Saluting the WASP: Women ferried planes around world in WWII
Webmaster’s Note: This story appeared in the Aug. 31, 2007, edition of The Register-Mail, Galesburg’s daily newspaper, and is posted here with the publication’s permission.
By JOHN R. PULLIAM
of The Register-Mail
It is fitting two men from eastern Ohio own the first Stearman to arrive at this year’s National Stearman Fly-In.
The 36th annual gathering of the World War II biplanes and their pilots honors the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Andy and Mike Porter have the only surviving Stearman from Avenger Field in Texas, where many a WASP was trained.
Between last year’s Fly-In and this year’s, Mike Porter, 27, Andy’s son, restored a white Stearman into the beautiful silver plane it was during its WASP days. The wings, engine and every part of the plane are now authentic.
“Doing the restoration on this individual plane took a tremendous amount of mechanical work, a lot of knowledge, being able to read blueprints, a lot of metal work, a lot of woodwork, a lot of fabric work,” Andy Porter said, the 66-year-old’s English accent still noticeable although he came to the U.S. as a young man. “He’s taken this to another level.”
How did Mike get the job done in just one year?
“It’s 11 months of 18-hour days,” he laughed.
“And he has other duties as well,” his proud father added.
WASP was formed on Aug. 5, 1943, when the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Army Air Force Women’s Flying Training Detachment merged. According to the Texas Woman’s University Web page, training consisted of six months of ground school and flight training. After three classes were trained in Houston, “bad weather and crowded skies” led to the program being moved to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.
According to a letter Andy and Mike received from the Department of the Air Force, their plane was used to train female pilots between Feb. 10, 1943, and Aug. 12, 1944. The WASP was deactivated in December 1944.
The Stearman the Porters own has an interesting history, in addition to its part in the WASP program. A bill of sale from Dallas County, Texas, showed the plane was sold for $510 on Nov. 3, 1945, to a private individual.
“After that, it was a crop duster for a little over 30 years,” Andy said.
In 1982, the Stearman was bought by Joe Scialfa, father of Bruce Springsteen’s wife and fellow E-Street Band member, Patty Scialfa. Eventually, the plane was used for rides in New York City.
“I flew it in the ride business in ’92 and ’93, sightseeing rides to the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty,” Andy said. “About 1,200 flights. The plane was white at the time. Nobody knew its history.”
Andy bought the plane in 1997 and he and Mike began tracing its remarkable history. The official poster of this year’s National Stearman Fly-In has a rendering of the Stearman in the center, with a picture of it and some women pilots in Texas during WWII.
Andy modestly emphasized his take on this year’s Fly-In. “It’s not about us,” he said. “They are honoring the Women Airforce Service Pilots.”
The women ferried every type of plane – the T-6 trainers, B-17 and B-29 bombers, P-51 Mustang fighters – Andy said, “from the factory to wherever it needed to go. So they were the beginning” of women being an active part of the military.
Most of the men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
“They were stuck out at Sweetwater, training in the middle of nowhere. The guys would make this unscheduled stop to see the women. They had many mysterious breakdowns,” Andy said, with a knowing laugh. “We’ve really done this aircraft to salute them.”
The Porters have been the first to arrive here four years in a row. They have been invited by former WASP members to take the plane to next year’s EAA AirVenture Convention in Oshkosh, Wis.
As for the fly-In here, Andy and Mike can’t get enough of it. “These folks in Galesburg are great,” Andy said. “We actually select our two-week holiday to come here.”
“It’s just a blast,” Mike agreed. “I really love it. It’s good to see a lot of old friends and meet some new ones, and to see these planes. It just takes you back in time.”