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Women aviators gather for film premier

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

ARLINGTON, Va. (March 12, 2003) -- More than 200 people gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery on March 10 to view the premier of the film "Above & Beyond: 100 Years of Women In Aviation."

Among those in attendance were Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper and Lt. Gen. Leslie F. Kenne, deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration, who served as key speaker at the event.

Dorothy Lucas and Betty Shipley both flew military aircraft as Women's Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 1,000 women flew military aircraft as WASP pilots inside the United States to compensate for a shortage of male pilots -- pilots who had gone overseas to fight in World War II. Shipley and Lucas didn't know each other during WWII, but their husbands, both of whom became Air Force Pilots, graduated school together. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi.

The film chronicles the contributions of women to aviation from 1903 to the present and highlights such contributors to aviation as Katharine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers; Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander; and the more than 1,000 World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots.

The premier of the film, part of a year-long celebration leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the first successful powered flight, also coincides with the Women's History Month.

Kenne, who has civilian flying experience, began by telling the crowd that she was honored to be part of the festivities.

"I'm really pleased to be part of the centennial of flight program and to introduce tonight's screening," Kenne said. "In the film you will see women of varied backgrounds, races, economic backgrounds, some young and some not so young. You will see that at times women had to overcome barriers to reach the same goal they shared with many men -- the passion to fly. It is not surprising that we here tonight honor the women in World War II and others in the field of aviation."

The World War II women aviators Kenne spoke of were the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 1,000 women flew military aircraft inside the United States to compensate for a shortage of male pilots -- pilots who had gone overseas to fight in World War II.

"These women, the WASP, who came from all types of backgrounds, responded in a time of national emergency due to love of their country and passion to fly," Kenne said. "During their time, the WASP delivered more than 12,000 aircraft and logged over 60 million miles of flying."

Nearly two dozen WASP were in attendance at the premier of the film, including Dorothy Lucas, whose duties during the war included towing aerial targets.

"I towed targets for the male cadets," Lucas said. "There was an enlisted man in the back seat, a young boy like I was a young girl -- and this target was on the end of a cable that weighed about 600 pounds, so you couldn't do any acrobatics with all that weight back there. This boy had to unroll the thing on the cable and it went way out the back of the ship. The target was a flag, and the cadets made their passes at the flag. That's how they learned aerial gunnery."

Lucas said she joined up with the WASP out of duty to country.

"I was here in Washington, working at the Pentagon and going to night school," Lucas said. "I had two brothers in the service. Everybody was in uniform. I wanted to do something."

Betty Shipley was another WASP who attended the premier. Shipley joined because of her fascination with flying.

"At the entrance to Riverside, Calif., there was a bridge," Shipley said. "When I was 12 years old, a man had his wife stand on that bridge, and he flew under that bridge with an airplane. That really impressed me, and that is what made me want to fly -- that and the fact that my brother was a Navy pilot."

During her stint as a WASP, Shipley flew several aircraft.

"The biggest one I flew was an AT-6," Shipley said. "When we were in training, every class was different. We were the first ones to fly an AT-6. We had started with a 120-horsepower plane and then we went to a Steerman 220-horsepower plane. Finally we jumped to an AT-6, which was a 650-horsepower plane."

The plane must have seemed larger than life to Shipley, who had had been formally trained as a schoolteacher.

"It was a big airplane, and I was little," Shipley said. "It took two cushions under me and two cushions behind me to reach full right rudder. I was so small."

Later, Shipley was able to put to good use her formal skills as a schoolteacher. She trained pilots with the 1st Mexican Fighter Group in aircraft instrumentation.

Stories like those of Shipley and Lucas are featured in the film, which will be shown as a regular feature at the WIMSA Memorial during March. Extending beyond Women's History Month, the film will be part of a series of related centennial of flight activities.