Her head tipped back and eyes peeled for airplanes flying through the
clouds above Long Island, 5-year-old Dora Dougherty Strother (SCS49) was
enchanted in the 1920s by the contraptions that had mastered the skies.
For many years she and her family trekked every Sunday afternoon after
church to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. "In
those days we didnt have movie heroes. We didnt have rock
star heroes," Strother explained on "Fly Girls," a PBS
documentary that first aired in 1999. "We had aviators who were pushing
back technology, who were doing fantastic things as pioneers."
After the United States entered World War II, it was in desperate need
of trained fliers, and Strother became a pioneer herself by joining the
third class of the Womens Airforce Service Pilots in 1943. A year
later she was training male pilots to fly the B-29 bomber. Eventually
Strother would become a respected engineer in the aircraft industry and
a reserve officer in a military that for much of her life offered only
grudging acknowledgment of the WASPs contributions. But at heart
she always remained the same 5-year-old girl who was enraptured by flight.
None of her accomplishments would have happened had it not been for a
civilian pilot training program that Strother took in the summer of 1940.
This was after her first year at Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and the
course was being taught at Northwestern only a few miles from Winnetka,
Ill., where her parents had moved from Long Island.
"The civilian pilot training program was designed to train people
to fly who would then be a pool of [wartime] aviators for the country,"
Strother says. "If the public had known, there would have been an
outcry. To keep them from the idea that it was premilitary, they enrolled
10 percent women. I was lucky enough to be part of the 10 percent at Northwestern."
The 30 people in the course 27 men and three women spent
half their time in ground school in the Technological Institute learning
about airplanes and engines, meteorology, navigation, radios, communication
and flight instruments. The actual flight training took place at Palwaukee
Airport in suburban Wheeling.
From the start Strother was hooked. "It was a thrill, although I
was so busy that I didnt think of my emotions," she says. "I
think that a lot of the excitement is that its something new, that
youre in control and that the success of the flight depends on you."
Succeed she did, even though the flight inspector who administered her
final test on an Aeronca Champion refused to speak to women
When Strother returned to Cottey in the fall, she spent her allowance
to buy flying time at a little airport near the college. She wanted to
boost her pilots license rating, which was something the small womens
college did not look upon with favor. "They confined me to the campus
and sent a wire to my parents saying what a bad thing I had done,"
Strother says. "My parents wired back and said that it was fine with
them and that I could go to the airport whenever I wanted."
After completing two years at Cottey, Strother, who is now retired and
living in Fort Worth, Texas, enrolled as a junior at Northwestern in 1942.
One day she saw an article in the Chicago Tribune for a new Army
program that would train women to ferry aircraft within the continental
United States. The program was intended to free up male pilots for combat
Putting her academic career on hold, Strother went immediately to Palwaukee,
where she worked as an assistant bookkeeper and took her pay out in flying
time so she could qualify for the new program. Turning 21 that November,
she vividly recalls taking her physical in an Army medical center in downtown
Chicago amid hordes of men, all of them puzzled and more than a few resentful
at her presence. ("My pulse was racing," she remembers.) Finally
Strother received orders on Jan. 15, 1943, to report for duty. About 25,000
women had applied to be WASPs; only 1,830 were accepted.
Along with the 54 other women in the third class, Strother ended up at
Avenger Field, a desolate spot in west-central Texas dubbed Cochrans
Convent after Jacqueline Cochran, the WASPs legendary commander.
The regimen was tough, with hard physical exercise and 200 hours of flight
training alternating with 400 hours of intellectually demanding lessons
in ground school.
Cochran insisted that the women receive the same instruction and testing
as male pilots. The sign on the barracks said it all: "Through these
portals pass the worlds finest women pilots."
Strother, however, acknowledges she had a lot to learn. "The army
way [of flying] was different than the civilian way," she says. "The
stall sequences were different, there were different maneuvers and military
aircraft react more violently than civilian aircraft, so we had to learn
different ways of dealing with the airplane. It was a very exciting thing."
Other things were also exciting. On the first night in the barracks at
Avenger, "we didnt talk about engines," Strother recalled
in the PBS documentary. "We didnt talk about airplanes, we
didnt talk about men. We talked about snakes. Every type of poisonous
snake thats found in our country is found in the state of Texas."
Despite the conditions, the WASPs had the same washout rate as the males,
about one-third. Still, although the women had exactly the same schooling
as male aviators, they did not fall under the "Army Air Forces"
title. Instead, Strother and the other women who received their wings
on July 4, 1943, were still officially classified as civilians. (It wasnt
until 1977 that the WASPs were "militarized," meaning they could
be considered bona fide veterans. Strother testified before the U.S. Congress
about the importance of the WASPs role in the war.)
After the flight training at Avenger Field, the women dispersed, ferrying
aircraft to various bases throughout the country. It was a brutal existence
in which they lived like vagabonds seven days a week and put in exhausting
hours. The WASPs often went days without changing clothes and slept on
top of their parachutes.
Almost immediately after her training Strother and 25 other women in her
group were ordered to Camp Davis in Wilmington, N.C. The first WASPs to
be given duties other than ferrying, they spent six months towing targets
in the air so ground crews could familiarize themselves with their antiaircraft
weapons. "The gunfire never hit the fuselage to my knowledge,"
Strother told the PBS-affiliated producers with a laugh. "I may have
gotten my first few gray hairs there, but I was not aware that I got shot."
Other women were not so fortunate. Two were killed while she was stationed
at Camp Davis. In all 38 WASPs gave their lives in the line of duty. Because
they were technically civilians, the Army provided no benefits, no flags
at the funerals, no gold stars for the families to hang in their windows.
But, says Strother, there was nothing stopping the women in her squadron
from continuing their duties.
"Its difficult in these days to realize the mindset we all
had," she says. "The country was at war, submarines were seen
at our coasts. We were all motivated to do whatever we could to further
the effort for peace, for our country to win the war."
After Camp Davis, the women in Strothers group were sent to a restricted
base at Camp Stewart, Ga., where they were taught to fly drone aircraft
while they themselves were in other planes. She flew with four other women
with whom she formed lasting bonds.
As the months passed and the WASPs proved themselves to be more than capable
fliers, the Army further expanded their range of responsibilities. Many,
in addition to towing targets, became test pilots, instructors, weather
pilots, utility and cargo pilots, and trainers. In 1944 Lt. Col. Paul
W. Tibbets, the pilot who later flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, chose
Strother and Dorothea Johnson Moorman to learn to fly the B-29 bomber
and convince men pilots that the huge aircraft, which had a reputation
for unpredictability, was reliable. Neither Strother nor Moorman had ever
flown a four-engine plane, which was why they were given the task. Tibbets
needed to prove that the B-29 could be flown by anyone even women.
Strother and Moorman only received three days of training. On one occasion
Strother was in the air with Tibbets when an engine started smoking. Reacting
with aplomb, "She did everything just like the book said to do it,"
Tibbets said in "Fly Girls."
After gaining familiarity with the plane, Strother and Moorman flew it
from Birmingham, Ala., to Clovis, N.M., where they took male crews on
flights to show what the B-29 could do.
"It was an easy airplane to fly," Strother says. "We were
surprised when we sat at the controls: It was so well engineered. I was
impressed with the size of it; although it was a large plane, it was easier
to fly than some of the twin-engine planes."
In 1995 she received a letter from one of those pilots, thanking her for
helping him and the others overcome their hesitations about the B-29.
"You were the pilot that day," he wrote, "and demonstrated
your excellent flying skills."
By the end of 1944 men fliers began returning home as the Allies took
increasing control of the skies. The need for extra aviators to ferry
planes and perform similar duties was diminishing. Predictably, over Cochrans
strenuous objections, the WASP unit was disbanded even more quickly than
it had been formed.
Strother returned to Northwestern in fall 1945 as a junior. "It was
kind of strange," she says. "People were younger than I was,
and students who were coming in had a different feeling toward the war.
They werent ready to go out and sign up and join the Army."
She tried to join a war veterans group that was forming on campus,
but the organization did not recognize her service and would not allow
her to participate in its meetings.
Strother began ferrying aircraft left over from the war to New York. She
would often miss class a week at a time. Realizing this arrangement was
not going to work, Strother became a flight instructor at local airfields
during the day and took night classes at the Chicago campus, graduating
in 1949 (the Northwestern Alumni Association presented her with an Alumni
Merit Award in 1968).
But flying was still her passion. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
she taught flying and worked at the schools aviation psychology
lab in a flight program sponsored by the Navy. It sparked something in
her, leading Strother to earn a masters degree there in applied
psychology in 1953 and a doctorate in aviation education and psychology
at New York University in 1958.
Strother worked as a human factors engineer for Bell Helicopter in Fort
Worth until her retirement in 1986. At Bell she worked on helicopter cockpit
design, pilot interface and human behavior and also set womens
world records in 1961 in rotorcraft for altitude and distance. She received
the Amelia Earhart Award that same year.
John Emery, who worked with Strother at Bell for 25 years, admires her
dedication to aviation and human factors engineering. "Dora was a
delightful lady," he says. "She was always true to following
what she wanted to do."
While some males felt uncomfortable in the presence of such an accomplished
woman, those who got close to her "knew she was wonderful,"
Emery says. "She was very down-to-earth, never aloof, never guarded
about being a lady and she never used it to her advantage."
From Strothers perspective, her gender was not a serious problem
in her career. "The discrimination that I ran into all faded away
once you could prove that you could do what you were supposed to do,"
Although the WASPs had not been recognized as veterans after the war,
they were offered commissions. Strother took hers and stayed in the Air
Force reserve, where she rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded
the 9823rd Air Reserve Squadron.
In the congressional battle for militarization the WASPs performed with
their typical competence and eye to preparation. "A lot of us did
a lot of work getting verification," she says. "We provided
examples of how we were promised that we would be put in the military
and how we were treated."
And their efforts paid off. "Within the year we were recognized as
having been veterans," Strother says. "We were given an honorable
discharge and a military certificate that then allowed us to receive military
Indirectly the WASPs can take credit for introducing Strother to her husband,
Lester, a journalist who passed away last year and was buried in Arlington
National Cemetery in November. In 1961 he interviewed her for a story
for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the group.
Indeed, Strother has always welcomed publicity for the WASPs. In addition
to a collection of materials and information at the Texas Womans
University archives and numerous Web sites and organizations dedicated
to telling their tale, the PBS "American Experience" documentary
was something of a capstone for the groups members.
"Were getting to an age when we may not all be here very long,"
Strother says. "I think that a lot of the women have raised their
families, are now widows and love to relive the good old days. Now, there
is a lot of attention paid to our group because women are holding prominent
positions in the military, even in the war in Afghanistan right now. I
think our group provided a link that proved to the military that women
were capable of handling complex tasks like flying with skill and competence."
Strother is confident that her experiences as a woman pilot and in the
field of aviation helped to clear the way for women pursuing professions
in typically male-dominated fields.
"It was a magnificent opportunity," she says about her wartime
experience. "I think that, aside from the thrill of it, anytime that
any of the women pilots flew anyplace, they felt they were representing
women worldwide and for generations to come. We knew we were breaking
barriers, and we had to fly our best."
Negar Tekeei, a junior in the Medill School of Journalism, was a summer
intern for Northwestern magazine. During the fall quarter she was
a reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times as part of the Medill Teaching
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