FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — A young female U.S. Air Force pilot recently showed her 91-year-old guest the F-16 Fighting Falcon she flies at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. During the tour, the pilot continually gave praise to “Tack” Blake, which was odd, because the guest was that very person – Betty “Tack” Blake.
As the praises went on, Blake finally spoke up and asked the young pilot why she kept praising her, being right there.
“Because you started it,” the pilot said. “If you hadn’t been successful, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today.”
Blake is believed to be the only living graduate of the first Women’s Air Force Service Pilot training class, during World War II. The class began with 38 women pilots on Nov. 16, 1942, but only 23 graduated on April 24, 1943. They were not known as WASPs until the merging of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron on Aug. 5, 1943.
“We were an experiment,” said Blake, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We were a guinea pig class, as they called us, because they didn’t think women could learn to fly military planes.”
Blake began flying at the age of 14 in 1934 and became even more interested in airplanes when she met Amelia Earhart at the University of Hawaii in January 1935. Earhart traveled to the islands in her quest to become the first pilot to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, from Honolulu and Oakland, Calif., a total of 2,408 miles. Blake was the only child in the audience, so she was seated in the front row for Earhart’s speech. Afterward, Earhart sat beside Blake and invited her to the airport, to see the twin-engine Beechcraft airplane that would be flown the following day.
“She was very excited to know I was learning to fly,” Blake said. “She told me to keep going and do something exciting and show that women could fly. She had a lot of people fighting against her who didn’t think women could do it.”
Blake flew tourists around the Hawaiian Islands in an open-canopy biplane, near her hometown in Oahu, before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. She recalls the time as two different lives, before and after Dec. 7, 1941.
The night before the attack, she was invited by Navy ensigns to the officers club to celebrate her 21st birthday. The next morning, she watched the attack from the balcony of her family home, on a hill above Pearl Harbor.
“My family didn’t drink, so I’d never had a drink in my life,” Blake said. “My first taste of liquor was at my birthday party. The next morning, when Pearl Harbor happened, I was in bed with the worst hangover ever.”
“My younger brothers woke me up — we all went to the balcony and watched Japanese planes coming over the mountain, headed towards the ocean. When the planes went over us, they looked like AT-6 Texans, but they were actually Japanese Mitsubishi A6-M Zeroes. They had big orange suns painted on the bottom of their wings. Then, we saw them as they started diving toward the ocean in front of us. Their machine guns started going off and you could see the bullets hitting the water and bouncing up.”
“We had been having so much fun before Pearl Harbor. We were having fun every night and suddenly it stopped,” remembered Blake.
Two ensigns that Blake dated were killed at Pearl Harbor and a third, Robert Tackaberry, who became her first husband several months later, would have died if her father had not intervened. He had invited him to spend the night after the party, so his daughter would not have to drive him back to his ship at night.
“It saved his life,” Blake said. “His cabin on the U.S.S. California was below the water line and they dropped a bomb right in the water beside the ship. His roommate was asleep, and it killed him. So my father always reminded my future husband he’d saved his life.”
Blake, who worked at Pearl Harbor as a secretary before she married Tackaberry, moved to the East Coast when he was reassigned to a ship in Erie, Penn. A couple of years later, she was selected for the first women’s pilot training class in Houston, Texas, near Ellington Field.
Unlike the casual way women pilots are regarded today, Blake recalls a much different attitude during World War II. However, she had an advantage her fellow classmates did not. She was already accustomed to getting along with men from growing up with two brothers in a neighborhood filled with boys.
“I got along fine with them because I’d grown up with boys,” Blake said. “I knew how to joke, spit through my teeth and crack my jaws with them. That was very fortunate for me because some of the girls would break out in tears if a boy made a crack about them. I just joked back. They were always my pals.”
“But a lot of the men were not happy having the women fly the same planes they were flying. They watched us like hawks and if we did anything wrong, it was back at our base before we could get back.”
After completing training, the graduates from the first class were given their choice of assignment and job. Blake chose ferry command at Long Beach, Calif., because she figured she would be able to fly home to Honolulu. She never got the opportunity, but met her second husband, who was also assigned to Long Beach. Blake was part of a group of pilots who shuttled aircraft from factories to sites where they could be sent overseas. There was some discussion of using WASP pilots as co-pilots for overseas flights, but the war in Europe ended before it could happen.
“So, I didn’t get checked out in as many planes that I wanted to, because they brought all the men pilots back from the war and didn’t need us anymore,” she said. “They gave us three days’ notice, and it was, ‘Goodbye, girls.’”
Blake ferried about 35 aircraft models, in addition to the AT-6 and others she flew in during training. However, one airplane remains her favorite even today.
“The P-51 Mustang was definitely my favorite,” she said. “Whenever one goes overhead and there are still a few of them flying around, I hear that sound and instantly know it’s a P-51. It was reliable. I liked the engine and I just felt safer in it than anything else.”
Blake recently attended a funeral for the only other living graduate from the first WASP class, who also lived in the Phoenix area. The class of 1943, that was the source of the young Luke AFB pilot’s gratitude, is now down to just one.
“Now I’m the only one left, and I hope I’m here for a while,” Blake said.