by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
The Antelope Valley Chapter of the Ninety-Nines were privileged to attend not one but two events featuring famous aviatrixes in a single week!
On May 15, 2003, Astronaut Pam Melroy, a member of the Antelope Valley Chapter, was the guest of honor and featured speaker at a dinner hosted by the Lockheed Martin Leadership Association at the Park Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Lancaster, Calif.
Antelope Valley members Lynne Bunn, Rosemary Coonrod, Elle Coussens, Michelle Davis, Elise Gravance, Cathy Hansen, Leigh Kelly, Flora Belle Reece, Barbara Hunter Schultz, LaDell Simmons, Diana Tanner, Beverly Vander Wall, and Future Woman Pilot Lark Cobb were joined by Sacramento Valley Chapter member Sandy Miarecki as special guests of the LMLA to enjoy an evening with their sister Ninety-Nine Pam, as she shared some of her experiences on her most recent flight as pilot of STS-112 Atlantis.
In the history of the shuttle program, only three women have been designated as pilot astronauts. Aboard space shuttle orbiter Discovery (STS-92) on Oct. 11, 2000, Air Force Lt. Col. Pamela Ann Melroy became the third woman to make her first flight into space as pilot.
On that mission, they delivered the Z1 truss to International Space Station. On her 2003 mission, she made her second visit to the ISS to deliver more components for the station, the Integrated Truss Assembly S1 (Starboard Side Thermal Radiator Truss) and the Crew Equipment Translation Aid (CETA) Cart. The Atlantis crew also carried several science experiments to the station. Pam’s talk focused on her voyage into space as she shared slides from both of her missions.
Pam concluded by describing reentry into the atmosphere at Mach-22 and landing at 205 knots, which is hard for a Cessna pilot to ever imagine! “In two years I will be the commander,” Pam glowed.
“It’s fun to be the shuttle pilot, but even more fun to be the Commander.”
Everyone went home watching the dramatic total eclipse of the moon and dreaming of space flight and looking forward to an exciting time at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., next morning as the Ninety-Nines helped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of legendary Jackie Cochran’s first flight through the sound barrier.
Jacqueline Cochran Odlum (1906-1980) broke the sound barrier at Edwards on May 18, 1953, in a Canadair F-86E, becoming the first woman to boom through the invisible boundary, accompanied by the famous test pilot Chuck Yeager as her chase pilot.
To commemorate the event, May 16, 2003, was proclaimed “Jackie Cochran Day” at Edwards AFB and a plaque was dedicated to Cochran and her history-making flight. In front of the plaque, mounted on a pedestal next to an F-104 Starfighter (the type of aircraft used by Cochran for her later Mach 2 flights), Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson introduced retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager who spoke to a crowd of several busloads of invited guests, including: four members of the Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASP), Ninety-Nines from several chapters; women astronauts and Air Force pilots; professional aviatrixes; test pilots and community dignitaries. After the formal unveiling of the plaque, Al Hansen (husband of Ninety-Nine member Cathy Hansen) flew his Canadair F-86E over to Edwards from Mojave Airport in a salute to Jackie’s history-making flight in the same model.
Following the dedication, a luncheon was held that featured static aircraft displays, an exhibit about Jackie Cochran’s achievements, a short video about her aviation exploits, and comments from four distinguished guests who spoke about what Jackie Cochran had meant to them.
Jackie Cochran was president of the Ninety-Nines from 1941-1943, and co-founded the WASPs to help with the war effort in 1943. Two of the WASP members in attendance, Lancaster residents Flora Belle Reece and Irma “Babe” Story (respectively of Antelope Valley and San Fernando Valley Chapters), were on hand to reminisce with Yeager, along with fellow WASP Bea St. Claire-Thurston and Margaret “Pinkie” Weiss.
The first speaker, Bea St. Claire-Thurston, shared her thoughts on Jackie’s role in forming the WASP. Two modern aviatrixes, Marta Bohn-Meyer and Air Force Lt. Col. Sandy Miarecki, followed her.
Miarecki served as Assistant Cadet Flight Indoctrination Program Project Officer at Randolph AFB, San Antonio, Texas, while a member of Sacramento Valley Chapter. She flies the sleek, fast T-38 Talon, a jet aircraft that Jackie Cochran set many records in.
Miarecki told how Jackie influenced her decisions during her Air Force career. “Whenever I met a challenge that seemed a little overwhelming,” Sandy said. “I would tell myself, Jackie Cochran did it and so can I.”
More often than not, she found herself to be the only woman during education classes in the Air Force; the only woman flying during flight training, and the only woman in a squadron, but she was never deterred.
NASA Dryden Flight Test Engineer Marta Bohn-Meyer, the only woman to fly in the SR-71, said, “I’m jealous of Jackie Cochran and all the records she set, but Jackie wasn’t the only woman to fly in the SR-71. I was!”
Time and time again, Marta speaks of her four rights: right time, right place, right enthusiasm and right qualifications. After naming off all of Jackie Cochran’s achievements and records, she concluded that Jackie had all of her rights going for her as well.
“There was never a question about whether or not she was at the right place at the right time, she made sure she was there all the time,” Marta said. “As far as qualifications, there is no question, they were there and of course, the enthusiasm was always in place.
“She also knew how to use the network to her benefit and to the benefit of all women and all aviators,” said Marta. “She was an aviators’ aviator and she was also a woman aviator.
“The Ninety-Nines represented here today, the WASP members and the military women aviators are the people of Jackie’s legacy,” Marta said. “And this legacy, I’m sure, is something she would be very proud of. Today, Jackie Cochran is an important figure in aviation and an important figure in our world. Let us commit to keep her legacy alive and well and embrace those women who want to become women in aviation.”
The final speaker was Yeager, Jackie Cochran’s friend and mentor. He shared his memories of flying with Jackie, both in her record-setting flights and also on cross-country flights to ferry aircraft or visit dignitaries around the world.
“I had a lot of fun with Jackie,” said Yeager. “Because she was a strong willed person and absolutely unpredictable.
“When she flew the T-38 from Palmdale to Minneapolis/St. Paul, non-stop, I followed her in an F-100 with a baggage pod,” Yeager explained. “And in that baggage pod was about $2-million worth of jewelry! There were shoes, silk dresses and makeup.”
Yeager complained about having to carry all her luggage and her reply was: “Well, I have to wear all this to look beautiful!”
Jackie Cochran once said, “An airplane doesn’t know the difference between men and women, only good pilots and bad pilots.” Yeager said, “Jackie Cochran’s name, even today, holds more records than any other person, male or female.”
Yeager concluded with this statement, “Sandy and Marta, you have kicked the doors down in a male dominated world and made us look bad.”