Elizabeth Haas Pfister
November 22, 2011
We mourn with great sadness the passing of Elizabeth Haas Pfister. She died at home surrounded by her loved ones on Nov. 17, 2011.
Betty was born on July 23, 1921 in Great Neck, N.Y. She was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y, along with her two siblings Priscilla (Pat) and Robert. Her father, Robert K. Haas, was an early partner at Random House Publishing. Her mother, Merle Haas, an unflagging philanthropist, devoted much of her time and energy to the nonprofit Rusk Institute in New York City. Notably, Merle translated the original Babar children’s series from French to English. Taking into account Betty’s background and parentage, it is not surprising that from an early age she would prove herself to be a determined and accomplished young woman.
Betty’s affinity for the skies began while she was only a freshman at Bennington College. “There was an aerial show one Parents Weekend,” she recalled. “For a dollar, you could have a ride. My parents said they didn’t want me to go up in the plane. I told them ‘of course not,’ and then when they left, my friend and I squished into the front seat, and I was smitten. I made a deal with my father afterward that I would stay in school if he paid for lessons.” He accepted the arrangement, and throughout her time at college, Betty alternated between coursework and flight training.
“I was the kind of lopsided student Bennington was made for,” added Betty. “Bennington accepted a girl who was no good at French or math, but who had a burning, passionate desire to explore something.”
Betty greatly admired her older brother Robert; in fact, she spent most of her youth as his “copycat.” It was through emulating him that her interest in the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) arose. He had recently become a Navy pilot when Betty answered the call to all women holding a pilot’s license to join the WASP training program. She was still in training when she found out her brother had been killed. His catapult failed upon takeoff from an aircraft carrier. Undeterred, she continued with her training program. She was passionate about her flying!
From its inception in the early 1940s, the WASP program was very much about achievement – high achievement. It was, first and foremost, an assembly of women with exceptional flying abilities. Only 1,800 women, out of 25,000 who applied, were accepted into the program. Of those, only 1,100 graduated. The female pilots learned on a wide range of aircraft, including B-24s and B-17s. They shuttled airplanes all across the country. More than 30 women lost their lives. Some deaths were weather related, and some due to the fact that many of the aircraft were in terrible condition. The service the WASPs provided was not appreciated nor compensated. They paid for their own housing, food and training. They even had to pay their own way home once the WASPs was unceremoniously disbanded in 1944.
Betty continued flying after the war. Although there were not many piloting opportunities for women, she was lucky to find several unconventional jobs. One involved transporting cattle to South and Central America. She was fond of telling a wonderful story of a bull escaping from the aircraft on the ground during a refueling stop and onto the runway at the Miami airport. She gave a colorful description of the chaos that ensued as the airport officials attempted to capture and reload the recalcitrant beast.
After the unfortunate bull incident, Betty was finally able to a land a job as a stewardess for Pan American Airlines. She was a bit of a media star, the airline often trotting her out as the token woman pilot turned stewardess. Betty disliked the limelight, however, she acknowledged that, “it went with the job.” At the same time, she purchased a little plane called the Barbary Belle and began competing in air races all across the United States. This plane was soon succeeded by her sweet P-39, (Bell P-39Q Aircobra), a surplus fighter plane she named “Galloping Gertie.” She and “Gertie” were a great team. She won the International Air Race in 1950 and 1952, as well as many other smaller races around the country. Today, “Galloping Gertie” is on exhibit at The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Betty worked for Pan Am for four years. Toward the end of this stint, one of her fellow WASP friends, Ruth Humphries Brown, invited Betty to her wedding in Carbondale. While skiing on Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Betty spied a likely looking fellow standing in the lift line with a cardboard sign hanging around his neck that read, “If you think I’m handsome, I’m available” followed by his four-digit phone number.
Art Pfister and Betty Haas were married in 1954. Art was also a pilot who had flown the “Hump” over Burma, China and India during the war. They had much in common; including their love of flying and skiing. Also in 1954, Art bought the Lazy Chair Ranch on Buttermilk Mountain. Fritz Benedict designed their home, which they built and lived in for the rest of their lives.
Art didn’t think much of Betty’s air racing career and encouraged her to give up her little airplane, saying “it’s too dangerous.” Betty went on to have three daughters, but continued to be passionate about her love for aviation. At one point she took up gliding, receiving her license in 1966. She flew both lighter-than-air and helium balloons, and participated in hydrogen balloon races in the Swiss Alps. She founded the Snowmass Balloon Races in 1976 and organized and chaired that competition until 1981. She flew her own balloon and enjoyed the freedom of balloon flight, saying the excitement was in “going wherever the wind blows you.”
In 1968, Betty organized Pitkin County Air Rescue. Prior to her involvement, rescues were carried out by the Civil Air Patrol, which flew out of Denver. Local pilots, coordinating out of Aspen, and initially out of Betty’s living room, were able to achieve greater success. Many lives have been saved thanks to this organization. She lobbied tirelessly to build the heliport at Aspen Valley Hospital. Its completion was Betty’s dream come true. Also, she paved the way for the construction of the control tower at Sardy Field in Aspen. She went to Washington and camped outside the Federal Aviation Administration doors until they agreed to see her and re-examine their criteria for the tower’s approval.
Art and Betty first owned a small Piper Comanche, which Art used to commute to his traveling salesman territories and Betty used for fun. As the family grew, they bought a twin-engine Cessna Skynight, which was the family transport for vacations and Art’s work. Their lives revolved around flying.
In 1964, Betty learned to fly helicopters and fell in love all over again. She was the 52nd woman in the world to obtain a helicopter license. She became an esteemed member of an elite international organization of women’s helicopter pilots known as the “Whirly Girls.” In the early ’70s, she became a member of the United States Helicopter Team. Her team represented the U.S. in the World Helicopter Championships in both England and Russia. She subsequently served as a judge in the competition, which was great fun for her. She bought a little Bell 47-G helicopter and had it painted to resemble a pink, yellow and orange butterfly. She named it Tinker Bell. She used to say, ” I’d rather fly an hour in a helicopter than 100 hours in an airplane.” Owning and flying that helicopter, if only for several years, was one of the highlights of her life.
The National Women’s Pilot Association, also known as the Ninety-Nines, has counted Betty as a member for more than 40 years. She organized the Aspen chapter in 1981. Her recognition in the field of aviation over the years has been significant. She was honored with the Elder Statesman of Aviation Award presented by the National Aeronautic Association in Washington, D.C. in 1994. She was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984.
In the late ’90s, a quieter accomplishment was offering local high school-age children scholarships to flight school. Student selection was based on their essays and applications. This went on for a few years. Betty got a huge kick out of those kids. She sent several kids to Space Camp and once took a group to flight school in Florida herself.
Many years ago, Art and Betty hosted the first annual Old Timers Party at their ranch on Buttermilk and a great institution was born. This party, a fabulous annual tradition, is now conducted under the auspices of the Aspen Historical Society. She and Art loved this event and looked forward to it every year. In addition, Betty earned her rightful place in Aspen/Snowmass Hall of Fame in 1995.
Ever the adventurer, Betty bungee jumped off a bridge in Australia during an Aspen Sisters City trip when she was in her seventies. She loved to travel and to meet new people. Even as recently as two years ago, Betty traveled to Mexico with her family.
In 2009, 60 years overdue, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama. Congress elected to make WASPs eligible for veteran’s benefits and at long last, these fearless women were given the recognition they so richly deserved. There were only about 300 WASPs still living by the time the award was bestowed. Betty’s comment was, “Better late than never.” She traveled to Washington, D.C. with her family to attend the ceremony at the White House. The honor was the crowning achievement of a true aviatrix!
Betty is survived by her three daughters, Christina Pfister, Nancy Pfister and Suzanne Pfister, of Aspen, Colo.; and her five grandchildren, Daniel and Arthur Kelso of Aspen, Colo., Chase Smith of Montecito, Calif., Tyler Smith, of Aspen, Colo., and Juliana Pfister of Aspen, Colo.; and her sister, Pat Blum of Greenwich, Conn.
Betty will be deeply missed by the family’s beloved companion and caregiver of many years, Maria Olaya Doran, as well as other valued friends and members of her household, Jeff and Genni Nalley, Aracely Salido, Sylvia Castorena and Flyne Anderson.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Aspen Education Foundation; P.O. Box 2200; Aspen, CO 81612. Donations may be received on the web at http://www.aspenaef.org.
Betty’s indomitable spirit will live on in our memory. A celebration of her life will be held at the Hotel Jerome at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. All are welcome. Please bring photo remembrances if you like. The family is collecting images for an online album.