New Film, 'Above & Beyond,' Heralds Women's Centennial in Aviation
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., March 12, 2003 The Women's Memorial theater was packed with aging women pilot pioneers from World War II and their current-day counterparts for a private screening and reception for the film "Above & Beyond: 100 Years of Women in Aviation" here March 10.
The screening was in commemoration of the Centennial of Flight and Women's History Month. Event co-hosts were the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Air Force Centennial of Flight Office and film producer Art Reach International. The film premiered March 11 and will be shown daily at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. throughout March at the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery here.
The film spans the contributions of women in aviation from 1903 to the present. It introduces viewers to such personalities as Katharine Wright, sister of the Wright Brothers, and Col. Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander. One of the film's highlights is the contribution of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, or WASPs.
The keynote speaker for the event was Lt. Gen. Leslie F. Kenne, Air Force deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration. She's one of two women in the military who wear three-star rank.
"The WASPs, who came from all types of backgrounds, responded in a time of national emergency due to love of their country and their passion to fly," Kenne told the gathering. "During their time, the WASPs delivered more than 12,000 aircraft and logged over 60 million miles of flying."
Former WASP Ann Darr wrote in her 1994 book, "Flying the Zuni Mountains," "25,000 women applied for the training, 1,830 were accepted after rigorous testing and 1,074 won their wings. They flew more than 60 million miles in every type of plane the Army (Air Forces) owned, in every flying task in the United States -- ferrying, towing targets in gunnery schools for ground and aerial gunners, instructing, mapping unmapped territory, etc."
Darr, who attended the event, but is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, wrote that when the WASPs disbanded in December 1944, 38 had died in service to their country.
Kenne said Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, who spearheaded the effort to use licensed women pilots to do routine transport flying, addressed the last WASP graduating class saying the women could "fly wing tip to wing tip with their brothers."
Arnold commanded the Army Air Forces in World War II and in 1944 became the only U.S. air commander ever to attain five-star general rank.
In illustrating the WASPs' passion for flying, Kenne said, like so many others, one former WASP knew she wanted to fly at a young age, but her mother felt it was much too dangerous for a young lady.
"So she conspired with her father to sign a consent form to enter pilot training -- the rest is history," Kenne said.
Kenne said another WASP wouldn't let anything keep her from flying. "In her bio, she wrote, 'I had to be a tough gal to fly,'" the general said. "'We practiced spot landing day after day. That I remember was a bore, but flying was magic to me. I loved it!'"
"I relate to this personally because you were the first to fly in conjunction with the military service," Kenne said to the wartime pioneers. "In 1974, when I applied and was accepted at the test pilot school to go as an engineer in the back seat of the aircraft, no one thought about saying no, because women had been associated with military flying before. So I thank you for that." Kenne was the first woman to graduate from the school.
She pointed out to the overflow audience that the film profiles some of today's women aviators. "Like our earlier roots, you'll see women from all kinds of backgrounds with the same dream in their minds," she said. "We'll hear about opportunities for women aviators in military and civilian roles. And about Mercury 13 that paved the way for our 52 women astronauts today.
"The danger is still there," Kenne emphasized. "It was just a little over five weeks ago today that we lost seven brave people in the space shuttle Columbia disaster -- two of them were women. The risks remain everpresent. But for the aviator, it's not the danger or the thrill-seeking adventure. It's all about the freedom of the soul and soaring in the sky."
Film producer Alice Carron said she was inspired to produce "Above & Beyond" because of the WASPs. While flying overseas last Mother's Day to premiere a film for International Women's Day, she said, "I started hearing centennial of flight -- Wright Brothers, Wright Brothers, Wright Brothers.
"No one was talking about the women," Carron said. "And I said, someone needs to do a film about women in aviation, and it all started with the WASPs. Aviation in general owes a lot to the WASPs. The military, the country and women owe so much to these women. They served so modestly and went home and returned to their lives and never even made a speech until the next generation of daughters was born and said, 'Wait a minute, look at what you did for us.'"
"Above and Beyond," she said, "absolutely changed my life. I'm so touched by these women." As to how many WASPs are still alive, Carron said the numbers are disputed. "We sent out 600 invitations, but I guess they're in the 500s."
The Women's Memorial, located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, is accessible by subway (Metro Blue Line). Paid parking is also available. Those interested in seeing "Above & Beyond: 100 Years of Women in Aviation" can reserve a seat by calling (703) 533-1155 or (800) 222-2294.