriotic, dedicated women pilots have been ignored by history. 

Read more interviews with award-winning Colorado authors in SunLit.

The job done by the 134 fighter-qualified women pilots alone is worthy of recognition, but history gives them no mention. Those women flew more than 800 P-51D fighter aircraft on the first leg of each aircraft’s journey. The women picked up those planes at factories in California and Texas and flew them across the width of the United States and delivered them to the docks at Newark, N.J. There, those P-51s were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, England bound. Our male pilots were waiting “across The Pond,” just itching to get their hands on the controls of those long-awaited, long-range Mustangs. And once they did, those guys and those P-51Ds were key to our winning the war with Germany.

Herman Goering — leader of the German Luftwaffe, upon seeing his first P-51Ds fly overhead — was alleged to have said, “We’ve lost the war.” Those P-51Ds were capable of escorting and protecting our four-engine B-17 and B-24 bombers on missions into the deepest parts of the German homeland and then escort them home to safety in Britain. 

It was the shot in the arm we needed to beat Germany. 

The WASP of the Ferry Command, under the guidance of Nancy Love, delivered three/fifths of the warplanes built in 1944, mostly to Newark to be sent abroad. BJ Erickson, Nancy’s versatile squadron commander in Long Beach, California, flew a lot of them. 

That’s why it is important to tell the stories of these women. 

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

Author Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men). Authors Tony & Anne Hillerman and their characters: Jim Chee, Bernadette Manuelito & Joe Leaphorn.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I’m telling the story of a woman and her remarkable performance and career in aviation begun when women didn’t do such things. Before I met BJ, a mutual friend told me, “She’s all business, no nonsense!” She was, and yet she was kind, likeable, genuine, and blessed with a dry sense of humor. In all ways, a straight shooter. She did an outstanding job commanding a squadron of 80 women pilots during WWII. Hopefully, these first two chapters put all that up front to get you into the story.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Telling the story of a woman I so much admired and knew personally. I had to prove myself to her. My mentor, another WASP pilot who knew her well, told me, “The other five WASP I’m introducing you to will accept you at face value and be supportive. But you will have to prove yourself to BJ – that you are worthy of her trust.”  

I succeeded in doing that, but it took some time. The proof of the pudding was my first book — “The Originals,” published in 2001 — inspired by meeting six original WAFS (later WASP) in 1999. Telling BJ’s story (published in 2018) was my gift to her and to her very supportive family as well as to posterity.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

The book was not difficult to write. It was a joy. However, BJ could appear cool and detached. She did not emote.” Some mistakenly thought she was “stuck up,” a good old 1940s-50s term. You had to get to know her, and vice versa. 

Portraying BJ was sometimes a challenge because she was very matter of fact and her humor was so very dry. She had this quirky little smile that came out when she was amused. She had fantastic self-control and could appear stand-offish. My dilemma: how do I best show this warm wonderful human being as she really was? I hope I succeeded. Two women from her squadron are still alive and they both have praised her to the skies for her abilities and how she ran her squadron in 1943-44. I tried to show that.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

This is a toughie because I have been researching all 28 of the “originals” for 20 years. My collective “interesting facts” are legion, but to pick one specific for this, my eighth book on the subject of the WASP pilots, is a challenge. Probably the biggest lesson was adjusting my writing for Young Adults as opposed to adults. Much of the adjustment is one of “feel,” of word choice and complexity. It’s been a true and very welcome education.

What project are you working on next?

I am writing my third Young Adult WASP biography – “Betty Gillies: WASP Pilot.” Betty Gillies was the well-respected commander of another of Love’s squadrons and was every bit as versatile as BJ.

When that book — my 10th — is finished, I will have produced biographies of the three top leaders of the WASP ferry pilots for the young women of today.

I don’t know what direction I’m going to take after that. I may do more Young Adult WASP biographies or I may start writing YA biographies of our modern-day women military pilots who are so very outstanding. I know several of them.

Or I may write a memoir: “My Life With the WASP” — relating my experiences and friendships with many of these women as I have pursued learning about them and writing about them for nearly 30 years now.

I’m doing a lot of thinking.

Buy “BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot” at BookBar

— Excerpt from “BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot” by Sarah Byrn Rickman