At the height of World War II, in the fall of 1942, America desperately needed pilots. With most male pilots overseas, the military put out a call for women to join up. Betty Dybbro (then Betty White) was 20 when a magazine article inspired her to swap Indiana farm life for one in the skies.
“It just came out of the blue,” said Dybbro, who now lives in Olympia. Dybbro just turned 100 on Sept. 8 and is the last living member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in Washington state — and one of a few left in the country. In 1944, she joined the rigorous WASP program, and during her 12 months of service learned how to fly and repair military planes, transported and tested planes, and participated in dangerous artillery drills and strafing exercises. She became fascinated by flying, married a fighter pilot, and after the war, became one of the few female flight instructors.
“Amelia Earhart was doing her thing, and that was interesting, and I followed in her footsteps,” Dybbro said, explaining what motivated her to join up. She had once considered being a flight attendant — then better known as an airline stewardess — but this was far more exciting.
Scraping her savings together, Dybbro took flying lessons at $10 an hour — which equates to about $180 an hour today — to earn the pilot’s license required to apply to be a WASP. She traveled to Texas, where she was interviewed for the program by famed aviator Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran, the first female pilot to break the sound barrier and the driving force behind the WASP program.
Twenty-five thousand women applied for the training program, but only 1,830 were chosen — including Dybbro, in part thanks to her ingenuity. According to one of Betty’s daughters, Sue Dybbro, her mom didn’t quite reach the minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 2 inches, so she hung from a chin-up bar wearing water-filled rubber boots to stretch enough to clear the test.
“She’s pretty persistent,” Sue said.
She needed to be. The program was eight months long, and a typical 16-hour training day at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, included physical drills, flight training for all military aircraft, and instruction in weather, navigation, physics, math, aircraft and engine repair and mechanics. One thousand seventy-four WASP made it through the rigorous training program — a higher success rate, the army’s history site notes, than the 50% male pilot “washout” rate.
The goal of the WASP program was to free up male pilots for combat duty. While they didn’t face enemy combat, WASP handled domestic flying duties and training, including ferrying more than 12,000 aircraft for deployment, test flights, instruction, simulated strafing missions, and towing targets for pursuing male recruits to shoot at — sometimes with live ammunition!
Even today, many are surprised to learn about these pioneering women pilots and their service, something historian Debbie Jennings is working to change. Jennings developed “Women with Wings,” the Museum of Flight’s exhibit on WWII female pilots that features films, uniforms, medals, logbooks and other artifacts that tell the stories of the pilots in the WASP program, and those who flew for the U.S. Air Transport Command, as well as in the Soviet Union and England.
“These women were left out of history books about WWII and few people know their story,” Jennings wrote in an email. “These women were trailblazers in aviation and proved they were equal to male pilots nearly 80 years ago.
Jennings’ interest in the subject was first piqued 30 years ago when she met a neighbor who was a former female pilot. Since then, she’s done extensive research and now lectures about the WASP program and is producing a related miniseries.
As Jennings worked on the Museum of Flight’s permanent exhibit on WWII female pilots, she interviewed and befriended many local WASP, organizing meetups and panel discussions.
“They were the launching pad [for women pilots in the U.S. military] but their records were filed and sealed after WWII and it has taken decades to bring them to light,” Jennings said. “Female pilots today consider the WASP their heroes.”
These early women pilots, including Dybbro, thrived on adrenaline, Jennings said.
For instance, there was the time Dybbro’s base commander in Las Vegas told her to fly her AT-6 low over the desert for men to practice shooting from the ground at the target behind her plane. The commander wanted it to feel like a real battle. Dybbro took the order literally and flew so low that the men scattered and ran off, thinking she was going to crash. No one was hurt, but Dybbro did get reprimanded.
“They are all tough, inspirational, and seem to share a sort of spirit or spunk and confidence with no fear that is part of all their unique personalities,” Jennings said. “Their stories of derring-do and breaking rules while having fun have made me laugh and feel terrified at the same time.”
Discrimination intensified the stresses and dangers that these early female pilots faced on duty. They were sometimes assigned poorly maintained planes, given lower octane fuel and asked to test unproven planes. There were multiple reports of sabotage on planes flown by WASP, from sugar in the gas tank to crossed fuel cables.
All these obstacles thrown in front of the WASP because of their sex “made me angry because we had something to offer, and we knew it,” Dybbro said. “We always had that shadow over our heads … it was just part of the package.”
On Dybbro’s first posting to Marfa Army Air Base in Texas, the commander refused to give women assignments on the flight line. Only after being transferred to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas did Dybbro begin training gunners. During her year of service, she flew some of the most powerful planes of the WWII era, including bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Martin B-26 Marauder as well as the PT-17, BT-13, AT-6, UC-78, AT-10 and the P-39.
Dybbro co-piloted a B-17 with men in the plane’s gun emplacements who would shoot at a target towed by a B-26 as it flew by them in the air.
At other times, she also towed a target behind an AT-6 she was flying, while the men on the ground in the desert armed with live ammunition gun installments were tasked with shooting at the target to practice hitting planes from the ground before going to combat.
The most memorable thing about her time as a WASP was “the freedom,” Dybbro said. “Just the freedom of flying.”
And something else.
There was one fighter pilot who caught her eye during training exercises. That was Lt. Bob Sheehan, and they married about six months later, before moving to the Pacific Northwest. (Theirs wasn’t the only happy union made in the air. The WASP newsletter from March 1945 lists theirs as one of 17 marriages between WASP and their male colleagues and instructors.)
After D-Day, with more male pilots returning home from combat, the WASP program was disbanded. Because the WASP were not militarized, the women received no military benefits, and those who lost their lives in the service of their country were denied military funerals. Over 30 years later, in 1977, these pioneering WASP finally gained veteran status courtesy of President Jimmy Carter. In 2009, President Barack Obama bestowed the WASP with Congressional Gold Medals, one of the most prestigious civilian awards.
After WWII, women were not allowed into flight training programs again until the mid-1970s, “But look how far they have come in the decades following that — including getting to fly in combat in the 1990s,” Jennings said.
Dybbro’s take: There’s still much to be done for women to reach full equality with their male peers in the military.
“We have a little more freedom [now],” she said, adding that she’d like to see “equal opportunities, the same as men have.”
In 1945, the only airline jobs open to female pilots were as flight attendants. So Dybbro became a flight instructor in Puyallup. She stopped flying professionally when she and Sheehan had their first of two children. After Sheehan died, she married Phil Dybbro. With their combined families, including two new children, they now had six children.
Betty Dybbro enjoys renovating homes, gardening and playing golf — and going to regular WASP reunions in Florida and locally.
Despite her passion for flight, she never pushed her children to try it. “Mom just let us be who we were,” said Sue Dybbro.
Betty’s last flights came on her 95th birthday when the flying community feted her at an airfield near Enumclaw featuring antique aircraft. She got to fly a Piper Cub and a Stearman.
The old pioneer also managed to find her way to a B-17 one last time in recent years because she never forgot its distinctive sound.
Betty was having lunch with her daughter, Julie Dybbro, on Julie’s deck in Olympia a few years ago when she heard a sound, looked up at the sky and said, ‘That sounds like a B-17.’”
“We all thought she was crazy,” Julie wrote in an email, “But then sure enough, a huge B-17 flies over my house on the way to the airport.”
The family piled in the car and went out to the airport where, coincidentally, a B-17 expo was in progress, with paying customers being taken into the air on flights.
“I took mom to the front of the line and introduced my mom to the pilot and they about burst into tears, saying they had been looking for all those who had been involved with the B-17,” Julie recalled. “There were WWll male pilots touring the plane at that moment as well. So we got mom in the plane and she got to sit in the cockpit and they were all swapping stories.”