Looking back on her life, 101-year-old Utah resident Nell “Mickey” Stevenson Bright has a lot to be grateful for: her family, her career . . . and her time as a pilot during World War II. Yes, that world war. Yes, a woman pilot.
According to Bright, she and the other members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) were the first women military pilots and the best kept secret of World War II. Technically, they were a civilian group. But they completed all the same training the men did, save for direct combat, plus they weren’t allowed to go overseas. So, what did they do, exactly?
“We freed up men pilots to go fight,” Bright explains. “We tested planes. We ran training missions.”
Ultimately, what they did was serve their country. And without setting out to be anything special, they became pioneers in women’s wartime aviation.
Bright, who grew up in Texas, recalls her first-ever airplane ride in 1929. When she was just 8 years old, her dad paid a dollar for her to go on a ride in a World War I biplane. It was a dollar well spent, as that experience took root. She always wanted to fly again.
Her parents supported this idea. They always told her she could “do anything.” And she did. After college, Bright purchased a Taylorcraft, along with nine men. She earned her private pilot’s license and began flying as much as possible. Not many women flew in those days.
At the time, World War II was ramping up overseas. In 1941, Jacqueline Cochran, one of the leading aviatrixes at that time, approached the U.S. Army Air Corps with the idea of using women as ferry pilots, but she was turned down. So, instead she went overseas and volunteered with the British Royal Air Force.
Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, throwing the U.S. head-first into battle. Young men all over the country were signing up or being drafted to serve. Every able-bodied man would be needed. Women were not allowed to participate in armed conflict, but they were hungry to help where they could. With the help and blessing of General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Air Corps, Jacqueline Cochran’s idea finally solidified.
In 1942, the U.S. invited Cochran back to head up what would be the WASPs. Women pilots were in need ASAP, and there was one Texas woman ready for the job.
Bright remembers waiting to fly one day, when she picked up an aviation magazine. In it she read an article about the new women’s group headed by Cochran, along with how to apply to be considered. To qualify, applicants needed to be 21 years old and have a pilot’s license with 75 hours of flying time. Bright had all those. She applied right away.
In the moment, joining a pioneering group of women pilots wasn’t about feminism or proving anything. As Bright explains, it was all about helping fight for the cause.
“All of our friends were in the war,” Bright explains. “We wanted to be part of it.”
Joining the WASP
In all, 25,000 women applied for the WASP training program. Only 1,830 were admitted, and 1,074 completed the course—Bright among them. The women pilots learned it all: navigation, physics, Morse code, meteorology, military law, and mechanics.
Bright was part of the class 43-W-7, at the all-women Avenger Airfield in Sweetwater, Texas (which for a short time became a popular place for male pilots having an “emergency landing,” Bright says). After graduating, 20 were chosen to be the first military women trained to fly B-25 bombers. After which, Bright was assigned to Biggs Field at El Paso – 6th Tow Target Squadron, where she towed targets for crew in training to fire surface anti-artillery, as well as missions including gas, strafing, and searchlight.
The WASPs also flew a majority of the ferrying missions during the war, including testing and delivering a large variety of aircraft from 1942 to 1944. In its short years of operation, the WASP saw 38 fatalities, and one woman disappeared on a ferrying mission.
Bright recalls how exciting it was for the opportunity to fly so many different planes, and her favorites were the twin engine B-25 bomber, B-26, the P-47 pursuit planes, the SBD (A-243) Navy dime bomber, and the SBC (A-25).
The thing was, very few people knew about the WASP, so when women were seen in the cockpit, it took many by surprise. On one particular mission, Bright was flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber from Sacramento, Calif., to Long Beach, Calif. But she encountered a bit of trouble on approach.
“We called in for landing instructions three times, but they told us to get off the radio because they were waiting for a B-25 to coming in. We said, ‘We are the B-25.’”
While they got their wings from the Army Air Corps and had officer status, the women were technically civilians. So, they didn’t receive special military considerations for their funerals and were sent home on the family’s dime. No U.S. flag would be placed on the coffin, and no service flag would be displayed in a window to mark their service. But the WASP honored their sister pilots in their own way.
“We would escort each casket home,” Bright explained in an interview as part of PBS’s American Veteran.
In late 1944, as the war was winding down, fewer pilots were needed. As a result, the WASP was deactivated that December. Bright and her pilot friends went home, many people around them never knowing what they did in the war.
The women’s files were sealed for 30 years. But that wouldn’t be the end of their story.
Some of the women, now with an impressive flight resume, tried to apply to become commercial pilots only to be turned down on the spot.
“A lot of people didn’t believe us,” Bright recalls. “They hadn’t heard of the WASP. Airlines wouldn’t even talk to us. You see, we didn’t have an ‘honorable discharge’ since we were civilians.”
Single and with the world ahead of them, Bright and a high school friend couldn’t decide what to do next. So, they flipped a coin. One side would result in heading to Corpus Christi, Texas, which her friend thought sounded fun, and the other side would lead them to Phoenix, Ariz., which Bright suggested because she had enjoyed the times she had flown there.
Phoenix won. The two friends hopped in Bright’s car and drove off into the sunset. In the Phoenix area, they headed straight for Luke Air Force Base and landed jobs as soda jerks. One has to wonder, were they purposely trying to meet pilots?
“You got that right,” Bright says unabashedly.
She did end up meeting her husband there, though he was not actually a pilot—he was a mechanic. The two married, had two children, and Bright went on to become a pioneer yet again. This time, she and one other woman became the first two women stockbrokers in the Phoenix valley. Bright worked as a stockbroker for 50 years.
Funny thing was, even her own children did not know Bright had been a pilot during World War II until they were teenagers. Like most veterans, the war time just was not something they talked about. Especially since so many people didn’t know about the WASP, plus they didn’t have veteran status—yet.
After the war, Bright says the women pilots felt they had proved themselves, and they were okay not being recognized at first. But as they got older, many wanted to tell their story. The more they talked, the more they had a goal in mind.
Bright and a group of former WASPs rallied for years to gain recognition for their service. Even with the backing of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, it was a fight to get people to listen.
“It wasn’t easy to get through Congress,” Bright recalls.
Finally, in 1977, the WASP received veteran status and honorable discharge. It was a momentous victory for the women pilots. This qualified them for veteran’s benefits, but even more than that it showed the world what they had done for the war effort. In 2009, they also received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Very few of the women are still alive today. At 101 years old, Bright can’t help but recount her time as a pioneer pilot. And now, as an official veteran, many more people know her story.
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