Born to Fly

 

Ethel Meyer Finley and the WASPs make aviation history
By Frederick Beseler '76

Born in 1920, the year the Nineteenth Amendment gave American women the right to vote, and in the same decade when Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh soared from obscurity, it's little wonder that Ethel Meyer Finley '41 set her eyes and heart on the sky.

Finley, who passed away in 2006, learned to fly airplanes while a student at Winona State Teachers College. She went on to lead a life of adventure and service as a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. Eventually, she and her fellow WASP pilots would be recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal.

"I can remember the day he [Lindbergh] made that famous trip," Finley told an interviewer. "I was seven years old. It impressed me. And I was intrigued by it."

"I remember having dreams of being able to fly myself, without an airplane. I was jumping off the barn and I would be flying over the wires that went from the house to the barn."

Finley's mother, who read to her constantly, pushed her to excel. From her earliest school days, Finley was at the top of her class, even when placed with students a year or so ahead. She was salutatorian at Lake City High School and had many scholarship offers, accepting the one from Winona State. Although not sure what she wanted to do, Finley majored in science and physical education and worked as a teaching assistant in the Biology Department.

It wasn't long before she found her calling. She and fellow teaching assistant Eddie Siebold discovered the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

"We had often talked about airplanes and Winona was known to be one of the aviation centers of Minnesota. Max Conrad was located here and he was one of the best-known barnstorming pilots."

"[Eddie] said, 'Guess what? We're going to have flying in college.' I asked, 'What's it going to cost?' He said, 'Nothing. I signed up for it. It's going to be a class of ten and they will take one girl."'

"I was immediately down at the president's office. I wasn't going to mess around and see who was in charge!"

With her mother's permission, Conrad took Finley as a flight student. Because she was attending classes, doing her practice teaching, and working half days at the college, they flew in the early morning hours. Conrad would pick Finley up at the apartment she shared with three other students. Many mornings he would have a carton of juice and sweet roll for her in the glove box of his car.

"We'd fly for a half hour or hour, whatever would fit in and then he'd get me back to school by eight o'clock."

By the winter of 1940 Ethel had earned her pilot's license, finishing her training in a Piper Cub equipped with skis.

After graduating from Winona State in June, Finley started work in nearby Rushford, Minnesota, where she taught math, science, and physical education courses for $100 a month. On weekends she caught a ride back to Winona to continue with advanced flying lessons. Limited time and budget made flying difficult, so Finley resigned and went to Chicago for air traffic control training school.

She wanted to be in the air, however, at the controls of a plane. She jumped at an offer from Conrad to operate an instrument flight simulator at the Winona airport, providing training and checkout for Northwest Airlines pilots.

Then came December 7, 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Famed aviator Jackie Cochrane had proposed training women to fly in non-combat roles, such as ferrying new aircraft to military bases, to free more male pilots for combat duty. As World War II progressed, Cochrane's idea was accepted and she got the go-ahead to establish a training program for female pilots.

In late 1942, Finley got a letter from Cochrane. She was one of 1,830 women accepted for training and later one of just over a thousand who earned the right to wear the silver WASP wings.

Training was at hot, dusty Avenger Field just outside Sweetwater, Texas. The WASPs received $150 a month, from which they paid their own room, board, and uniform and clothing expenses.

Although the women already had many hours of flight experience, they were required to learn the military way. Before stepping up to fast, maneuverable fight planes, the pilots had to master the AT-6 "Texan" advanced trainer. It's still said today that if you can fly an AT-6, you can fly anything.

Finley had no trouble at Avenger Field, either with the academics or the AT-6. "I don't have any real conscious memories of being overwhelmed by it," she recalled for an interviewer.

"I knew I was good at flying and didn't worry too much about the mathematics. I had no trouble with the ground school courses because I was quite recently out of college and I had taught physics so [learning about] engines was no problem for me."

After leaving Avenger Field with her WASP wings, Finley reported to Ferrying Command at Love Field in Dallas. It was here that she and her classmates ran into obstacles. "Every once in a while you would get some jealous males who didn't want to be instructors or check pilots, especially for women. When our group came in they failed us on our check ride even though we had just graduated from Sweetwater with no problems. We were just left sitting around."

Finley's classmate and lifelong friend, Marjorie Popell, phoned Cochrane and the WASPs were quickly back up in the air. Finley and Popell moved to air bases around the country - Alabama, South Carolina, Texas - testing and transporting planes, qualifying on new aircraft, learning aerobatics, training as instructors, flying at every opportunity.

Eventually, they made it back to Shaw Army Air Base in South Carolina to teach male pilots. Was there resistance at being instructed by a woman? "No, we were always very honest about it," Finley explained.

"I would start out the first day when I was given my students, by saying to them that this is the first time it has been tried in the military to have women instruct men. If you prefer not to be a part off this or to have me as the instructor, you may ask for a change. I never had a single one ask for a change." The commanding officer in charge of training at Shaw complimented Finley and Popell as among his best instructors.

By late 1944, the Allies were winning the war and the need for pilots lessened. The WASPs were unceremoniously disbanded. Some tried to fly with the airlines, but even with thousands of hours of experience, women were excluded from the cockpit. Most simply returned home; they even had to pay their own fare. None ever flew military aircraft again.

Finley remained at Shaw, landing a civil service job operating instrument trainers, as she had done earlier in Winona with Conrad. She married James Finley, a U.S. Air Force major, in December 1944. While he continued his career, Finley left aviation and raised their three children.

But she never stopped serving, and she never forgot her service to the United States.

Over the next 25 years, Finley became active in women's affairs, founding halfway houses in New Jersey and Delaware for women recovering from substance abuse. She worked to keep the WASPs and their actions during World War II in the national conscious, traveling to air shows around the country, telling their stories, and encouraging young women to follow their dreams. She was inducted into the Minnesota and Delaware Aviation Halls of Fame, and named a Winona State Distinguished Alumna in 1994.

In the 1970s, the "first" female American military pilots were accepted by the Air Force. Those pioneers of women's aviation, who served in WASP, had never been officially acknowledged or recognized. Thirty-eight died while in service. The worst insult was that the WASPs were not allowed the American flag to be draped on their caskets.

While Finley was president of the national WASP organization from 1992 to 1994, the U.S. Congress finally granted the intrepid flyers veteran's status. In 2009, three years after Finley passed away, Congress authorized creation of a Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing the WASPs and their service. About 200 of the 300 surviving WASPs received the medal at the U.S. Capitol in March 2010, during Women's History Month.

Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed on Finley and her fellow WASPs came much earlier, from General Hap Arnold's remarks to their last graduating class in 1944.

"You, and more than 900 of your sisters, have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt in anyone's mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASPs have dispelled that doubt."

Frederick Beseler '76 has worked as writer for nearly 35 years and serves on board of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. He is an active pilot who made his first solo flight from Max Conrad Field in 1973.

Thanks to the Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas for interview transcripts and images.