Flora Belle Reece; Irma ‘Babe’ Story and Marguerite ‘Ty’ Killen — All three wonderful women have passed away, but have left a legacy of inspiration, perseverance and the importance of education. Reece and Killen were both school teachers and ‘Babe’ Story was a flight instructor and business owner in Lancaster for many years.
Reece, Story and Killen all expressed their love of the WASP program and how they would do it all again in a heartbeat!
Each woman had a desire to fly at a young age and jumped at the chance when they read or heard about Jacqueline Cochran’s advertisement that women were needed to fly. Nearly 25,000 women applied and only 1,830 actually qualified.
“Jackie put an ad in the paper requesting that young women interested in flying sign up and help the war effort,” Reece said. “At this point I had never flown, and I needed at least 35 hours to qualify for pilot training.” Reece’s brother fronted her money for flying lessons, and next thing she knew, she was at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, part of class 44-W-4.
Killen related her experience of receiving her first airplane ride in a “Jenny” JN-4. “I was 9 years old and a pilot was giving rides for $5 per person,” said Killen. “My mother told the pilot that she couldn’t afford that and he looked at my brother and offered to take both of us for $5!”
Killen laughed and said, “My brother sang the Star Spangled Banner and I screamed and yelled all through the flight, it was awe-inspiring! That was it, we were both hooked on flying.”
Irma ‘Babe’ Story was the last survivor in the Antelope Valley of WASP, who during World War II flew fighters, bombers, transports and training aircraft in noncombat missions. She died Aug. 28, 2017.
She moved to Lancaster at the age of 1 and attended school with Judy Garland, then known as Frances Gumm, as a little girl. Gumm’s father owned the Lancaster Theater downtown on Lancaster Blvd.
She felt that everything good that ever happened in her life was because she knew how to fly. Her brother was her inspiration to learn to fly. He built balsa wood model airplanes and they would go to Lancaster Airport on 10th Street West and Avenue I together. She learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, that was sponsored by Antelope Valley Junior College and the Antelope Valley Flying Service owned by Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes.
Story worked for Lockheed’s Vega Aircraft Factory in Burbank, Calif., after graduating high school. She worked there until 1943 and then joined the WASP. She was part of Class 43-W-6 at Sweetwater, Texas.
After graduation, she was sent to Dodge City, Kansas, to train in flying twin-engine Martin B-26 bombers towing targets for gunners in B-24s. Her next assignment was at Harlingen Army Air Field in Texas to tow targets. She served in Harlingen until Dec. 20, 1944, when the WASP were deactivated.
Story continued flying after the war as an instructor in Pennsylvania and in Lancaster, Calif., in programs set up for returning GIs, for five years. She also flew charter flights and gave flight lessons. She managed the Lancaster Airport for a crop dusting company and became co-owner of Antelope Valley Pest Control Company, Inc.
All three WASP would often come to Mojave for aviation events. Story and Flora Belle rode in the B-17 ‘Sentimental Journey’ in 2009.
Story was the last survivor of the three Antelope Valley women who were among 300 surviving WASPs honored in Washington, D.C., in 1990 with Congressional Gold Medals.
Marguerite ‘Ty’ Killen died in 2011 at age 86, and Flora Bell Reece died in 2014 at age 90.
These wonderful inspirational women helped pave the way for women pilots in the military today. They deserve our deepest gratitude and thanks for their bravery and service to America.