Margaret Werber Gilman enjoyed a comfortable Great Neck youth with horseback riding and ski vacations, but she soon sought a new challenge.
She found it flying planes with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
Gilman died May 29 at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. She was 90.
In a statement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who honored Gilman in 2010 when the female pilots, known as WASP fliers, received Congressional Gold Medals, called Gilman "a pioneer who forged a new path for future women aviators here in New York and beyond. . . . Her legacy will continue to inspire generations of women."
Gilman's role as a female flier occurred after American pilots were in short supply in the war's early days. One answer was found in more than 1,000 women picked by Army Air Corps officers from a pool of 25,000 applicants. They were trained and assigned duties ranging from aircraft transport to aerial target towing.
Gilman was one of the last to enter the program before it was disbanded in December 1944, arriving for training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in May at the age of 20. She'd learned to fly not long before.
In Texas, "she would fly targets that the men would practice live fire on," said her daughter, Jane Gilman of Garden City. Sometimes their bullets missed the target, embedding with a ping in her aircraft.
By 1944, said Katherine Landdeck, a historian at Texas Woman's University and an authority on the WASPs, "American men were able to do the jobs women were doing. It was OK to have women releasing men for combat duty but not to have women replacing them."
Gilman married the veterinarian Manny Gilman, a pillar of American thoroughbred horse racing, and stayed home to raise their children. He died in 2011. WASPs were not officially designated military veterans until 1977. Gilman felt the slight most when it came to the 38 comrades killed in wartime service. "She used to say how sad and pathetic it was that when the men died, they would ship coffins home to their families, treat them with such reverence," her daughter said. "And when women died they had to get together and get their own money to ship their bodies home to their families."
In a 2002 oral history now archived at Texas Woman's University, Gilman looked back on her service not with bitterness but satisfaction: "Learning to take orders and criticism and not explode, you know; I probably still don't like it. But I can cope with it. I can hang in there."
Besides her daughter, Gilman is survived by her son, Charles Gilman of Plandome. She lived most recently in North Hills.
Burial was on Monday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Great Neck with an Air Force Honor Guard in attendance. A flyover followed.