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How women took to the skies to become little-known heroes of the U.S. effort in World War II

In "BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot," author Sarah Byrn Rickman tells the story of one flier who became a leader of the group that ferried planes across the U.S.

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 excerpt from “BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot.”

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


Colorado Authors League finalist in Children’s/Young Adult

Prologue

In 1944, at the height of World War II, a handful of women pilots delivered more than 900 of the United States’ finest fighter aircraft—the P-51 Mustang—to the East Coast docks at Newark, New Jersey. 

There, the planes were hoisted aboard Liberty ships, so called because they were built to win the war. Liberty ships carried American aircraft across the Atlantic to England where U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilots were waiting for them. Soon those Mustangs would be flying against the German Luftwaffe. 

The P-51D model—not available until spring 1944—would turn out to be THE game changer, THE critical weapon needed by the United States and its Allies to win the war against Germany. 

So great was the need for P-51s, the wheels had barely stopped rolling when the ground crew at Newark grabbed the tailwheel by its strut and started moving the airplane toward the waiting ship. The pilot had less than a minute to gather her briefcase and parachute and scramble out of the cockpit. 

Author Sarah Byrn Rickman.

Earlier model Mustangs were effective, but until the P-51D model arrived, the United States did not have a fighter aircraft capable of accompanying four-engine bombers on round-trip missions deep into Germany. These new fighters could do that job, protecting the bombers on their return flight to England. 

The women pilots played a key role in getting those planes on their way to England. Yet, what those women did in 1944 remains today one of the best-kept secrets of World War II. 

Another small corps of women pilots based on Long Island, New York, delivered more than 2,500 heavily armored, short-to-medium range P-47 fighters to Newark. 

Yet another group of women pilots stationed in Romulus, Michigan, ferried P-39 and later P-63 fighters from Niagara, New York, to Great Falls, Montana. These aircraft were part of the Lend- Lease wartime aid to our Allies in Russia. After the women pilots delivered the planes to Montana, male ferry pilots flew the aircraft to Alaska, where Russian pilots picked them up. 

In the spring of 1944, the U.S. and its Allies were preparing to invade Europe and take the war to the German homeland. The U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) needed every trained male pilot it had to fly the big twin- and four-engine bombers, transport, and cargo aircraft overseas. 

Each female ferry pilot who delivered a fighter aircraft to a U.S. port freed a male pilot to be assigned to overseas flight duty where he was most needed. 

World War II forever changed lives. Among other advances, it gave young women the unprecedented opportunity to fly military aircraft for their country and make an important contribution to the outcome of the war. 

In the summer of 1939, Congress approved the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPT). The government offered to pay for flight instruction for students on selected college campuses. 

One student out of every ten could be a female. Many of the young women who later flew for the United States during WWII came from the more than 2,000 who learned to fly through CPT. One such young woman was Barbara Jane Erickson of Seattle, Washington. 

This is her story. 

Chapter One: Falling into Flying

“I fell into flying,” Barbara said. “I’d never been near an airplane.” 

Barbara was a sophomore at the University of Washington when she spotted an article in the local newspaper about the CPT program. 

“Three of my girlfriends and I thought it sounded like a fun thing to do, so we all went down and applied. Two of the girls were too short and the third didn’t pass the eye test. I was the only one who made it. So here I was in this class to learn how to fly.” 

Thirty-six young men and four young women made up the class. Twenty were sent to the airport and twenty others, including Barbara and one other girl, were sent to the seaport on Seattle’s Lake Union. 

“BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot” by Sarah Byrn Rickman.

“The first time I flew, the instructor took me up in this single-engine, two-seater seaplane, a 65-horsepower Taylorcraft on pontoon floats. I thought, boy, this is the way to go.”

Barbara’s training aircraft was small, the cockpit cramped. She and her instructor, Mr. Kurtzer, sat side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow. The student occupied the left seat and had a full set of controls at her fingertips. The instructor sat in the right seat and had an identical set of controls. 

The airplane had no electric starter. A helper stood on one of the floats and hand cranked the propeller to start the engine. When it caught, he jumped back onto the dock. 

Kurtzer showed Barbara how to use the water rudders to steer for open water and how to turn the aircraft and line up for a long takeoff run. After he retracted the water rudders, the instructor let her take the controls. 

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Barbara pushed the throttle forward and felt the little aircraft surge beneath her. It gathered speed. As the plane accelerated, the floats rose higher in the water. When Barbara sensed the plane lifting, as instructed, she pulled gently back on the yoke (a half steering wheel on the control column). 

For the first time, she felt the thrill of an aircraft taking off under her control. She flew straight out over the water of Lake Union, gaining altitude. 

She was hooked. 

“After I got my first eight hours in, I was eligible to solo. It was December 21, during Christmas vacation 1939. I was working at Marshall Field in the glove department—fifty-nine cents an hour. I was paying my college expenses. I remember leaving on my lunch hour, driving out to Lake Union and soloing.” 

Barbara waited her turn and when it came, she climbed into the left seat of the Taylorcraft, listened to Mr. Kurtzer’s last-minute instructions, then took off alone. After making her required turns, she came back in to make her first landing. Then she turned the plane around, took off again, executed two more landings, taxied back, and parked the plane on the ramp. She had soloed. 

She returned to work. 

“By the first of March, I had logged the 35 hours required for private pilot certification. I took the flight test and got my pilot’s license on March 11, 1940.” 

Barbara flew 17 hours with an instructor and 18 1⁄2 hours of solo time prior to taking her flight test. She earned her private license in the minimum amount of time.

She moved from flying seaplanes at Lake Union to flying land planes at Boeing Field. 

“I was the only girl. I took my training in a 220-horsepower Waco, an open cockpit biplane. It was a little tough to do aerobatics. You had to be pretty strong to be able to roll it over and hold it inverted, or to do a spin. Normally an airplane doesn’t take strength to fly. Usually it’s fingertip control, but this one took muscle.” 

From secondary she moved to the cross-country course, which is learning to fly from one point to another using aviation charts (maps), visual checkpoints, a compass, and a watch, and not getting lost. 

With cross-country under her belt, Barbara took stock of what she needed to do next. Her goal was to get her instructor’s rating so she could teach. By becoming an instructor, she could get a job and be paid to teach flying. 

First, she needed her commercial rating—the step before the instructor’s rating. Qualifying for a commercial rating required 200 hours of flight time. Barbara had logged only a little more than 100 hours. 

She and one of the young men in the program were ready to earn their commercial ratings. He, like Barbara, needed 200 hours. “We pooled our money and rented a 2-cylinder Aeronca with a 36-horsepower engine, and we flew. Renting that Aeronca took every penny I had saved.” 

They packed a box lunch every morning and flew—to Oregon, to California, to Canada. Sometimes they went out to the San Juan Islands and landed on the beach and ate lunch in the shade of the wing. A five-gallon can of gas in the back was their insurance against running out of fuel. They put the gas in the tank when they needed it, and flew until time to fill up both the airplane and the gas can. 

With her commercial rating under her belt, Barbara could get her instructor’s rating, the final step to a job. Barbara also proved to be one of the top students in the nationwide CPT program. 

In summer of 1940, Shell Oil Company and the Institute of Aeronautical Science sponsored an Aviation Scholarships and Awards competition for CPT students. Shell contributed $15,000 to the program. 

The CAA was divided into seven districts across the country. Each district held elimination rounds to determine which seven fledgling CPT-trained pilots out of hundreds would compete in the finals. When the dust cleared, a girl—Barbara Jane Erickson—had won the Northwest district! 

“They didn’t know what to do with me.” 

A girl had qualified for the final competition, to be held in Washington, D.C., in August. But the point of this competition was to help young men get their military flight ratings. 

“They were very upfront with me. I wasn’t going to be allowed to win. But Shell flew me to the competition in Washington, D.C., in a United Airlines DC-3—my first ride in a big airliner.” 

The six young men were housed in the same hotel, but Barbara was sent to a women-only hotel. “They felt they had to protect me. I had to have a chaperone, someone to watch over me.” 

The Washington Times Herald wrote this about Barbara, “She’ll match her flying skills today against six men doing takeoffs, spot landings, spins and turns. These are the cream of the student pilot crop, trained by Civil Aeronautical Board instructors during the past school year.” 

The prize money—$2250—was split among the first three places. Barbara came in fourth. 

“When I got home, I wrote to Shell and to the Institute of Aeronautical Science and thanked them for the opportunity and what they had done for me. And Shell wrote back to me. The sad part is, no one else said thank-you to them. Originally, they had planned to make the competition ongoing, hold it every year. They changed their minds.” 

Back in Seattle, Barbara finished her work for her instructor’s rating. That fall, she went job hunting. “I got a job instructing at the same flying school where I had learned to fly, Kurtzer Flying Service.” She was 20 years old. 

However, her good luck at finding an instructing job to pay her college expenses complicated matters for her. Attending all her classes would be a challenge. 

The dean of women at the University of Washington came to her rescue. 

“She bent the rules for me. I went to classes on Monday, picked up my lecture notes, did the work on my own and handed it in. During my junior year and the first half of my senior year at UW, I went to school one day a week and flew the other six.” 

Her senior year, Barbara was elected President of Mortar Board, the National Senior Honorary Society. “I was into my final year and everything was on track. Then Pearl Harbor came, and that changed everything.” 

When the Japanese attacked the United States’ naval base and other military installations at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, December 7, 1941, America was not prepared to fight a war. 

On December 14, every man who had expertise in moving men and supplies by aircraft was called to Washington, D.C., for an emergency meeting. They were there to plan how to fight the war that had been thrust on them with little warning. The men were faced with creating and then operating air routes over which their pilots could move aircraft worldwide across the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and from Africa across India to Burma and China. 

Part of this vast plan involved finding and then training a large number of pilots to fly the new aircraft that would soon be rolling off production lines at factories across the United States. Moving aircraft from one place to another—not carrying passengers or cargo—is referred to as ferrying

To help our country fight back, twenty-eight skilled civilian women pilots volunteered to ferry newly built military trainer aircraft to flight training schools. The training planes would be used to instruct the young fighter and bomber pilots the United States desperately needed. 

The women pilots knew how to fly and needed little or no training. They were ready to ferry aircraft. By taking on this job, the women released male pilots to be sent where they were most needed, to fly combat or train other pilots for combat. 

America was severely lacking enough men, ships, aircraft, and munitions to fight a war. The question was, where would we find the manpower to win this war? The answer was, make use of our womanpower at home, thereby freeing the men to fight a war across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

American women replaced men in formerly male-only jobs. They went to work in factories building aircraft, making ammunition and other war-related materials. That’s when the famous female image of World War II, “Rosie the Riveter,” was born. Women served as school principals, worked as newspaper reporters, replaced men in white collar, even management positions, at countless corporations, companies, and retail stores. 

And yes, a small group of women ferried military aircraft. They were called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Their leader was 28-year-old Nancy Harkness Love. Beginning in September 1942, she gathered 27 women in Wilmington, Delaware, to ferry small trainer aircraft. 

Nancy was on the lookout for her future leaders as the program was sure to grow. One young woman who showed exemplary leadership qualities was 22-year-old Barbara Jane Erickson. 

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Interview with author Sarah Byrn Rickman