Monday, November 30, 2009

11/30/09 WASPs

In the harried 4 minutes I can spend scanning the WWII history section of the library, I have no time to think through what I'd like to read -- it's pure impulse, grab'n'go.

Last trip, I came across a book about women pilots during WWII, who'd been accepted into the WASP program, short for "Women Air [Force] Service Pilots." For a short while, there was a severe shortage of pilots, as all available men were sent overseas into combat. But someone still needed to ferry planes around the country, run transport flights, tow targets for gunnery training, and countless other domestic military flight tasks.

I have to wonder, would I have been one of them? Would I have had that sort of gumption and desire? Probably not; most women who applied to the program were very young (minimum age 18 but many had been flying before then) and had always wanted to fly. I didn't get adventurous until I was almost 30, and never had to overcome the sort of societal obstacles these girls did.

But I was stunned to see another requirement that might well have grounded me: a minimum height requirement of 64 inches. At first, it was just 60 inches, which I meet. Then it was raised to 62-1/2 inches, which I don't meet, though there's a story of a 5'1-3/4" (exactly my height) girl who wanted to fly so much that the doctor told her to stretch and then he passed her on the physical exam. Then the WASP program raised the height requirement yet again to 64", and there's no way I could have passed myself off as 5'4".

I have the unique perspective of having flown in a WWII-era military plane recently, and was struck by how I was among the few passengers who was physically well-suited to the craft. I was far smaller and more agile than most passengers and was able to easily move around the low passages in the plane. Being more than 5'8" would likely have been a liability, and that's in a roomy bomber. I'm not sure how I'd have done as a pilot, but did the Army have a height minimum of 5'4" for men too?

At one time in my life, I believed that being just under 5'2" meant I couldn't ride the kind of motorcycles I liked in the kinds of places I liked. But that turned out to be completely untrue. I learned how to compensate and do things differently so that I got pretty proficient on machines that most people assumed were too big (such as this borrowed BMW R90S that I rode at Laguna Seca, photo circa 1993). I don't know if that's true for airplanes though.

Ah well, it's nice to have a good book to give myself something new to think about.


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