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Women aviators highlight flight progress

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (AFPN) -- In 1944, when the B-29 hit the flightline, Army Air Corps pilots were hesitant to fly the new bomber. It was bigger and more complicated than its predecessor, the B-17, and had a reputation for engine fires.

Then-Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, who was in charge of training the Army Air Forces' pilots, asked two young Women Air Service Pilots to demonstrate the performance abilities of the B-29 to the men. This seemed to solve Tibbets' dilemma. The men did not complain about flying the plane anymore.

"We all had two things in common," said former WASP Ethel Finley, "patriotism, and love of flying."

Ethel and four other WASP, joined by active-duty Air Force women who serve in aviation-related career fields, entertained hundreds of elementary and middle school girls March 13 to 15 with their "old time" experiences and stories at the National Park Service's Women in Aviation event at the Wright Brothers' National Memorial.

The U.S. Air Force Centennial of Flight Office linked the WASP with women currently serving in the Air Force. Capt. Michelle Pryor, a pilot assigned to the Pentagon, and Tech. Sgt. Maxine Davis and Airmen 1st Class Melanie Martz and Amanda Phipps, maintenance experts from Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., attended the celebration to honor the legacy of women and their contributions to aviation in the last century.

Besides anecdotes about flying, there were exhibits, aircraft displays and demonstrations. The winds cooperated for exceptional kite flying.

Of the elementary and middle school attendees, a special group of 30 girls from the local Wright Flight program were matched with women in aviation-related career paths as "shadows" for the weekend's events.

The shadow program fostered one-on-one conversations and relationships between the women and their shadows.

During more formal interactions, WASP and military pilots shared their experiences as a panel, then opened the floor for questions. The crowd asked a wide range of questions, from "How can you see to land at night?" to "What if you forget to do something when you fly?"

"We are trained to follow procedures and checklists, and lights often remind us if something is wrong," answered Pryor.

Just listening to the groups share their experiences highlighted a drastic difference in the integration of women military aviators. During World War II, women servicemembers were an anomaly. Today, women comprise 19 percent of the force and serve in 99 percent of the career fields.

With the Kill Devil Hills and Orville and Wilbur Wright's replicated camp in the background as Pryor spoke, the event was a simple tribute to a tremendous century of progress in powered flight.

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