Former WASP makes historical aviation list
April 10, 2003
or someone placed in an exclusive list of female aviators, Betty Pfister is extremely humble.
The Aspen resident and flying enthusiast was placed on the list of 100 Most Influential Woman in the history of aviation by Women in Aviation International in late March.
Pfister’s colleagues on the list include many “firsts”: the first woman to fly around the world (Geraldine Mock), the first woman in space (Sally Ride), the first woman to break the sound barrier (Jacqueline Cochran), and the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo (Amelia Earhart).
Pfister was a Women’s Air Service pilot (WASP) during World War II and has won international piloting championships.
In Aspen, she has offered scholarships for flying lessons to local high school students, and she founded Pitkin County Air Rescue in 1968.
And yet Pfister still says she’s surprised (and honored) to be one of the women on the list that celebrates the 100th year of powered flight.
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Pfister said her love of flying began as a college student, when an “air circus” visited Bennington College in Vermont when she was 18. The pilots were offering rides for a ridiculously low price – $1 or $5, she said – and after taking a flight, she and her friend “couldn’t get the smiles off our faces.”
Her parents offered her a bargain: If she stayed in school and got good grades, they’d fund her flying lessons. It was a strategy that worked, and Pfister ended up joining the WASPs in 1943 when she was 21 years old and had 160 hours of flying time under her belt.
Out of 25,000 women who applied to be part of the WASPs, 1,800 were accepted. Pfister was one of 1,000 that graduated within six months.
“It was a made-to-order job for me and my cohorts,” she said. “We were paid to fly all of these marvelous B-17 bombers.”
The WASPs transported planes all around the United States for two years before the program was canceled, freeing up men who could go overseas and fight. Pfister would fly from New York to Florida to Michigan, and in between the United States and Canada.
The 25 WASPs who were sent to fly in England complained about the terrible weather, she said. Deactivated in December 1944, Pfister said she wrote letter after letter to airlines asking for work, and “never knew there were so many different ways to say no.”
She took some work ferrying planes from place to place and worked for a charter airline that did a New York to Puerto Rico run, taking “iceboxes and victrola records” to Puerto Rico and bringing people back – including women in sleeveless, cotton blouses who were sure to be chilly in New York in January.
Pfister took a job as a stewardess with Pan American Airlines, becoming “the stewardess who flies her own planes” in Pan Am ads. She said she took the job to travel – and enjoyed seeing Europe and Africa.
Luckily, the airline loved workers who appreciated taking vacations in the winter, and Pfister loved to ski, which is how she wound up in Aspen.
She met her husband, Art, in a lift line on Aspen Mountain – he and a friend were wearing cardboard signs advertising their availability as a joke. She and Arthur Pfister dated remotely for several years, meeting up in Aspen periodically to ski, and in 1954 they were married.
The two shared their experience flying during World War II – Art flew “The Hump” over Burma during the war.
Betty regularly picked up lessons in other types of aircraft.
In 1963 she discovered a love of helicopters, in 1966 she received her license as a glider pilot, and in 1975 she became a balloon pilot. She won international air races in 1950 and 1952, and piloted for America in the World Helicopter Championship, in England in 1973 and in Russia in 1978.
When she was with the WASPs she got measles the night before she was due to learn how to fly fighter planes, but after the war she bought her own fighter plane for $1,000, named “Galloping Gertie.” Gertie now sits in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve always just felt comfortable in the air – much more so than I do in a car,” Pfister said. She’s very comfortable flying in this mountainous terrain, but flying over bodies of water makes her nervous.
And although she knows she and other women pilots of her generation broke ground when it came to flying, she said it was never difficult.
“It was very much a man’s world, but I don’t think I ever felt discriminated against,” she said. “As long as you did your job, the plane doesn’t know who’s flying it.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com