by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Flora Belle Reece; Irma ‘Babe’ Story and Marguerite ‘Ty’ Killen — All three wonderful women have passed away, but 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, Calif., for many years.
Flora Belle Reece, Irma ‘Babe’ Story and Marguerite ‘Ty’ 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.
Flora Belle (Smith) Reece – WASP Class 44-W-4
Flora Belle served on the home front as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots corps, ferrying airplanes around the country and towing targets for gunners’ practice.
Joining the WASPs gave Reece the opportunity to fulfill her dream of flying, something that was only rarely available to women at that time.
“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—4.
“I don’t ever remember not wanting to fly,” she said. Reece served in Class 44-W-4 flying the North American AT-6, Stearman PT-17, Vultee BT-13, and Martin B-26.
Her WASP pilot training and graduation was at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas; she had duty assignments at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas; B-26 school at Harlingen Air Force Base, Harlingen, Texas; and Enid Army Air Base, Enid, Okla.
“The WASP program was deactivated in December 1944. It was Jackie Cochran who made it possible for so many women to live this dream,” she told a crowd at Plane Crazy Saturday Two in California City, October 2010.
Flora Belle celebrated her 90th birthday in October 2014. She passed away at UCLA Medical Center on Dec. 1, 2014, after complications from a brain aneurysm. She was a wonderful role model, with a high spirit of adventure, love of aviation and outstanding resolve to accomplish her goals.
Marguerite ‘Ty’ (Hughes) Killen — Class 44-W-8
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.”
While Ty was in high school, a CPT program (Civilian Pilot Training) began at Fly-in Field nearby. A family friend was hired as a flight and ground school instructor and, once he told the young girl that there were jobs available, Ty immediately went to work.
During an interview, Ty said, “I started working after school and weekends, gassing planes, sweeping hangers, pushing planes in and out of the hangers, checking gas levels, servicing planes, and cleaning rest rooms. My pay was dual flight instruction wherever the instructor could sandwich me into his busy schedule. At night, I attended ground school with the CPT trainees. My world was at Fly-in Field after school until dark, and weekends from sunup until dusk.”
Ty went on to pass her flight exams and became one of the first women to get a commercial and flight instructor rating on her 18th birthday.
Irma ‘Babe’ Story — Class 43-W-6
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 passed away Aug. 28, 2017.
She moved to Lancaster, Calif., at the age of one, attended school with Judy Garland, real name 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 Jouney’ in 2009.
Story was the last survivor of the three Antelope Valley women who were among 300 surviving WASP honored in Washington, D.C., in 2010 with Congressional Gold Medals.
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.