Women fly high in exhibit as in life

April 06, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

THE FIRST TIME I ever went flying with a woman instructor, she restricted herself almost entirely to the laconic flightspeak of pilots.

"Compensate the rolling moment with opposite stick pressure. Now apply back pressure to maintain your pitch attitude."

And with that she guided me through a series of what seemed like incredibly steep turns in both directions.

She was an engineer, you see, and I think she was getting even with me.

Earlier that day, when were were introduced, I had politely asked to see her license and instructor rating -- something I had never thought to ask any of the men who taught me.

The request expressed what I thought was the natural curiosity of a student pilot. But in retrospect it plainly also sprang from unconscious prejudice -- in the callowness of youth, I still thought of flying as something only guys did. It was an attitude I learned to get over in a hurry.

The history of women in aviation is in fact as old as aviation itself. Women went aloft soon after the Wright brothers, and every generation of fliers since has included women who made important contributions to the conquest of the air.

Today's women astronauts, airline pilots and military fliers are heirs to a great tradition of pioneering women aviators. Sadly, for most of them the biggest obstacles have lain not in the hazards of the air but in the skepticism of their male counterparts.

I was reminded of their struggle by a new exhibition that opens in June at Washington's National Air and Space Museum. Titled "Women and Flight," the show and the book that accompanies it present 90 portraits of contemporary women pilots by photographer Carolyn Russo.

Russo's portraits, accompanied by interviews and biographical sketches, capture the astonishing diversity of women in aviation today.

Her subjects range from 88-year-old Florence Parlett, who operates Annapolis Flying Services at Lee Airport in Edgewater, to Capt. Troy Devine, the first woman to fly the U-2 spy plane for the U.S. Air Force.

During the four years she spent on the project, Russo met Gayle Ranney, the only woman Eskimo pilot in Alaska; Victoria Van Meter, who as an 11-year-old became the youngest person to fly across the Atlantic in 1994; and Marty Goppert, a stunt pilot for the famed Flying Circus in Bealton, Va.

Her subjects included an airline captain and a crop duster, an attack helicopter pilot and an aerial skywriter, the U.S. Navy's first female combat pilot and an astronaut.

"Although the women I interviewed followed different paths into the world of flight, I learned their common traits," she writes in the preface to "Women and Flight."

"They are brave, determined and motivated. I believe [they] offer inspiration not only to the current and future generations of women pilots, but to all of us."

Many of Russo's fliers talk about the problems they faced with the dry understatement of aviators everywhere.

Ida Van Smith-Dunn, now 80, described the double hurdles of race and gender she encountered as an aspiring pilot in rural Lumberton, N.C., during the 1930s.

"As I grew up, there was no one in North Carolina or nearby states that we could find who would teach me to fly, even when I was in high school," Smith-Dunn recalled.

"They said that they didn't have any instructors. But the planes were there. Now, I don't know if they didn't have any instructors or not, but I think maybe they did. I knew then that even if they had instructors, they weren't going to teach any black people to fly."

It was not until 1967, when Smith-Dunn was 50 and working toward her doctorate in New York, that she got her first flight lesson -- at the city's La Guardia Airport. During her training, she made two solo flights back to Lumberton.

L "On my second solo flight my family met me," she told Russo.

"Three Southern gentlemen came into [the airport] and my family heard them say, 'Well God almighty, did you see what I saw?' The other one said, 'Blankety-blank (cursing), yes, I saw it. By God!' And the other one said, 'What is the world coming to? They got them flying now.'

"But we never knew if they meant they got the blacks flying them now or if they got the women flying them now," Smith-Dunn said.

One of the most touching interviews accompanies Russo's portrait of Devine, the U-2 pilot. The interview is particularly revealing because of its seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of intensely felt emotion and impersonal military jargon.

"My heart is ripped right out of me when crises develop and I have any inclination that we're going to deploy there," Devine told Russo. "When something happens anywhere in the world, it's the job of our program to be ready to respond and provide information to theater commanders. All I want, my whole focus of life, is to go and deploy on the contingency operations. The threats that are involved in a situation like that are usually numerous, but I still can't stop myself for wanting to do that more than anything."

Later, she describes some of the dangers of her work.

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