“YOU ARE PUTTING THE FOOTBALL
PLAYERS TO SHAME!”
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
That was the comment by Major General Barney Giles when he told Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets that he didn’t want women flying the B-29 Superfortress. In addition to humiliating the men, he was worried that in case of an accident the USAAF would come under a lot of bad publicity with women flying the plane, and he didn’t want that.
The B-29 was the newest, biggest, heaviest, and most difficult bomber the Army had. It had quickly gained a bad reputation, and the men did not want to have anything to do with it. Boeing was in a rush to get it into service and did not put it through the normal years of operational testing before introducing it. The airplane had Wright engines, which the men quickly began calling the “wrong” engines. The cowlings were too tight, leading to engines fires at the high power settings used for take off. There were other technical problems, but Tibbets wanted his men to fly the airplane. They thought the plane was cumbersome and dangerous and refused to fly it, putting up unprecedented resistance. They also knew that Boeing’s Chief Test Pilot, Edmund T. Allen, had been killed when the prototype he was flying crashed. Somehow, Tibbets had to convince them that the airplane was safe, and exactly what they needed to fly to complete their missions.
Tibbets thought of the WASP (Women’s Army Service Pilots, see earlier article), and recruited Dora Dougherty and Didi (Dorothea) Moorman to be demonstration pilots. He was sure that if the men saw women flying the airplane, that would convince the men of its reliability. The women had never before flown a 4 engine airplane. Tibbets did not tell them of the plane’s bad reputation or the engine fires, he just put them in it and instructed them himself. One way he avoided the problem of an engine fire was to take off using reduced power.
With only 4 days of instruction, Tibbets decided they were ready to demonstrate the airplane. He commented that Dora was one of the best multi-engine pilots he had ever flown with. He sent them from Birmingham, Alabama to Clovis AFB, in New Mexico. There the young women ferried pilots, crew chiefs, and navigators from the ‘very-heavy-bomber’ base at Alamogordo, across New Mexico, demonstrating the capabilities of the airplane.
Dora and Didi particularly liked flying the airplane to a flightline with a group of pilots and their instructors, climbing down through the crew hatch, taking off their caps and shaking out their hair and seeing the surprised looks on the faces of the men. They would wink and say, “We hear some of you boys are scared of this big plane. If a couple of little old gals can fly this, I’m sure you all can handle it just fine!” Tibbets idea was a huge success. The men decided that if it was “so easy a woman could fly it,” so could they.
It wasn’t long before Air Staff Major General Barney Giles learned about the flights and put them to a halt with his statement that the girls were “putting the big football players to shame.”
The women were sent back to Eglin Field in Florida, and never flew the airplane again. It was not until 2009 that another woman was checked out in a B-29.
Dora was a pretty amazing woman. Born in November 1921, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family moved to Long Island when she was a child. There she was fascinated with those flying contraptions. After church each Sunday, the family would go to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. Those “aviators who were pushing back technology, who were doing fantastic things as pioneers,” were her heros. She decided to learned to fly in 1940, in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which was designed to train people to fly who would then be a pool of pilots for the country.
The government was not sure how the general public would react if they had known that this program was designed as ‘pre-military’ in case these pilots were needed. In order to quiet any rumors about that, they enrolled 10% female, and Dora was lucky enough to be chosen for the program. When she returned to Cottey College in the fall, she spent most of her free time and money on flying. The College did not think that was appropriate for a young women and wrote her parents telling them she was misbehaving by flying. Her parents wrote back that they had no problem with her flying and she had their permission to go to the airport anytime she choose. As soon as she learned about the WASP program, she applied and was in class 43-W-3 . As a WASP, in addition to her brief stint as a B-29 pilot, she ferried airplanes, instructed, and towed target drones.
After the war, she returned to Northwestern in the fall of 1945. She wanted to join a war veterans group on campus, but they did not recognize her service and would not allow her to participate in meetings. She continued to fly, ferrying airplanes left over from the war. She missed so many classes that she decided to become a flight instructor and take night classes. She graduated in 1949. The Northwestern Alumni Association gave her an Alumni Merit Award, in 1968.
At some point she met and married Larry Strother, and became Dora Dougherty Strother. She continued her education and earned her Masters degree in applied psychology, and doctorates in aviation education and psychology at New York University, in 1958. She put those degrees together and became a human factors engineer for Bell Helicopters, in Ft. Worth, working on cockpit design, pilot interface and human behavior. A fellow worker at Bell, John Emery, commented, “she was very down-to-earth, never aloof, never guarded about being a lady and she never used it to her advantage.” She worked for Bell Helicopters from 1962 to 1986.
She was the 6th woman to earn a Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, the highest level of pilot certificate, and the 27th woman in the free world to earn a Helicopter Certificate. She also set two world records for distance and altitude in helicopters. She joined the Air Force Reserve and retired from the 9823rd Air Reserve Squadron 20 years later with the rank of Lt. Colonel.
In the 90s, PBS did a documentary of the WASP. Shortly after that aired, she received this letter:
“Dear Dr. Strother,
Before you throw this letter in the trash-basket, let me introduce myself. In 1944, I met you with Col. Tibbets and Didi Moorman when you brought a B-29 to clovis AFB. I was the director of Maintenance & Supply, and Bast Test Pilot at the time. You came to show us that the B-29 plane was not one to be feared. You were the pilot that day and demonstrated your excellent flying skills, and convinced us the B-29 was the plane that any pilot could be proud to fly. From that day on we never had a pilot who didn’t want to fly the B-29.” In the letter, he goes on to say, “I realize that it was a long time ago, but I still want to thank you for your helping me that day at Clovis. I will admit that I was scared, even though I had just returned from flying B-2s in North Africa. You made the difference in my flying from then on. I wasn’t the only pilot that felt this way, and I am sure that they would thank you too if they knew where you were.”
This letter was signed by Harry McKeown, Lt. Col. USAF (Ret). Dora and Harry met and married. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery…
Dora was an amazing woman, and I was privileged to meet her in 2002. Her accomplishments include chairing many committees including the Federal Aviation Agency’s Women’s Advisory Committee on Aviation, the Amelia Earhart MemorialScholarship Fund of the Ninety Nines, the Texas Education Agency Advisory Council on Aerospace Education. She was a Fellow in the Human Factors Society, and an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She received many awards including Aviation Woman of the Year and the Lady Drummond-Hay Award. She is enshrined in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.
She also wrote a very interesting article on the WASP which can be read at:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.