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'Fly Girls' soars with history of female aviators on Long island

The program will be presented at the Suffolk County Historical Society.

Betty Huyler Gilles, an original member of the

Betty Huyler Gilles, an original member of the International Organization of Women Pilots, with her Waco Open sports plane. Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/Bettmann

During World War II, some 1,100 women piloted U.S. aircraft, clocking 60 million miles and delivering about 12,65o military planes.

These are just some of the historical details culled from “The Fly Girls: The Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II,” to be presented in May by Bruce Kagan at the Suffolk County Historical Society.

A retired elementary school teacher, Kagan, 71, of Wading River, regales audiences with stories about the first women to ferry U.S. military aircraft for use in combat during World War II.

Among others, Kagan’s presentation highlights the outsized role of Jacqueline Cochran, whose husband was a top campaign contributor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and who played a vital role in getting women into the cockpit.

“Jackie would talk to Eleanor [Roosevelt] about the idea of moving women’s rights and moving women into the military into airplanes,” Kagan explains.

With a shortage of pilots able to fly U.S. military planes in 1939, women were enlisted to meet the demand and would ferry 77 different types of military aircraft, Kagan says.

On Long Island, planes built at Republic Aviation, Fairchild Aircraft and Grumman Aeronautical Engineering Co. had to be ferried to Newark, from where they were shipped or flown overseas.

To become a ferryist, a man simply volunteered and received on-the-job pilot training, Kagan explains. Women, on the other hand, were required to hold solo pilot licenses beforehand.

“They had to have as much as 500 hours of hours of solo flying,” Kagan says.” Some of them had 2,000 hours in the sky. They were skilled.”

Despite considerable abilities, 38 women died ferrying the aircraft because of human error, defective aircraft, collisions and, in at least one case, sabotage, notes Julia Lauria-Blum, WASP (Women Air Service Pilots) historian at the American Air Power Museum in Farmingdale.

“They found sugar in the tank which killed an engine,” says Blum of the investigation into the 1943 crash that killed Betty Taylor.

History on Long Island

Besides being an aviation manufacturing hub, Long Island gave rise to a large number of female pilots whose wealth gave them the opportunity to learn to fly, Blum says.

Betty Huyler Gilles, a resident of Syosset, was an original member of the 99s, the International Organization of Women Pilots, which supported the efforts of women in aviation and was founded at Curtiss Field, now Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, notes Blum. A contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Gilles became a ferryist.

Foreseeing the shortage of male pilots serving overseas during the war, Cochran started the Women’s Flight Training Detachment, which granted flying privileges to women with fewer training hours, Blum explains. A year later, in 1943, pilot Nancy Love created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron to ferry planes to ports of embarkation. The two organizations soon merged to form WASP, which was under Cochran’s direction.

In 1944, 18 women from the WASP were assigned to ferry P-47 Thunderbolts from Republic Aviation in Farmingdale to Newark, notes Blum.

“In the second half of 1944, every P-47 off that production line was flown by a woman on its first leg of its journey to combat,” Blum says.

Increasing recognition

For many years, the story of the WAFS and the WASP was not widely known because their efforts defied the roles of women at the time, Blum contends.

“It was kept very quiet because it was experimental and they did not want to see controversy end the program,” Blum says.

The records of the WASP and ferryists were opened by the first graduating class of female U.S. Air Force pilots in 1974, notes Kagan. They, along with Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had been a World War II ferryist, successfully petitioned to get the records opened in 1977.

The history of women in general hasn’t received the attention that it should have received, says Nassau County Historical Society president Natalie Naylor, professor emeritus at Hofstra University, where she taught American history.

“That’s been changing in the past couple of decades,” Naylor says. “The focus was on the man and politics and war, where men were predominant and women not even permitted, until relatively recently.”

For his part, Kagan believes the stories of women’s contributions must be told.

“I want to bring the biographies, the stories and the faces of these historic figures — in this case women — to the forefront, so that we could see them and they could shine once again.”

“Fly Girls” ends with Kagan playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on flute to accompany a slideshow of vintage photos alongside more recent photos of the female pilots.

WHAT “The Fly Girls: The Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II” Tea & Talk

WHEN I WHERE 1 p.m. May 2 at Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 W. Main Street, Riverhead.

INFO $25, reserve by April 24 by calling 631-727-2881, ext. 100.

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