Formed during World War II, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, program trained women to fly high-performance aircraft in the U.S. military inventory. Once trained they would perform duties such as target towing as well as ferrying aircraft throughout the United States. The women who were part of this program were excited to get the chance to fly as well as serve the war effort. Decades later, the WASP are still serving an important role. They inspire others to push down barriers and look to the skies.
The EAA Aviation Museum was recently entrusted with items from Ethel Jones. Ethel was a WASP in WWII who became an instructor pilot. Her love of aviation started at a young age.
“I saw an advertisement in the newspaper about going up for a sightseeing flight,” Ethel said. “I went out and took a ride once and the bug bit me. That first flight was with one of the Hunter brothers in a Piper J-3 Cub. We went up for about 30 minutes and cost $1. It was a beautiful summer day, and the corn had been detasseled.”
That 30-minute flight was enough to spark a lifelong love of aviation in Ethel. “There was no way to keep me on the ground after that,” she said. Ethel soon took a job at the local flight school as a means to make enough money to take flying lessons, which was not common for women at the time.
“I never thought about getting hurt,” Ethel said. “To me it was like riding a bike, and I never got hurt on my bike either. Humphrey Moody was my first flight instructor. He and his brother Hunter were flight instructors in the RAF Ferry Command. Together they set an endurance [record] in their Taylorcraft named Miss Springfield in 1939 by flying nonstop for 343 hours.”
After December 7, 1941, everything changed. Both of Ethel’s brothers were serving in the military, and she knew that she wanted to do something to help the war effort as well.
“There was a certain amount of publicity about the WASP program, and the minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to sign up for that,” Ethel said. “I joined because I wanted to fly and help where I could.”
At the time she applied and was accepted into the WASP program, Ethel had 150 hours’ total time. She would report to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. There she would join the others led by famous flyer Jackie Cochran.
“When I went out to fly I had fleece boots, pants, jacket, helmet, and gloves,” Ethel said. “All of that with a parachute was a lot of added weight. Someone would come out to the plane and help push us up into the plane. We were civil service, just like a postman.”
Ethel’s primary role would be to ferry single-engine airplanes such as the Stearman, and the T-6. These ferry flights would take her to bases across the country. Once off Sweetwater, the WASP would be flying among the mainly male population. Some of the women had received rude comments, but not Ethel.
“No men ever picked on me or said anything to me,” she said. “They were too afraid to try. It was not intimidating being a woman flying. Instead I was very proud of what I was doing. It was a fun experience, but an important one which needed to be done.”
Ethel’s adventures included making a forced landing due to a failing engine.
“Oil blew all over the place, and I found a field to set it down in,” Ethel said. “Luckily I was able to get it down before the engine stopped, and we were able to save the engine.”
The WASP would gain fame in the eye of the media of the day, but Ethel certainly wasn’t in it for the limelight.
“I was never a fan of the publicity,” she said. “I would have much rather just done our job and be on with it.”
She spent much of her time teaching male pilots how to fly on instruments, and ended up earning her certificate twice.
“As a WASP, I mainly flew the AT-6, Stearman, and the BT-13,” Ethel said. “I received my instructor rating as a WASP along with [my] IFR rating. Leaving the military our ratings did not carry over to civilian life, so I had to get my license again.”
After the war, she received her helicopter rating and become Whirly-Girl No. 7. The Whirly-Girls are an organization founded by Jean Ross Howard Phelan in 1955 to help promote and encourage women to become helicopter pilots.
Linda Sheffler, Ethel’s daughter, remembers that her mom was not the normal mom of the 1950s.
“Because she was different, my friends just loved her,” Linda said. “She was larger than life.”
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