| Betty Strohfus: A Tale of Love at First Flight
For Elizabeth (Betty) Strohfus, World War II pilot from Faribault, Minn., seeing the world from above had always been a great love of hers. Even as a child, Betty could regularly be found climbing to discover new heights.
"I would climb to the highest hill or on the roof if I didn't have anything else to climb on," Betty said.
While working in the local courthouse, a man came in talking about flying. Seeing her interest, he asked if she would like to accompany him on a flight.
"I could get above all this beautiful world and see what God created?" she remembers thinking.
"He went up 3,500 feet into a spin, turned around and looked, and I asked, "One more time?'" Betty said.
After ten "one more times,' he stopped looking around. Looking a little green, he landed the airplane.
"He said "You know, whatever you do, you have to take up flying. Every other person I take up flying and did a spin, they get sick. You're the only one who's made me sick,'" Betty said. "I had a ride in an airplane and fell in love with flying. It was love at first flight."
From that point on, Betty could be found hanging around the local airport waiting to catch a ride from one of the 15 men in the Sky Club.
"Of course, at that time there weren't any women in the Sky Club," Betty said. "I used to go out there and do a little sweeping, and I'd just hang around because if somebody needed ballast in the backseat, I'd be it."
When one of the Sky Club members joined the United States Army Air Corps, Betty was invited to take the club vacancy. The only hurdle Betty had to jump with accepting the position was that it cost $100.
"I thought, "Gee, I've never seen $100 in one piece in all my life.' I was making $50 a month," Betty said. "This was in 1942, and my father had passed away. My mom was trying to keep the house together, and we didn't have much money to spend."
The one purchase Betty had been able to make was a bicycle.
"I had a bicycle for transportation. I got out of high school in 1939, and went and bought a bicycle as soon as I got a job," Betty said. "In those days we didn't have a telephone, we didn't have a car, we made our own fun. When we wanted to go somewhere, we could only go as far as a bicycle would go."
Betty's bicycle took her much farther than she ever expected the day she went to the bank to ask for a loan of $100.
"I said, "I'm going to start to fly.' He said, "Oh, women don't fly.' I said, "This one is going to,'" Betty recalls. "He never said a word. He got the papers, put my bike down for collateral, and co-signed my loan. He knew we were poor, but he also knew we were honest people. I got my $100 and joined the Sky Club."
Joining the 14 men, Betty fit right in as a little sister.
"The fellas were so good to me. In fact, it was almost embarrassing, because if I was going on a cross country [flight] they would follow me to make sure I didn't get lost," Betty said. "Those years we didn't have the navigation situation like they have today. We only had five instruments in our airplane."
Women Air Force Service Pilots
World War II started unexpectedly for the United States, requiring all of the experienced pilots in the military to become combat pilots. The Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) organization was formed, and asked women to become pilots to relieve the men on the home front. 25,000 women applied, while only around 1,900 aspiring pilots were selected for the training.
"I didn't even know 25,000 women had applied for it. I had no idea," Betty said. "I just knew I had to fly airplanes."
Betty left her home in Faribault, Minn. to travel down to Sweetwater, Tex. for training with her sister Mary and one other woman from her town.
"When we went into the Service, we took the oath of the military, under orders at all times," Betty said. "We flew the airplanes of the service, and we thought we were to be a part of the Air Force."
With the military exhausting all resources for the war efforts, the WASPs acquired recycled uniforms from the English military following their flight training in Sweetwater.
"If you got to the laundry in time, you would get one that [fit]. Otherwise, they would be too big. We'd have to pull them up and tuck them in," Betty said. "But we didn't care, we wanted to fly airplanes. We didn't care what they gave us to wear."
Unlike the males' uniforms, the females required consideration for their long hair.
"When we got in the airplane, our hair would flow in the back and they always felt that it would [distract] the [male instructors] in the back seat," Betty said, "so we had to wear turbans."
While the males were trained to pilot specific aircraft, the females had the opportunity to fly all the aircraft.
"Being they didn't know what to do with us, we flew them all," Betty said. "So we were knowledgeable about all the planes."
Being experienced with more aircraft, Betty was able to assist with other pilot's flight missions.
"I was always on the flight line, because I just loved to fly. I was only supposed to fly four hours a day, as well as the fellas," Betty said. "After four hours, I would go back to see if someone wanted me to finish their missions."
Even though flying military missions was a great passion of Betty's, she considered leaving the Service for an offer of marriage.
"I had a guy back home who came to see me," Betty said. "He said, "Now you see that you can fly all those airplanes, now come home and get married. You flew all those airplanes, and I have an airplane.'"
Having a small 65 horsepower airplane, he convinced Betty to move home.
"I went in to see our CEO," Betty recalls. "She said, "If you want to resign, that is up to you, but before you sign this slip, I want you to get a flight on that AT-6.'"
"I got a flight on that AT-6, I come down and called that boy [to tell him] I'm not coming home," Betty said. "He said "if you don't come home, I'm going to marry somebody else.' I said, "Go ahead.' He did, and we both lived happily ever after."
Seeing Betty's commitment and passion for flying on a daily basis, Betty was selected to become an instructor.
"I was an instrument flying instructor," Betty said. "I instructed the [male] pilots before they went overseas."
Following the war, the WASPs were relieved from duty. Although Betty returned home, started a family, and worked many jobs away from a cockpit, she never forgot her first love of flight.
Today, Betty is a member of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, and has traveled to 24 of the United States since 1992 telling her story.
A special thanks to Army Aviation Association North Star Chapter for sponsoring Betty's visit to St. Paul, Minn. on July 28, 2009.
by Sgt. Jodi Krause, Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs
August 5, 2009
A birthday celebration is being held at the Elks Lodge in Faribault, MN (131 Lyndale Ave. N - (507) 334-9811) on Sunday, Nov. 15 from 2-4 p.m.
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