Both plane and pilot are improved yet aged versions of their former selves. Both made their way into history books. Both still fly, though not together.
The military put a stop to that back in December 1944.
The second World War was ending, and male pilots were returning from Europe and the South Pacific. Suddenly, highly trained women pilots who had flown the military's domestic missions, freeing men for combat, were no longer needed. They had done the job well, debunking the groundless theory that women weren't fit for military flying. But as soon as the male pilots were on their way home, the military ended women's romance with the most powerful flying machines in the sky.
Bergemann, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) class 44-W-2, moved back to Alliance, Ohio, where she married and had four children. But she never forgot the way she loved the AT-6 in the windswept plains of Sweetwater, Texas, when she was a young woman with wispy blond hair and mischievous blue eyes. Although she was almost too short and almost too slight -- she ate some bananas before her physical to add a few pounds to the scale -- she made it into the first and only all-female military flight school in American history.
Back then, the AT-6 seduced all the girls. Bergemann loved its power, its form, the sky rumble of its engine. But so did every female pilot in a man-sized flight suit. It was wartime, and the military didn't bother to make women's flight gear. In exchange for the chance to fly, women happily endured oversized uniforms along with Sweetwater's rattlesnakes, thin-walled wooden barracks, and disparaging male flight instructors.
Each challenge the WASPs faced at Sweetwater paled in comparison to what they had already overcome -- being women. Most were young, but not too young to understand the unprecedented nature of the opportunity. For the first time in their lives, paths to traditional female roles had been derailed. All familial and societal expectations had fallen away. For once, no one was trying to keep their feet on the ground.
Until the WASPs piloted every airplane used by the United States in World War II, women were considered physically and intellectually unsuitable for military flying. It was thought they would be incapacitated for several days each month because of their menstrual cycles, and some were bumped from flying heavier aircraft because of their physical size. But over the course of the WASP program, which ran from 1942 to 1944, women pilots towed targets, ferried warplanes, and flew most stateside flying missions for the Army Air Force, the predecessor to today's Air Force.
The AAF's employ of women pilots during that tumultuous time was a testimony not to its enlightenment, but to its desperation. Because every qualified male pilot was needed overseas, the army had no choice but to look to qualified female pilots to do its work on the home front. Women took on all the risks of their stateside male counterparts, but received none of the benefits. Although they were flying military aircraft, they were not part of the military. They received no G.I. Bill or veterans benefits. Nor were they entitled to a military burial.
But the greatest injustice bestowed upon WASP pilots was invisibility. To keep from giving the nation's war heroes a feminine face, the AAF ordered the women pilots to do much of their flying at night, when they wouldn't be seen by civilians. And as soon as male pilots began returning from overseas, the WASP program was disbanded and forgotten. Its records were sealed and stored away, the women's chapter in history left unwritten.
Recently, writers and historians -- including some WASPs themselves -- have begun to fill in the blanks. Earlier this month, several WASPs traveled to Cleveland for the opening of the International Women's Air and Space Museum at Burke Lakefront Airport, where they talked about their role in the war effort. They came also to pay tribute to a WASP memorial, one of only three in the country. A modest two-foot-high sculpture depicts a woman in an oversized flight suit, her eyes fixed skyward.
Tucked in a small commuter airport, the museum's size reflects the second-class status of women in aviation and the distance remaining before the skies become gender-neutral territory. Today, even though most military and civilian flying jobs are open to and have been held by women, only 6 percent of American pilots are female. And the perception lingers that women cannot soar on par with men in the air.
"When I stand in the cockpit to either greet my passengers or say goodbye, inevitably someone will ask me to hang up their coat," says Lori Cline, a captain at U.S. Airways. "Even though you have the uniform on, they just cannot look at you and possibly imagine you could be the captain."
In addition to the WASPs, the museum honors distinguished aviatrixes such as Harriet Quimby, the country's first licensed woman pilot; Jacqueline Cochran, mother of the WASP program, who lobbied to get women into the military and went on to break the sound barrier in 1953; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. The museum also honors future trailblazers, with a wall at the entrance filled with color pictures of NASA's female astronauts.
When the patron saint of women fliers, Amelia Earhart, was besieged with questions about why she wanted to brave the sky, she said, "I want to do it because I want to do it." Ever since the legendary pilot disappeared with her plane near Howland Island in the Pacific, women have been pursuing that dream, which lies at the heart of the museum.
What is not said in the explanations accompanying Earhart's scarf or Katharine Wright's pearls, however, is that the museum honors more than what these women did for their successors. It recognizes what they did for themselves. It celebrates their independence and their strength of will. While many women would not have flown had it not been for the pioneers in faded photographs, history shows that women could always fly.
They flew before they could be licensed.
They flew before they could vote.
Like their beloved Earhart, they flew because they wanted to.
Sweetwater, Texas, 1943
The film starts off slowly, like any home video. A youthful Bergemann and her cousin are playing with a dog. Suddenly, a little-known chapter in American history appears on the screen. There are young women in flight suits and goggles, marching, posing, goofing, flashing those bright 1940s smiles immortalized on the leggy beauties painted on airplane noses.
Bergemann had two enviable things at Sweetwater's Avenger Field -- a car and a movie camera. Other women used the car more than she did, but not the camera. Bergemann caught her friend Madeline Sullivan, a model from New York, flicking away a cigarette butt after a morning smoke in her long red underwear. Bergemann filmed other friends going about their daily routines, wiping the snow off their planes in bulky, fleece-lined flight jackets, or stacking parachute packs on the cockpit seats so they could reach the controls. In one scene, her friends are laughing while building a snow bride into the side of their barracks.
You can't tell from the video, but Bergemann and fellow WASP Nadine Bluhm, also of Alliance, insist their days were rife with stress, and they were plagued by constant feelings of inadequacy. Their work schedules were packed with classroom lectures and flight training. Their free time was consumed by chores and studying. They found time for fun, though, and occasionally got in trouble too.
Once, Bergemann and a group of other fliers were "fence-hopping" -- flying a plane so low to the ground that, when a fence appeared, they had to "hop" over it. It was a dangerous and prohibited activity. And when Bergemann got lost doing it, she had to land at a nearby army base. Once the men there recovered from the shock of seeing a woman pilot climb out of the plane, they gave her directions back to Sweetwater.
"I got pink-slipped when I got back," she recalls. "I told them the truth, and the guys [who sat on the disciplinary board] seemed to understand what we were doing. They let me get away with it."
Over the two-year duration of the program, more than 25,000 women volunteered for Sweetwater. Just 1,857 were accepted, and only 1,074 completed flight training and received their wings. The new recruits had been pilots before the war, although some exaggerated the number of flying hours they'd logged to be accepted. Among them were college students, housewives, and secretaries. How most of them found their way to Sweetwater are stories in and of themselves. Learning to fly wasn't encouraged for young women of that era, although some of them had easier times of it than others.
At the museum opening earlier this month, WASP Anne Shields of New Jersey recounted taking two trolley cars and a bus, then walking two miles to get to her flying lessons, carrying a text covered in a paper bag because her mother was embarrassed she was learning to fly. Bergemann, on the other hand, received neither encouragement nor discouragement from family members, who were used to her doing things "differently." She paid for flying lessons with money she earned working in her father's doctor's office.
"The movies were all so glamorous about the fliers," she recalls. "These men in their uniforms and stuff. So at that time, I thought I should be doing something more. I'd go off on my lunch hour and fly."
Bluhm says she learned to fly for only $6, while attending a junior college in Kansas. She was working toward an architecture degree, but thought the bargain presented by the Civilian Pilot Training Program was just too good to pass up. At the time, Bluhm had never even driven a car. Worried for her safety, Bluhm's mother tried to discourage her dreams of joining the WASP, urging her not to use the permission paper she had reluctantly signed.
"That just went right past me," Bluhm says.
When asked if she had stars in her eyes, she replies with a smile, "Planes."
But Sweetwater wasn't the sorority fly fest the aviatrixes imagined. It was military living, even though the WASPs weren't technically military personnel. They were paid by the government, but considered civilian contractors. In a way, they were an experiment, a try-out crew that public officials and even military officers refused to accept as the real thing.
According to Molly Merryman, author of Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II, the military drastically underplayed women's role in the war effort in order to coax more money out of Congress. Women in uniform were portrayed handling traditional female duties, such as cooking and secretarial work. Images of women fliers, from the cartoon WASP mascot Fifinella to the cutesy illustrations in Bergemann's yearbook, depict them as soft and harmless, with big, dumb eyes, tapping away on typewriters in the cockpit.
Some male flight instructors considered Sweetwater a waste of time. And they didn't hide that attitude from their female students.
"None of them wanted to be there fooling with these women," Bluhm recalls. "They [felt they] had more important things to do than to be out there checking to make sure these women pilots knew how to fly."
The discrimination was pervasive. For instance, the women had to pay for their own uniforms, as well as room and board. Male pilots didn't. Women's pay did not increase as they took on more and more dangerous flying missions. Men's did. The women did not receive veterans benefits until the late 1970s.
Making the WASP an official military unit would have helped equalize their status. And director Jacqueline Cochran tried. But a bill to militarize the WASP died in Congress in 1944. By that time, national sentiment about the war had changed: Americans were confident they would win. Anticipating a need for fewer pilots, the army cut back its pilot training program, leaving a group of male civilian pilots eligible for infantry duty. The disgruntled group launched a lobbying effort against the WASPs, painting them as "glamour girls" and pressuring Congress to vote down the bill. Even though the House of Representatives' Military Affairs Committee recommended its passage, the bill was defeated by nineteen votes in the House.
The bill was also endorsed by Army General H. "Hap" Arnold, who, when the WASP program was dissolved, wrote that the women "have not only performed highly essential service, but also have established previously unknown facts concerning the capabilities of women in highly specialized military flying jobs. This knowledge will be of inestimable value should another national emergency arise."
There was never any argument about the WASPs' performance. By the time the program ended, the women pilots had "paid their way," according to Cochran's final report, flying a combined sixty million miles -- about 2,500 times around the equator. Many of the WASPs flew as much as seventy hours per month (33 was their average) with no complaints except wanting to fly more, Cochran reported.
"The colonels thought it would take us a couple of days to crack up all the airplanes, and we didn't," said WASP Caro Bosca of Springfield, Ohio, at the museum opening. There were 402 airplane accidents involving WASPs, of which 9 percent were fatal. Their numbers were slightly better than those of male army pilots during the same period, whose fatality rate was 11 percent.
Yet the failure of the bill left "the WASP on deactivation without any rights or veterans benefits; it left them without reserve status . . . It left the next of kin of those who died in the service without any insurance, and even without the right to display the gold star," Cochran wrote.
Deactivated WASPs had to pay their own way home from training (or wherever they were stationed), just as they had paid their own way to Sweetwater in the first place. Some were so financially destitute after the program ended, according to Merryman, that they had to hitchhike home.
A total of 38 WASPs died during their service, including several who were not piloting airplanes. Their fellow WASPs paid to have their bodies sent home to their families.
For three decades following the deactivation of the WASP, the program's records remained sealed and stored in government archives. Commercial airlines did not consider WASPs for flying jobs. Historians did not include them in textbooks. They remained largely unknown until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation granting them belated military status.
While some historians portray WASPs as the unsung heroes of World War II, the women themselves have their own views. WASP Pat Stark of Lyndhurst, still a pilot today, believes "all women should fly." Yet Stark declined an in-depth interview, explaining she feels she's already received enough recognition for her service. Others are still so bitter about their experiences, they do not wish to speak about the program at all.
Bluhm and Bergemann, on the other hand, want to make younger people aware of their role in the war, even though they do not share the feminist sentiments of Merryman, director of the Women's Resource Center at Kent State University, and other WASP biographers. The two veterans say they knew they were not treated equally by the military. But at the time, it didn't seem to be as much of an injustice as many believe today.
"We were just so glad to be there," says Bluhm, who does regret that she was ineligible for the G.I. Bill, which would have enabled her to finish her architecture studies. "Of course, it made us unhappy that we had to leave. But we thought, well, it was just another step. You had to go back to doing what you were doing before. At least, that was my attitude."
"It was a different kind of atmosphere," Bergemann continues. "Your future wasn't that kind of thing. Your future was getting married and having a family."
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1976
Major Anne Fletcher pauses for a moment. The heaviness of the question slows down her seemingly endless stream of insight.
What is it like to fly?
"It's a feeling of both freedom and of being in control," she finally answers. "People talk about feeling closer to God up there, and you do."
After the demise of the WASP program, three decades passed before the military allowed women to fly for their country again. The Navy took the lead, opening the door to women aviators in 1974. Two years later, Fletcher became one of the first women admitted to the Air Force Academy. Because the Air Force wasn't accepting women into its pilot training program at the time, she had to register as a nonpilot candidate. But she did get a "joy ride" in a T-37 -- a jet trainer nicknamed the Tweetybird because of its high-pitched engine screech. Once she was high on altitude and adrenaline, the pilot turned over the controls to her.
Fletcher remembers the experience as a wake-up call. From that point on, she knew she was going to be a pilot.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1980, she entered a military flight training program. Nine other women were in the program, all of whom were learning to fly cargo aircraft. At the time, women weren't allowed to fly fighters.
"We used to joke that they could shoot at us, but we couldn't shoot back," says Fletcher, who retired from the Air Force in 1995 to write military novels and now lives in St. Augustine, Florida.
Some of their instructors didn't think they ought to fly at all. "They would just look me in the eyes and say, 'I don't think women can be pilots, and I don't expect you to do well,'" she recalls.
Fletcher showed them they were wrong, relying as much on stubbornness as skill. Her male instructors could be just as stubborn, sometimes giving her failing marks and other times passing her on subjective flying maneuvers. Of the ten women in her flight class, only she and one other graduated.
Once she started flying, Fletcher found her male colleagues more enlightened. "Instead of being that new dumb woman, I became that new dumb co-pilot," she says. "And everyone was a new dumb co-pilot."
Because she had no female mentors, it was often the black pilots who took her under their wing. They understood what it meant to infiltrate the macho white brotherhood of the air. With their help, her career jetted forward. She went on to fly planes like the C-141 Starlifter, a large cargo jet, and the C-12, a two-engine turboprop used to fly embassy personnel. Then she joined an elite group of pilots who chauffeur the vice president and Congress members. She was the first woman pilot in that unit and the first woman most of the other pilots had flown with.
"I was not well-accepted," she says. "I ran across the same kind of gender discrimination from earlier in my career." Although she loved the job, she hated the way she was treated by the other pilots and after a year took another assignment.
Unfairness was something all female military pilots expected in the late '70s and early '80s. Like Fletcher, Commander Catherine Osman wanted to prove to her male critics that not only could she fly, but she could do it better than anyone. She earned her wings from the Navy in 1981. When the time came for her to choose a field, she put down "helicopter" as her first, second, and third choices.
"That, of course, was not politically acceptable," says Osman, who now runs flight operations on the U.S.S. Bataan amphibious assault ship based in Norfolk, Virginia. "But you know what? I got it anyway."
All pilots have to prove themselves, she says, "and, as women, we just had to prove it to more people more often. There were problems, because we couldn't go to certain ships. My squadron mates could go anyplace that the assignment opportunity was available . . . [but] there was only one ship operating out of Pensacola I could go to that had berthing for women.
"In the end, we didn't make it to all the places, but we made it up in other ways. And a lot of my classmates, when they couldn't find the opportunity or the challenges that they needed because they were institutionally limited, they got out."
Ranking women pilots continue to be held back because they lack flying experience denied them when they were younger. Retired Navy pilot Trish Beckman found her career stymied by the "steel ceiling," a reference to the steel flight deck on an aircraft carrier. Although she flew test missions on 66 different Navy aircraft, from pre-WW II vintage planes to modern fighters, opportunities for women to fly combat aircraft did not open up until too late in her career.
"The WASPs of WW II have often expressed envy of my generation for the unlimited opportunities we had compared to them," she writes in an e-mail. "Now I express my envy of the unlimited opportunities that the current generation of military women have."
Kathryn Gotch, a Northwest Airlines pilot and U.S. Air Force reservist from Dayton, graduated from the Air Force Academy four classes after Fletcher. She says she didn't experience much discrimination until the Air Force sent her to Germany, where the wives of older pilots didn't like the idea of their husbands flying with a woman.
"One guy said, "I'm never flying with a female pilot,'" she says. "Well, he got to fly with me, because my squadron commander was not going to let him get away with it. And he knew I could handle him too, even though he was older and higher in rank than me. The most problems I ever had were with the wives -- my own gender discriminating against me."
Gotch, 38, has since flown transport airplanes in the Gulf War, as well as missions to Rwanda and Somalia, where her plane was shot at. Older women pilots were kept from such assignments by the now-defunct combat exclusion law. But as women have infiltrated male-dominated career flight paths, new forms of discrimination have followed.
"Tailhook set us back quite a bit," says Osman, evoking one of the most embarrassing incidents in the Navy's history. "And it set us back for all the wrong reasons."
Lt. Paula Coughlin was one of dozens of women who claimed to have been assaulted by male naval aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas. The incident exposed the ugly side of macho aviator culture and spotlighted the problems women crashing that fraternity sometimes face. The fallout resulted in positive changes for women in the service, including heightened awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination issues.
But Coughlin's dream of becoming one of the first female combat pilots was never fulfilled. Worn out by continual harassment from her peers, she resigned in 1994.
Cleveland, Ohio, 1999
Bergemann cuts a colorful figure at the air show: tanned, sun-visored and dressed in red and white, the same colors as the Stearman squadron circling overhead. Soon she will "wing walk" an aerobatic plane to the runway, escorting it past the Blue Angels with another volunteer to make sure the wings don't bump into anything.
Being at the air show is both thrilling and a bit sad for her. Bergemann's love of flying has been inherited by only one of her children, a son who lives in Germany. And she can't bring her grandchildren to the show. They're still too young, and the airplane noise frightens them.
More than their male counterparts, women pilots seem driven to pass on their passion for flight. They remember how, at the beginning, the obstacles to flying seemed far greater than the rewards. They know that girls are still underperforming in math and the sciences. They know the social barriers faced by women who want to fly. And despite all the progress female aviators have made, they know that role models are hard to come by. Aside from a few aviatrixes -- Earhart, maybe Sally Ride -- most women fliers remain largely unrecognized.
Cline of U.S. Airways remembers the exact moment she decided to become visible. She had been asked to co-author a book about aviation history. Cline promised to consider it, though she intended to decline. Then, on a routine flight to West Virginia, a little girl wandered into her cockpit.
"Her eyes were like big silver dollars, and she looked up to her father and said, 'Daddy, can I be a pilot?' He patted her on the head and said, 'Oh no, honey, you could never do this.'
"I turned around, made my co-pilot get up, and I put his daughter in my co-pilot's seat," she says. "That's when I decided I had to write that book."
Bergemann attracts a steady stream of admirers at the air show, including a male pilot who flies with the Cleveland Wing of the Confederate Air Force, a group that restores historic planes. He sidles up to her to ask if she ever flew the infamous Marauder.
"Sure, we flew the B-26," Bergemann tells him. "We flew it because the guys didn't want to. They thought it was too dangerous."
Bergemann smiles as she tells him about how the WASPs would "tow targets" -- brightly colored fabric streaming from the back of her plane. She explains how they were shot at by male pilots firing live ammunition. The younger pilot shakes his head in disbelief.
After stories like this, people often ask Bergemann if she was afraid. Without hesitation, she tells them that she was never afraid flying that plane or any plane, including the Piper Cherokee she flies now.
"I loved it," she says. "I loved the speed. I loved the challenge of it, and I still do. It just fascinates me when we go to these WASP meetings and women like [shuttle commander] Eileen Collins show up. That they can do these things just fascinates me. I think I would have done that if I had had the chance."
Many fliers would have loved the chance Bergemann had a half-century ago, soaring over the barren fields toward history. But she doesn't live in the past. Bergemann has no desire to hop into the open cockpit of that shiny, restored AT-6. Instead, her keen pilot's eyes shift to the Navy fighter jets on the other side of the fence, lined up like perfect blue soldiers, taunting her without making a sound.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.