In my earlier article about the 1st Air Commando Group, I told you about a largely unsung collection of intrepid airmen from World War II. There are so many stories like that one, including the story of the WASPs.
Long before the term “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” came into popular use as a demographic descriptor, “WASP” meant “Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.” Scottsdale is fortunate to have as one of its residents, Betty Blake, the only surviving member of the first WASP training class.
During World War II WASPs ferried military birds from aircraft factories around the country to locations where they were accepted into active service by the War Department. This freed up male pilots for combat service overseas. However, the work was not without its hazards. Most of the aircraft the ladies ferried had never flown before. For that reason and the usual hazards of military aviation, 38 WASPs were killed during delivery missions.
Betty’s logbook is filled with entries of bombers and fighter aircraft that would make any pilot envious. However, she also happens to have a pioneering connection to Arizona, having moved here after the war with her family and building the first house in Paradise Valley.
I stumbled across this article from RaeAnn Slaybaugh on Examiner.com and thought I’d share it with you. RaeAnn is a business journalist for the Tempe-based Institute for Supply Management. She has also served as the Secretary on the Board of Directors for the COPPERSTATE Fly-In (www.copperstate.org).
You may also enjoy Randy Roughton’s article about Betty on DesertWings.com.
Any pilot will tell you that the urge to fly is an unshakable “bug.” For 91-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz. resident Betty Blake, it bit early: She learned to fly in 1935 at age 14.
“Living in Hawaii, lots of pilots came through [nearby] Pearl Harbor,” she recalls — including Amelia Earhart, who visited the University of Hawaii for a speaking engagement that same year.
Blake recalls being “the only kid in the room” and occupying a front row seat. Earhart took notice of the eager girl and offered up a tour of her plane the next morning, before she took off and flew solo to Oakland, Calif.
Aside from a mutual passion for aviation, “we bonded over the gap in our front teeth!” Blake laughs.
“That Was the Clincher”
One year later — at only 15 — Blake had earned her commercial pilot’s license. She began flying “hops,” taking tourists and businesspeople from one Hawaiian island to another. (She buzzed more than a few cruise ships for fun in those days, too.)
Six years later, on Dec. 7, 1941, she was scheduled to pilot one of these flights, but her passenger cancelled the reservation. A fortunate coincidence: It meant Blake wasn’t in the skies when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The night before the attack, Blake’s fiancé — Robert Tackaberry — took the freshly minted 21-year-old on a date to the Pearl Harbor Officer’s Club, where he introduced her to (too much) Southern Comfort. As she told Phoenix Magazine in 2008, Tackaberry — an ensign on the USS California — had driven her home. Blake’s father offered to let him spend the night. It was a chivalrous act that saved his life: The Japanese sank his ship the next morning.
“My family lived on a hill overlooking the harbor, and when I heard the bombing and shooting, I covered my head with my pillow because it hurt my head,” Blake remembers. “It didn’t register that we were being attacked until I went out on our balcony and saw thick black smoke rising over the harbor and a couple Japanese Zeros overhead.”
“After That, Everything Changed”
Things were very different after the attacks, according to Blake. “It was like we were living on the moon or another planet,” she recalls. “It was a happy, carefree place, and then everything was turned upside down.”
Something else changed, too: Blake’s profession. At the urging of her submarine skipper cousin, she took as a highly secretive job as a secretary in the captain’s office at Pearl Harbor. There, she spent her days logging battleship coordinates. “Tokyo Rose would report on where the ships were every night, but I knew better!” she says.
Within months, Blake’s new husband was transferred to a naval base in Erie, Pennsylvania. She accompanied him.
Soon after, Tackaberry was sent to the South Pacific. Back at home, Blake received a phone call from Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran, of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation. Cochran and Blake met in Texas talk about forming what’s now known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) group. With thousands of hours under her belt — 500 was the minimum for consideration — Blake was accepted into the first-ever class WASP class, which graduated in 1943.
“We were an experiment. They called us the ‘guinea pigs,’” she recalls, with a sly smile. “And boy, they watched us like hawks. They just weren’t sure a woman could learn to fly military planes.”
But They Did Fly (And How!)
The ladies of the WASP program collectively logged nearly 60 million miles. For her part, Blake served as a ferry pilot, flying brand-new P-51 Mustangs, P-38 [Lightnings], B-17 Flying Fortresses, P-40 Warhawks, B-25 Mitchells, B-24 Liberators, P-47 Thunderbolts, and dozens of other aircraft from the factories to the East coast. From there, the planes made their way across the Atlantic. Blake averaged three transports a week during WWII, when factories were churning out about 45 aircraft per day.
She most fondly remembers ferrying P-51s from a factory in Texas — not just because the P-51 is a beloved aircraft for almost any aviation enthusiast, but also because she was essentially acting as a test pilot every time.
“The record logs — they called them ‘form 1s’ — in the cockpits said each aircraft had been tested for 20 minutes, but that was usually just taxiing time,” Blake explains. “Sure, they’d take them out on the tarmac and fire up the engines. But one guy at the factory told me few had actually flown before we got there.”
As if that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, Blake recalls the biggest challenge of all: getting past the Texas-sized oil wells on takeoff. “That was the goal!” she laughs. “I said a prayer every time. I had nightmares about having to eject, and getting stuck on one of those rigs, going up and down, and up and down, up and down…”
Moving planes was just one aspect of WASP service; other women pilots in the group were serving as instructors, or in the comparatively less desirable “tow pilot” capacity. In the latter role, a 60-foot banner was attached to the back of the aircraft for soldiers-in-training to use for target practice.
“And they were mostly amateurs!” Blake remembers, chuckling.
A Guys’ Girl At Heart
No doubt her ability to laugh when most people would consider crying helped Blake fit into a very male-dominated profession. But then again, she has always been comfortable among men: As a girl, she was the only female on the neighborhood baseball team. She played catcher. In fact, the pitcher was the person who took her on her first flight.
“I prayed the whole time I was up there, worried that the flimsy little plane wouldn’t stay in the air,” she told Phoenix Magazine. “Once we landed, all I wanted to do was get back up there.”
Even so, as the only female pilot in the room on most occasions, there was bound to be some awkward situations. One of the most memorable happened while Blake was serving as a WASP ferry pilot. “It was me and a bunch of [male aviators],” she recounts. “We all checked in to the hotel, got our keys and got in the elevator. We all got off on the same floor. We all turned right and walked to the same door. That’s when I wondered what was going on.”
It turns out that the sleeping arrangements were barrack-style. No problem for the men in the group; not so much for the lone lady.
After trying to get a different room (sold out), and even considering sleeping in the utility closet (“That didn’t look too comfortable,” she reasoned), Blake opted to retire where the men were — but slept in her flight suit. “It turned out OK,” she laughs. “They left me alone, anyway.”
Her Final Descent
After the WASP deactivation in 1944, Blake stayed on at the Air Force base in Brownsville, Texas as a trainer and instructor. She and another WASP bought a surplus P-38 Lightning for $750. It was new, straight from the factory. “We couldn’t afford the gas, so we only flew once a month,” she recalls.
Later, Blake flew shrimp from New Orleans to Kansas City and Los Angeles in a twin-engine Cessna. She also married an Air Force pilot, George Blake. Although she says it was “the last place she figured she’d end up,” the couple moved to the valley in 1946. They bought 20 acres of land for $1,500 and built the first house in Paradise Valley. They had three sons (all pilots) and ran a business making and selling plush animals.
But for anyone who talks with Betty Blake, it’s clear that the aviation bug is still lingering. She says her most memorable flight was her last one, on a December day, before the couple moved to the Valley of the Sun.
“I landed in Kansas City,” she told Phoenix Magazine. “The flight crew and I stood by the edge of the plane, rubbing the wing and telling stories. I knew that day that I was never going to fly again. It was sad.”