The Passing of a Great American ‘Shero’
By Maj. Gen. Stayce Harris, 22nd Air Force commander
/ Published March 15, 2016
DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. --
March is National Women’s History Month, a time set aside each year to honor the extraordinary achievements of women. This month I will showcase phenomenal 22nd Air Force women. As fate would have it, though, I received the sad news last week that Elizabeth “Betty” Wall Strohfus, former Civil Air Patrol pilot and member of the famed Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), passed away at the age of 96. I’ll begin the process of honoring the amazing accomplishments of women by highlighting the lifelong service of Betty Strohfus.
Betty was born in Faribault, Minnesota on November 15, 1919, number five of six children. Shortly after her high school graduation, a member of the local Sky Club introduced her to flight. After an exhilarating flight in a Piper Cub, she was hooked. When one of the 15 members of the all-male Sky Club enlisted in the Army Air Corps, she was asked to join the Club. Borrowing $100 from the local bank using her bicycle as collateral, she paid the dues and began flight lessons. When World War II started, she also joined and became active in the Civil Air Patrol.
It was at the Club that she read a notice from the military asking for women pilots interested in assuming duties to free male pilots for overseas combat. Quickly obtaining the required 35 flight hours, she applied. At the minimum height of 5’3”, with help of extra socks, Betty passed the physical and began her training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas in 1943. As one of only 1,800 women accepted out of 25,000 applicants and of the 1,074 who graduated, Betty received her wings in the first class of 1944.
While most graduates went on to assignments ferrying aircraft, Betty volunteered to fly pursuit aircraft and was stationed at Las Vegas Army Airfield, assigned to Gunnery Training. There she towed targets behind a B-26 for fighter target practice and flew the AT-6 and other pursuit aircraft in mock attacks against bombers and at infantry for gunnery and anti-aircraft target practice. She was also qualified for missions in the P-39. With a mischievous smile, she loved to exclaim, “I scared the hell out of the gunners!” She explained, “I was trying to get them ready to go to war and trying to bring them back from the war alive.”
Responding to a call for instrument instructors, Betty was accepted and sent back to Avenger Field for instruction. After receiving her instructor certification, she returned to Las Vegas and became the first woman at Las Vegas Army Air Field (now Nellis Air Force Base) to teach instrument flight to male cadets. The men, as always, were quite shocked to find out their instructor was a woman.
Not ready to stop inspiring, since 1991, Betty traveled to more than 31 states, telling her story to thousands of people, primarily schoolchildren. Also in 1991, at the age of 71, she became one of the first women to fly in an F-16. She was a member of the Ninety Nines, a life member of the Commemorative Air Force and in 2001 was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2009, she was invited to Maxwell Air Force Base for the Gathering of Eagles, an annual aviation event. On March 11, 2010, Betty, along with over 200 other WASPs, attended a ceremony at our nation's capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal honoring their service to our country during WWII. In December of 2014, Betty received a second Congressional Gold Medal for her service as a member of the Civil Air Patrol.
I became friends with Betty last year when visiting the 934th Airlift Wing. The wing arranged for us to have dinner together and I immediately became the president of her fan club! She requested the next time we met that we take a picture together in our uniforms. I saw her this January and fulfilled that promise. While her pace had slowed, her memory and concentration were keen, her hugs warm and her smile so bright. I read an article once that said when young eagles are old enough to fly for the first time, the older eagles fly above them to show them how easily it’s done and under them for support and encouragement. I know every time I fly – as a pilot or a passenger – I will feel the presence of Betty, and other female pilots of her generation, soaring all around. I am so grateful they blazed a trail in the sky that paved the way for all female Airmen. Rest in peace, Betty Strohfus.
By Elizabeth MacKethan Magid, WASP 44-W-2
She is not dead --
But only flying higher,
Higher than she's flown before,
And earthlly limitations
Will hinder her no more.
There is no service ceiling.
Or any fuel range,
And there is no anoxia,
Or need for engine change.
Thank God that now her flight can be
To heights her eyes had scanned,
Where she can race with comets,
And buzz the rainbow's span.
For she is universal
Like courage, love and hope,
And all free, sweet emotions
Of vast and godly scope.
And understand a pilot's Fate
Is not the thing she fears,
But rather sadness left behind,
Your heartbreak and your tears.
So all you loved ones, dry your eyes,
Yes, it is wrong that you should grieve
For she would love your courage more,
And she would want you to believe
She is not dead.
For you should have known
That she is flying higher,
Higher than she's ever flown.