WWII Woman Pilot Still Flying
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Mar. 23, 2000 The "brown bag lunch" audience here at the Women's Memorial roared with laughter when Ann Wood-Kelly, decked out in her World War II uniform, said, "There's a lot of displacement over the years, but the differential was only about five pounds."
Wood-Kelly, 82, visited the Women in Military Service to America Memorial to give a slide presentation depicting her years flying for the allies. She was a World War II ferry pilot with the British Air Transport Auxiliary. The auxiliary was the model for America's Women's Airforce Service Pilots. The WASPs, as a group, became pioneers, heroes and role models as the first women in history trained to fly U.S. military aircraft.
Wood-Kelly said the most common questions people asked her are, "How did you start and why did you start."
She said the simple answer is she was at the right age to get involved when the United States entered World War II. After war broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Pilot Training Program in December 1939 to prepare America should it enter the war.
Two of her friends were discussing joining the program at a party at Wood-Kelly's house. "When they left, mother said, 'Why don't you look into this?'" said Wood-Kelly of Manchester by the Sea, Mass., near Boston. Her frugal mother was always looking for bargains, and this one was great.
"They taught people to fly for free," Wood-Kelly noted. "And out of a class of 12 students, one could be a girl; that was fascinating."
To get ahead of the game, she took a ground school course at a local high school. The flying course was conducted at Maine's all-male Bowdoin College.
"They selected 10 boys, the 11th was my brother, and I was the 12th," Wood-Kelly said. "I wasn't a boy, so they didn't know what to do about me. They advertised in the Brunswick (Maine) newspaper for a boy to come to learn to fly for free and nobody came. Wasn't I lucky?"
Afraid of losing the government contract, Bowdoin's president accepted Wood-Kelly's application. She earned her private pilot's license and a commercial license and returned as an instructor. Soon thereafter, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
"I, like all of my students, wanted to do something effective, but we were not quite sure what," she said.
A telegram from Jacqueline Cochran, America's foremost woman pilot, helped make up her mind. Cochran sent out telegrams trying to recruit American women to go to England to fly aircraft with the British Air Transport Auxiliary. By ferrying aircraft from manufacturers to British air bases, the women freed men to fly in combat in Europe.
"She sent telegrams to every woman pilot that had at least 350 hours' flying time -- about 300 of them," Wood-Kelly said. "She turned me down the first time. I was on the young side and only had minimal flying time -- just scratched into 350 hours."
But luck was on her side again. Many of the women Cochran interviewed had several thousand hours, but they were older and many had families and children. "She wasn't about to recruit them, because of the potential of having to deal with family problems," Wood-Kelly said.
As a result, Wood-Kelly became one of 24 American women to serve with the auxiliary from 1942 to 1945. She flew hundreds of hours in 75 different aircraft and received the King's Medal of the United Kingdom from King George VI.
She said the hardest parts of the job were dealing with unpredictable weather, flying without radios or navigational aids and flying in areas with a lot of barrage balloons floating around in the air. The balloons were raised over critical areas to discourage low-flying aircraft -- their heavy suspension cables could shear off a passing plane's wing and propellers, Wood-Kelly noted.
"When we went into a factory, they'd let down the balloons to give us time to get out," she said.
She recalled one woman dying in the line of duty.
Time and distance flying was difficult at times, she said. "Depending on the wind, you may not come down where you thought you were going to come down," Wood-Kelly said.
A page of her wartime logbook, flashed on the theater's huge screen, showed she flew 58 hours and delivered 33 various aircraft in one month. She flew a variety of aircraft, everything from British Spitfires and Mosquitoes to American P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs.
"After D-Day, we ferried food and supplies to the liberated countries," Wood-Kelly noted. "They didn't choose women to do that at first, but we finally got our chance to get to Brussels and Paris, mainly. One of my particular missions was to fly in enough champagne for our [victory] party."
It was strawberry season in England when combat troops were preparing to cross the channel for the D-Day invasion, Wood-Kelly noted. "Women pilots gathered strawberries and passed them out to the troops as they sat in their vehicles awaiting their turn to cross the channel," she said. "Some of the troops were writing letters, some were reading comics and some were getting haircuts -- all simple things. All of them were grateful for the strawberries.
"When you left them, you knew that was probably going to be their last strawberry on this Earth for many of them," she said.
Wood-Kelly said she stayed in England after the war, flying to different factories to see how they were converting to peacetime operations.
In December 1949, she married A. Jackson Kelly in Boston. The newly weds returned to London where the groom was the regional director of Pan Am for Europe. "We lived in London for about four years and our son, Christopher, was born there in 1950," Wood-Kelly said. "We were separated, but my husband died in my house in November 1999." Her son, who is unmarried, runs a computer business in Watertown, Mass.
When she returned home after several years in England, Wood-Kelly worked in airline management for many years, becoming Pan American Airways' first woman staff vice president for international charges. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the Women's Advisory Committee on Aviation. President Richard Nixon later named her the committee chairman.
Wood-Kelly became the Aero Club of New England's first woman president in 1965. The club has been giving a $2,000 Ann Wood-Kelly scholarship each year since 1987 to honor the noted World War II aviator. In 1996, the club honored her with the Godfrey L. Cabot Award.
At 82, Wood-Kelly is still flying her Piper Arrow and is an instrument flight rules pilot.
Wood-Kelly said the U.S. military didn't do right by the women in the beginning, "but they're getting there now."
"We ought to be on an equal basis, but I'm not clear about whether women should fly fighter aircraft," said Wood-Kelly. "I think of the vulnerability of a woman being taken prisoners. I wouldn't want to be a prisoner in Serbia, for example."
Wood-Kelly's life experiences are the stuff books are written about and movies are made of, but said she isn't interested. "I haven't written a book or [set down] any memories, but I have recorded my experiences on audio and videotape," she said. She has also given all of her memorabilia to archival homes -- Texas Literature University, the WASPs and the Hoover Institution for War Revolution and Peace.
"What I envision is that all of you bright young things can push a button one-day and wouldn't have to read the book," she said.
"There's a big lesson to be learned from Ann and so many of the women who pioneered," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Judie Armington, 56, of Arlington, Va. "Our opportunities don't come dressed in finery or with bugles blaring. They come as little calls, a newspaper ad, a suggestion by a friend or family member, an opportunity to volunteer with little or no reward expected. The people who make the difference are the ones who act, take a risk, step up, willing to fail of necessary in order to succeed in the long run."
Armington obtained her private pilot license through the Hamilton Air Force Base (Calif.) Aero Club in 1970. After Vietnam, she was assigned to the Pentagon and completed commercial and instrument instructor work at Woodbridge (Va.) Airport.
"I flew single engine light planes and owned a Piper Arrow, the same plane that Ann Wood-Kelly owns," said Armington, who joined the Air Force on Nov. 11, 1967 and retired as a lieutenant colonel budget analyst on April 1, 1989.
Noting that, over the years, she met many women pioneers in their particular fields -- some by choice, others by chance, Armington said, "No matter how they got there, they paved the way for us to be, do and have what we do. Their stories are fascinating, unique and reveal the small things they did very well and the big things that they frequently did with flair.
"Where would the world be if it were not for pioneers, patriots and leaders like Ann Wood-Kelly?" she asked. "We all need heroes, role models, not only in flying but also in life."