I felt as if I had missed “the party” when the medal was first presented. While the
WASP were being honored in Washington DC, I was taking command of the 2d Air Support
Operations Squadron in Vilseck, Germany. So being here today is a wonderful opportunity
and a true honor.
Many great people have said, “I stand on the shoulders of others”. When I first heard this phrase I was uncomfortable with it. Not because of the thought of somebody standing on my shoulders, after all I dabbled in cheerleading in my younger years, during which I routinely had someone stand on my shoulders. It just sounded wrong. It wasn’t until I met some of the women I have come to know as WASP that it became clear to me as to why . . . .
Great women like Jackie Cochran and her “girls”, the WASP, stood on no one’s shoulders. For them it was about mutual support. They were there for each other, pushing, cajoling, encouraging and supporting one another. It wasn’t about each of them as an individual, it was about what they were going to accomplish together. It was about each of them being a little better than they were the day before. It was about helping when you could and accepting help when you couldn’t. It was about making each day count. It was about doing something individually that together amounted to something bigger. It was about contributing towards the survival of our great nation and protecting what we believe is the right of all mankind . . . FREEDOM.
Jackie Cochran didn’t stand on their shoulders . . . she flew with each of them, wingtip to wingtip.
When flying in formation the flight leader is out in front. It’s Lead’s responsibility to point the way. Its Lead’s responsibility to ensure both they and their wingmen have the proper training and experience to allow them to not only accept the mission tasking but to complete it successfully.
Once Lead accepts the mission, it’s now their job to plan, coordinate and execute. In doing so they must communicate mission intent and commander’s guidance (or vision). They must delegate responsibilities to each of their wingmen and ensure that if something happens to Lead each of them knows what to do in order to complete the mission successfully. Oh, and all with the knowledge that there is no margin for error. If they fail in any of these tasks, the mission fails.
Jackie was the flight lead for the WASP, and truly, for all women military aviators.
So how did she get to be Lead? She didn’t just walk in the door like Peter Pan and say “Hey look at me, I can fly!” She gained the experience, knowledge base and confidence required to seize the opportunity when it presented itself.
At the end of her book, The Stars at Noon, Jackie talked about those who say that the “greats” of her day had more opportunity or better support, or that it was just different for them. She hoped that in telling her story others would understand it isn’t your pedigree that makes you great, it’s what you do with each day of your life in preparing for the opportunity for “greatness” and having the tools at hand when the opportunity presents itself to grab on to it with every ounce of strength and to not let go until you’ve mastered it.
Her earliest days were spent as a “rag-a-muffin” in “Sawdust” road…foraging for food, living without shoes and sleeping on a dirt floor. If it were a particularly “high class” mill town then she was “upgraded” to a wooden pallet. No school, no “real” family to speak of. Does this sound like the beginnings of greatness?
Later she elevated herself by attending school, for a few years. A kind teacher who saw the spark in her eyes taught her to not only read but to love learning. The teacher encouraged her to “follow her dreams”.
Hard times hit her foster family and instead of the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” over the injustice of the “cruel, cruel world” she decided to get a job as a “bobbin pusher” . . . yes, bobbins. As in spools of thread for a fabric mill . . . . Instead of being depressed because this was the only work she could get, she delighted in the fact that she was earning her own money, making her own way. But she remembered those around her kindly, even when they did not do the same. She would always share her “spoils”.
As she grew older she went after new experiences; worked as a nurse, girl Friday, hair dresser and eventually came to partner in hair salons and own a cosmetic company. How can this woman possibly be preparing to lead a formation? What skills does a bobbin-pusher have that relates to flying? What do cosmetics have to do with leading a formation? Again, it is not about the path but about the knowledge and attributes you develop along that path.
Each step along her journey Jackie developed a little bit more into the Commander of the WASP. Some specific traits stand out to me . . . .
I have to admit, I really like that attitude!
So when the opportunity presented itself, over a casual lunch with Gen “Hap” Arnold, she rolled in and went immediately to guns with the idea of the WASP. However, life hadn’t yet caught up to her vision. There was still more learning to do. Instead she was off to the England to help in any way she could. While there she filled in the gaps to her experience and fanned the spark which would eventually become the organization of the WASP.
She learned everything she could about the organization, employment and issues surrounding the women in the Air Transport Auxiliary (known as the ATA Girls), who supported the Royal Air Forces. It was here she learned the mechanics and pitfalls of leading a flying organization . . . forever keeping an eye towards the distant vision of women military aviators.
When the call came summoning her back to Washington she was ready to take the lead.
Jackie applied her vision, her skills and her talents to developing not an “experimental organization” that would only exist in the time of war . . . her vision was much, much bigger.
She believed these women pilots needed to be “militarized” to become something more than flying “Kelly Girls” or temporary hires. They needed to be the best of the best in all ways. They needed to be representatives of their country; regionally, professionally and personally. 25,000 women answered the call. 1,800 were accepted. Only 1074 earned their silver wings.
Of those each were charged with the responsibility to perform…not only in their duties as pilots but to perform to a level that would bring credit to the organization and someday pave the way to the vision of women military aviators.
Each of these women, in their own way, has done just that.
They believed in themselves and their abilities.
They didn’t use their “special status” as WASP to stand on the shoulders of others, instead they used it help those around them fly a little higher, a little further and a little faster than they did.
When the WASP organization was disbanded, they each gave up their personal dream of flying on a more permanent basis as military aviators. They went silently into the night but did not stop carrying the torch.
They lived, they learned, they prepared, they waited, and they believed. When the opportunity came for them to take the lead, they were ready. Their credibility as pilots, as service members and as individuals…coupled with the vision that Jackie set, led in no small way to women being accepted as military aviators in 1977. Their legacy again helped support the acceptance of women aviator into combat aircraft in 1993. At last, women flying wingtip to wingtip, in every aircraft, with their brothers.
It is because of Jackie’s leadership, vision, tenacity, and wonderful belief in the “impossible”, along with her ability to communicate that vision clearly to each and every one of “her WASP” that allowed me, and my colleagues to continue on course; each of us continuing the legacy of flying wingtip to wingtip. Each of us not only pushing the boundaries and preparing ourselves in case we are “passed the lead”, but acknowledging that what we do is for those who will join on our wing in the future.
It is the path of great women to fly wingtip to wingtip and it’s because of this mutual support that we’re here today. To recognize one of our first flight lead’s contributions toward the success of the WASP and their record that lead to their recognition with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Each of us regrets that Jackie is not here physically today but we all know that if we could look out past the boundary of heaven we would see her there flying off our wingtip; in perfect mutual support . . . . And, if you looked real closely, you might just see her doing a barrel roll around the formation . . . just because she can!