“And once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you would return.”
— John Hermes Secondari
Some aviation events are planned over long periods of time. Sometimes it starts with a question; sometimes the desire to know something, and sometimes it’s done to fulfill a dream.
Not too long ago, but far enough to be forgotten, it started with a Midwest girl with the desire to soar on silver wings and emulate the freedom birds feel when they take to the skies.
Back in World War II, the desire to be that dashing pilot from small-town America was not so much about the freedom of flight as it was about being a local hero taking to the skies in defense of America, especially in a time when American ideals were under assault by forces from around the world. Everybody wanted to do their part, and if a certain wish-list item could be achieved in defense of our country, then why not embrace the opportunity?
When the doors opened to our Midwestern girl back in 1943, little did she know that wheels were put in motion that would define her life, as she took to the skies dancing in the clouds and embracing the beauties of the God she dedicated her life to until the very end.
Flora Belle Reece was a woman larger than life, and not a day goes by that I don’t stop and think about her for a minute or two, since she left her imprint all over our Aerospace Valley in so many ways.
The World War II women pilots, like the very few who served along with her, became legendary in the annals of American aviation. As it pertains to women, Flora Belle was a pioneer in so many ways.
Years later America was taking a hard look at the Greatest Generation, and those personalities were in high demand. Flora Belle found new audiences of young and old alike who gravitated to her gentle demeanor. She had the ability to let those in her presence fly away with her, as she shared the many experiences of young women dancing in the clouds and living for every day, including a trip down the runway.
This was the time Flora Belle became a part of my life as I would travel with her to schools and events, and it was a great pleasure to see her so warmly received by communities and schools as we shared the many stories of America at war in World War II and how the nations’ citizens stepped up.
During these events, there are many times when unfulfilled dreams became lost lines in between the amazing stories. But over time, and many events later, it becomes obvious that there is an uncomfortable aspect to that missed opportunity as it always finds its way into the conversation. Flora Belle had one of those nagging wants that was never fulfilled and in the back of my mind I knew that someday we were going to make good on that lost bucket list item.
Well as it happened, I was part of an organization that needed a special pilot and a special plane. The stage was set, and the magic began as all the cosmic wheels turned in Flora Belle’s favor. The lost opportunity was now in reach, and it came with much more than just a ride in an old airplane.
In World War II, Flora Belle flew in a lot of different aircraft, but one plane eluded her. As far as she was concerned, the P-38 Lightning was just as much a favorite as her AT-6, her preferred plane to fly. But oh, the chance just to take a spin around the pattern in a P-38 would be a lifelong dream come true.
On a beautiful spring day in April, an NBC News van approached her home in a Lancaster cul-de-sac and news crews and producers descended on her home. Not only did she and her close friends know the significance of the day, but soon so would the rest of the America. Tom Brokaw had found the segment he needed for the newscast highlighting an American woman’s service in World War II.
Miles away in Chino, Calif., a P-38 stood at the ready. Later in the day, Flora Belle and a caravan of news reporters and fans would make the journey to see this woman fulfill a dream born in World War II America.
The P-38 National Association was having their annual convention that year, and the destination for this particular P-38 would be the Lockheed plant in Burbank, Calif., where all but just a handful of P-38s were built during the war. Flora Belle would be flying into a gala event, and she would be the supporting cast for the star of the show — the P-38.
It didn’t take long to realize Flora Belle was quickly becoming the star as hordes of airplanes and helicopters joined in formation as they made the flight from Chino to Burbank. As it played out, a call came to an employee at Chino whose friend in New York City shared that a P-38 and some lady in it were putting on quite a show on the jumbo screen in Times Square as she was waving to the cameras from the piggyback position behind the pilot! It was to promote the news story for NBC that night.
There was some added drama when the landing gear was having difficulty locking down but with some hard work and sweat, Ray, the pilot, and Flora Belle managed to pump down the wheels. So the scoop story the newsmen were kind of hoping for never materialized, and the celebration owed to Flora Belle and the P-38 came together on the national stage. A once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfill her dream was there for everybody to see.
She stepped out on that wing of that P-38 from the cockpit, and a cheer went up from the assembled crowd. As Flora Belle raised her hand and waved to the crowd, there could not have been a better ending to a dream that had come true. The years of always wondering, were now a thing of the past as, after the experience, she had a new subject matter to share for many years at schools and events and she did just that till we lost her to the angels some years later.
Looking back, her dream of flying was infectious and spread to all those around her — I was no different. But most importantly she inspired so many young people to chase those shadows on the clouds no matter what their passions were, and to do it in a manner that gave them the best opportunity to reach their dreams.
Sometime later, after we had lost Flora Belle, I had the opportunity to live her dream while fulfilling my own. As the P-38 rolled down the runway and rotated to flight I looked down to my feet and thought of Flora Belle sitting there and imagined her joy when destiny was fulfilled. Two engines and a very old warbird transported us back to a time our young minds really didn’t understand that the dream never dies, but a life well lived can make it a reality.
April 21, 2014 will forever be my Flora Belle day, and I will always raise a toast to my old friend and thank her for the memories and the shared passion of a love for flying.
Until next time, Bob out!