Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 20, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Woman Aviator

  |   Video
  • Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, were among the first women trained to fly American military aircraft. Meet Betty Blake, an Arizona resident who was in one of the first classes of WASP known as the “guinea pigs.”
Guests:
  • Bett Blake - WASP aviator
Category: Military

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Tonight on "Horizon," we celebrate the women air force service pilots of World War II. Known as the wasps, they were the first women trained to fly military aircraft and meet a Arizona wasp with fascinating stories to tell. That's coming up next on "Horizon."

"Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Good evening and welcome to this special edition ever "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Women air force service pilots known as wasps were the first women to fly military aircraft and we'll meet a Arizona women who was in one the first classes, known as the guinea pigs. Here's part of a story we aired back in 1996.

Narrator:
From 1942 to 1944, over 1,000 women earned their wings to become women air force service pilots and fly military aircraft during World War II.

“ We flew all of them. The big bombers, the B26, the B25, and the B38 and we have that -- that's our gift. You see? You can't take that away.”

Margaret Tamplin:
Winter flying. Oh, yeah.

Verda May Jennings:
That was something else. And did you ever get as cold in your life? Feet always froze.

Narrator:
For these women, photographs in a scrapbook bring back memories of their days in the wasp.

Margret Tamplin:
I went in originally into the ferry command at Dallas and that's when I buried the 186's. Pick them up and take them where they were needed.

Verda May Jennings:
All of the girls that I know, I guess I could be safe saying all of the wasps, very dedicated. Wanted to fly more than life itself. All of us had the bug bad.

Narrator:
Women air force service pilots flew every kind of non-combat mission imaginable and doing so, they were able to free up male pilots to fly in combat overseas where they were needed.

Dawn Seymour:
Women had never had this opportunity before. And -- and you realized that you were -- if you failed, you had lost a big opportunity for women.

Narrator:
Two women are credited with creating the wasp opportunity. Nancy harkness love had pioneered a program where top women pilots transported military aircraft from factory to field and Jacqueline Cochran started an experimental pilot program with the goal of utilizing women pilots to fly a variety of missions.

These programs eventually merged forming the women air force service pilots or wasp.

Ted Simons:
Some of the women have passed away. They weren’t around when members of the wasp were awarded the medal of honor. For a long time, the wasp were the unsung heroes of World War II. Civilian employees who didn't receive veterans' benefits until the late 1970s. Earlier I talked to Betty Blake, about her experience as a wasp.

Thank you for joining us tonight on "Horizon."

Betty Blake:
I'm happy to be here. I'm flattered.

Ted Simons:
We're flattered. You've got so many stories. I want to get started from the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a pilot?

Betty Blake:
Well, I was a -- the only girl on the boy's baseball team and I was the catcher. And the pitcher got his private license so he invited me to be the first passenger. Well, I just -- just because somebody had a license, I thought he knew everything about flying. He really didn't. But I was lucky that day. I'd never been to the airport. I read all the books by Amelia Earhart and all of the old-time pilots and Lindbergh, but I was interested in flying even then.

Ted Simons:
And you wound up soloing at the age of --

Betty Blake:
14.

Ted Simons:
How did that come about?

Betty Blake:
I got a job sending the bills to the students at flying school where I had the ride and he was sort of fatherly toward me and gave me the job and then free flying time. And there were several navy pilots that instructed on their time off, because this airport was in Honolulu, very close to Pearl Harbor. And they were navy pilots flying and they would come on their time off and instruct. So I had a navy pilot instruct me and he gave me a lot ever extra instructions whenever he didn't have a student, he would take me up. So I had a lot of extra time.

Ted Simons:
And when you were in the air, you loved it, didn't you?

Betty Blake:
I loved it. I wore my grandmother's lucky ring and I was up there and it was bumpy and rough air where I rubbed the ring a few times and said a silent prayer.

Ted Simons:
Yeah.

Betty Blake:
After a few times, I was hooked.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned Amelia Earhart you met her?

Betty Blake:
Yes, she came to the island to fly the Pacific. The first -- no, to fly Honolulu to Oakland, California. She was the first woman to do it, and fly solo. The night before, she gave a talk at the university of Hawaii. My father drove me up there and I was interested in flying and sat in the front row and I was the only kid in the audience. After the talk, she came directly to me and all of the adults were around waiting to shake hands and I think they were ready to wring my neck and she invited me to watch her take off for Oakland the next morning and my father drove me out there and she took me into her twin engine plane and we talked for a few minutes and laughed a little because I had a separation between my two front teeth at that time and so did she and we became buddies because of our separation.

Ted Simons:
And you got a chance to watch her take off
.
Betty Blake:
Yes, I watched her take off. No -- I didn't watch her. She started to take off and before she got off the ground, she pulled the throttle back and taxied back and my father was tired of waiting and said, we're leaving. She took off later that day and made it, but I wasn't there to see her.

Ted Simons:
This was happening in Hawaii and prior to World War II, but you're living relatively close to Pearl Harbor?

Betty Blake:
I lived in the hills above Honolulu but I could see from Diamond Head, I could see the beach. There weren't so many high-rise hotels that cut out the water. But I could see from Diamond Head, at the west end, looking out toward the ocean and Pearl Harbor was at the east end. I couldn't really see it, but I could see it the morning of December 7th, why, I saw all the smoke. Pearl Harbor was solid black smoke up into the sky right after the first few bombs were dropped.

Ted Simons:
I was going to say, did you know -- did people know what was going on. What was the initial reaction?

Betty Blake:
Well, it was startling to find out it was Japan because I had gone to school with Japanese children and spoke a little Japanese and there were so many Japanese in the island, island-born, and we didn't think about it, until we saw a airplane that looked like an AT6 but had suns on the bottom of the wing.

Ted Simons:
And you figured it out.

Betty Blake:
We turned on the radio, and my father turned on the radio -- no television then -- and a special programming came on the radio, and Tokyo Rose was on. Later, for several days after that. But it announced that we had been attacked. And by the enemy, they didn't say Japanese, they weren't sure, I guess, then. But it was an exciting day and then the blackouts started that night and we weren't prepared.

Ted Simons:
Talk to us about -- hold on a second. Before we talk about the blackouts, the night before Pearl Harbor was a big night?

Betty Blake:
Yes, my 21st birthday had been a couple of weeks before that and three ensigns that I had dated. One was on the battleship Arizona and the other two roommates on the California, tied up -- or anchored next to the Arizona. And I was in with the three of them that night. My father didn't want me driving home from Pearl Harbor alone, so he invited the one named Robert to drive home and spend the night at our house. So I was the only one with a car. That saved his life. The other two were killed. One was my future husband's roommate and the other was on the Arizona. He was a star football player.

Ted Simons:
Oh, boy, and the fact that the one gentleman drove you home was the reason --

Betty Blake:
He was saved.

Ted Simons:
That's amazing stuff. After the attack, blackouts, people changing colors on their headlights?

Betty Blake:
To drive at night -- and I got -- I had a cousin who was skipper of a submarine in Pearl Harbor and he called me, Sunday night or Monday and said you've got to take a job at Pearl Harbor because all of the secretaries were wives of military and shipped home to the west coast and I knew how to type and I got a job working for the captain the yard and I went out there to Pearl Harbor and saw the sunken ships. It was a real shock. The Utah, California and Arizona were all around this little island in the middle of Pearl Harbor where the landing field was for the navy planes.

Ted Simons:
A shock for you?


Betty Blake:
To see the sunken ship, just the masts sticking out.

Ted Simons:
Were people still in shock or people starting to get down to business?

Betty Blake:
I think they were all in shock and everyone stayed home and get the -- listened to the radio to get the latest news. They kept telling us that the Japanese would be back and there would be more attacks. We were scared to death.

Ted Simons:
Wow.

Betty Blake:
And with blackouts at night. I went to work three days later and you couldn't drive after dark unless you had special permits which I got immediately because they needed me at Pearl Harbor. But I had to put blue cellophane over my headlights and leave an inch square in the center without any cellophane over it so you didn't see much driving home. It was scary. And they stopped you at every corner.

Ted Simons:
I'll bet.

Betty Blake:
To check your I.D. to be sure you were legal.

Ted Simons:
Ok. From there, you get into the military, did you get into the military because it was the thing to do? Was it what you always wanted to do? How did that happen?

Betty Blake:
I married a navy ensign, and he was saved because he was at our house that night. The other two killed. And sent to a new cruiser in Philadelphia and we got married about three months after pearl harbor. Everybody got married, there were no dates anymore. And we were so spoiled before the war. It was nothing to have five dates at night. An early date, a dinner date and a late date. And suddenly it all stopped and everybody sitting at home in the dark and so everybody got married.

Ted Simons:
And you got married.

Betty Blake:
I got married.

Ted Simons:
And as far as joining the military and becoming a pilot for the military?

Betty Blake:
I was a pilot before Pearl Harbor.

Ted Simons:
Right.

Betty Blake:
I had an instructor's rating and commercial license and I was flying tourists between the islands, putt-putt planes, but when you're 21, you're immortal.

Ted Simons:
Sure.


Betty Blake:
But it all stopped at Pearl Harbor and my husband was transferred to Philadelphia to a new cruiser and I went with him. And just about that time, Nancy Love went down to Wilmington, Delaware and found records of women pilotys and they called and asked me to join her group. Which was the WAFSs (women’s air fairing service), I went right away and she turned me down because I didn't have twin engine time.

Ted Simons:
Oh!

Betty Blake:
I was so disappointed and went back to Philadelphia. By then, my husband went overseas again. I thought I couldn't go back to Honolulu because of the restrictions during the war and suddenly, I got a call from Jackie Cochran, who had heard that Nancy love started this and she came back from England and said, you promised this to me if you were going to use women and so she pushed Nancy out the way and Jackie called me and asked me to be in the first class, which was called the guinea pig class. They weren't sure that women could fly military planes so we went down to Houston and later I graduated at Ellington field at Houston. For the first two or three months they watched us like hawks. And we -- they took all of these -- commandeered all of these civilian planes. Fairchild 24's and put stars on all of them. Each day we flew a different plane and after a month, oh, these girls are going to be able to fly military planes, so they got get rid of the regular ones and brought in the military planes.

Ted Simons:
As far as training in Houston and the training sessions in particular -- or general, I should say -- did you run into rough weather? Rough planes? Sounds like it was pretty much catch as catch can.

Betty Blake:
It was. It was. We did have bad weather down there. Which they do have in Houston sometimes. Comes in off the gulf. We didn't have a lot of it, though. But we had all the men pilots at Ellington field was watching us like hawks. And if you did anything wrong, it was back at the base before we could even get back there. Because these guys were a little bit envious and the ground crews that were servicing our planes were pilots that had gone to military flight school and washed out. So they were mechanics on the ground and watched us like hawks too. I don't blame them. They were envy us -- envious of us.

Ted Simons:
What were your responsibilities?

Betty Blake:
I was in the first class, so at graduation, we could either tow targets which didn't sound interesting to me. I didn't want people shooting and hitting my plane by mistake. Or teach cadets, or join the ferry command. The air transport command. I picked the air transport command. And we had a choice of the first -- the first class had a choice of bases -- Dallas, Wilmington, Delaware, and some place near Chicago, I can't think, a base there. And long beach, California. I thought if I went to long beach, I'd get a flight to Honolulu and that was a good choice because there were so many aircraft factories up and the down the coast, that the first three of us, got checked out in so many different military planes that other girls didn't have a chance to fly.

Ted Simons:
What was your favorite.

Betty Blake:
I factory was there at the L.A. airport. I flew three a week, frequently. To Newark, New Jersey, where they sprayed it with plastic and called it pickling it. And took the wings off and put them on ships and carried them to England.

Ted Simons:
And these were relatively new?

Betty Blake:
Brand new.

Ted Simons:
That's got to be unnerving.

Betty Blake:
At the North American factory, they had two test pilots and they -- 44 planes a day came off the assembly line, ready to be flown away. And the test pilots, I got to know them. They showed the record for the flying time in a plane. The form one would show that they'd been flown tested to 20 minutes. The pilots said they never flew them in the air at all.

Ted Simons:
Wow.

Betty Blake:
So many coming off and all they did was taxi them and run them on the ground for five minutes or so and turn them off and say they'd test-flown them.

Ted Simons:
But you flew them and loved them?

Betty Blake:
I loved them. I always said a prayer because they'd never been in the air and I was afraid that somebody left sand in the gas tank or forgot rivets or something. But we were always taking off toward oil wells and I always said a prayer that I wouldn't have to bail out and have my parachute hang up on a oil well.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. After the war, did you do a lot of flying?

Betty Blake:
I did some, but after the war, my husband -- my navy husband and I were divorced. And I married this air force pilot stationed in long beach with me. And he wanted to live over here and he had flown the hump, before the war, the CBI, China-Burma-Indian wing and lost two friends because the Japanese were firing on them and they had no ammunition or anything on the plane and so when he got through with his stint, 500 hours or something, he didn't care if he flew another airplane. He didn’t want to so I never had a chance, really,

Ted Simons:
That's too bad.

Betty Blake:
I'd ride in people's planes but didn't do much flying myself.

Ted Simons:
Do you miss it?

Betty Blake:
I miss the P51. But I had a ride in one recently. And the Merlin engine just purrs.

Ted Simons:
Did it bring back memories?

Betty Blake:
Lots of memories.

Ted Simons:
When you see what's going on now with the modern military, what do you think?

Betty Blake:
I don't know. I haven't really thought much about that. I don't know what to say to you about that.

Ted Simons:
When you see the technology and what's --

Betty Blake:
Oh, it's unbelievable. I think it's probably not as much fun today. We flew by the seat of our pants. Even though we had instrument ratings, went through the learning, why, I think we had more fun and I think it's more technical today. I know pilots that fly jets out at Luke field, and they're envious of me. I'd love to have a ride in the jet but I think I'm too old. They've offered me rides but it's never happened.

Ted Simons:
You never know.

Betty Blake:
You never know.

Ted Simons:
After the war, now you had some other things -- you were a reporter for a while, correct?

Betty Blake:
Yes, for a newspaper in Scottsdale. I wrote a column.

Ted Simons:
Just on general issues?

Betty Blake:
I could write about whatever I wanted to and I wrote about parties and people and things like that. Because Scottsdale was small then. About 800 people. And since I wrote for the newspaper, I met a lot of people because they all wanted their names in the paper and so I had a lot of stuff to write about and if I ran out of things, I took a word from the dictionary and just wrote a funny article about it. So I had cart blanche.

Ted Simons:
And you were also an -- and perhaps still are -- accomplished crafts person. Arts and crafts?

Betty Blake:
My husband -- didn't know what do with himself. He had heart attacks after he got out. He couldn't hold a job easily. So he -- he -- I had grown up working in a pottery that friends of mine owned in Honolulu, so pottery came for sale on Van Buren and I talked him into it and he bought it and we both worked in the pottery for a while and he was head of the state fair too.

Ted Simons:
Was he?

Betty Blake:
Yeah, during Howard pile's -- he worked on his campaign for governor. And as a thank you, Howard gave him the job. He was good at it. It was a little country fair when he took over and made it into the big fair it is today.

Ted Simons:
When you look back on what you've done here in life, everything from seeing Amelia Earhart, do you feel blessed?

Betty Blake:
I do, and I don't go to church, I can't drive anymore, and not good at sitting in pews because they hurt my back. I have a bad back. But I talk to god a lot.

Ted Simons:
What do you say?

Betty Blake:
I just thank him for the good life I've had and beg him, please don't stop for a while. I've got more to do.

Ted Simons:
That's good. What more do you want to do? You've lived quite a life.

Betty Blake:
I'd like to do more traveling. I've gone to Germany. But never to France or England. My father was born in Scotland.

Ted Simons:
You've lived a wonderful life and you are blessed and we are thankful you had the time to spend with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

Betty Blake:
You're very welcome. I didn't have to tell the bad things. Like catching fire and all of those things. I did tell you about the fire.

Ted Simons:
Thank you so much. And thank you for joining us for this special edition of "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. You have a great evening.

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