As factories around the country cranked out aircraft during World War II, there was a desperate need for pilots to transport them. To free up men for combat, women with flying experience were drafted into civilian service to ferry new war planes east to be shipped overseas.
"Everyone in the nation was working their hearts out," recalls Iris Critchell, a young pilot fresh out of college when the country went to war. Based in Long Beach with 80 other Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), she and the others saw the Air Transport Command as their chance to help the war effort, while getting an opportunity to fly "bigger and faster airplanes," Critchell says, rattling off the country's aeronautical arsenal: "P-51s, B-25s, Lockheed P-38s, the Northrup P-61 twin-engine night fighter. . . . That was the most exciting period of our lives."
On Saturday, Critchell, 74, and three of "the girls"--her term for fellow WASPS--will recount their wartime experiences at a tribute to World War II women pilots at the Planes of Fame museum. American women pilots flew more than 60 million miles during the war. "As fast as we came back," says Critchell, who usually flew solo, "we'd pick up orders and were back out again."
More than 30 women pilots were killed, yet it wasn't until 1977 that women were finally granted veterans' status and benefits. "We had to take up a collection ourselves to send the bodies home," Critchell recalls. "There were no provisions for [the civilians]."
The Air Museum will also conduct a flight demonstration of its North American AT-6/SNJ Texan, a wartime advanced training plane that most of the WASPS flew in service. The panel will speak from 10 a.m.-noon; the flyby of an SNJ-5 takes place between 1 and 3 p.m.
The Planes of Fame museum, dedicated to restoring historical aircraft, mostly by volunteers, is at Chino Airport, 7000 Merrill Ave., Chino. The event is included in museum admission: $7.95; ages 5-11, $1.95. (909) 597-3722.