Of all the accomplished women among North Country natives, few if any have soared higher than Mary Elizabeth Pettitt. That is true both figuratively, in light of her many achievements, and literally, because she was an airplane pilot.
When she made the decision to become a pilot in the mid-1930s, it was unusual for the time, and daunting: 97 percent of all pilots were male.
Mary Elizabeth was born in Harrietstown in February, 1914. Her parents, William and Mary (Ostlund) Pettitt, immigrated to America in 1909. Her dad found work as a camp caretaker at Douglas Point on the southeastern shore of Upper Saranac Lake, where the Pettitts remained until the spring of 1921. The family, including five children, then moved to Media, Pennsylvania, before settling in West Orange, New Jersey, where William again found work as the caretaker of a private estate.
During her youth, Pettitt was aware of Amelia Earhart’s exploits and those of other women fliers who became pilots during the early years of American aeronautics. A moment she recalled decades later provided a fleeting connection with aviation history: smiling at her and her siblings as he departed from a neighbor’s place in New Jersey was none other than Charles Lindbergh.
In the mid-1930s, she began a seven-year stint at a music foundation, and in the early 1940s, she chose to explore a passion that had recently developed: flying. The move was triggered by two significant events: one of her sisters employed by an airline wrangled a pass for Pettitt on a flight from New York City to Montreal, which proved thrilling; and she read a newspaper article about female pilots, which clinched the decision. Although opportunities were limited, she began taking flying lessons in Martina, Pennsylvania, about an hour from her home in New Jersey, while still holding down a full-time job.
At the time, women pilots were a rarity, numbering around 750 in the United States. For a little perspective on that number, consider that roughly 3 of every 100 pilots were female. In that atmosphere (pun intended), relatively few women even attempted the training. But flying was Pettitt’s true love, and she would not be denied.
While she was still taking lessons in late 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, setting the stage for millions of Rosie the Riveters to aid the war effort by manning factory and manual labor jobs across the country.
For folks like Pettitt , life was all about flying, and when the war happened, she answered the call after reading about women military pilots, a focus of media attention that included a 1943 cover story in Life magazine. Fliers were badly needed, and although women were not allowed to join the battle, they eventually filled more than a thousand non-combat pilot positions, which allowed that many more men to join the air war against the Axis powers.
Pettitt left the music foundation to build up the flying hours required, earned her private license in 1943, and in February 1944 enlisted in the Women’s Air Force Service. As all accepted applicants did, she attended a rigorous pilot training program for several months at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, learning the ins and outs of flying the AT-6, which was built more than 200 miles east at Dallas. Whether or not the successful trainees considered themselves an elite group, numbers told the story: 25,000 applied, and only 1,830 were accepted. Of those, only 1,074 made the grade.
Graduates were subject to everything military, including calisthenics, drill, instruction courses, and discipline. They were given one uniform and paid $250 a month, but had to cover their own food, lodging, and other expenses. As skilled as male cadets (among the few exceptions was gunnery training, which wasn’t needed by noncombatants), they were dispersed to air bases across the homeland to perform jobs previously exclusive to men. This included transporting cargo, delivering aircraft from factories to bases, testing planes, towing targets for live ammo anti-aircraft practice (one WASP was killed while doing so), towing targets in like manner for fighter pilots in combat practice, performing post-maintenance flights, and any other piloting duties involving nearly 80 different types of planes.
The program, which came to be known as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), was populated by proud and brave women who risked their lives daily. Among their ranks, 38 died in service to the country. And yet despite their outstanding and immeasurable contribution while enduring virtually the same military training as male pilots, flying roughly 60 million miles of missions, and delivering nearly 13,000 aircraft, they were basically cast aside by the US government.
As male combat pilots began returning home, the need for WASP waned, and in December 1944 the program was disbanded. Its demise was understandable in the natural course of events, but what followed seemed unconscionable: Congress voted not to give WASPs veteran status, which meant they were entitled to none of the medical, educational, and other benefits available to official veterans. Conversely, their navy counterparts, WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), who were by law created for the same purpose (to free men for ship duty), fell under the umbrella of military veterans.
Despite the rejection, pilots like Pettitt remained loyal to the cause. As a WASP, she had tested AT-6 planes at Napier Field in Dothan, Alabama. When the program ended, she stayed on through 1945, utilizing another of her capabilities — fluency in Spanish — to provide “Link” instruction to a contingent of Mexican student officers while teaching an English-speaking class of cadets as well. (To avoid the risk and expense of flying lessons, a Binghamton, New York, man, Edwin Link, had developed in 1929 the first flight simulator—the Link—that suitably prepared a pilot in the classroom.)
Returning to civilian life in 1946, she found a pronounced lack of opportunities for women pilots. (One WASP to find related work was Bette Richards, who taught flying in seaplanes at Hall’s on Lake George, New York.) At least one source of employment in connection with Pettitt’s WASP training was found: for distributors, she ferried small planes to sales locations. There was also a stint as pilot/copilot/hostess for Otto Airlines, a commuter service in Newark, New Jersey, where she flew between New York City and Atlantic City and experienced a brush with death: a plane she had just landed flew off under another pilot, who died shortly after with everyone on board when it malfunctioned and crashed.
Another promising job quickly went bust: for a coal wholesaler in New York, she was hired as a pilot/secretary, but was grounded soon after when the owner became too ill to travel.
Above all else, Pettitt wanted to fly, and clearly she was an adventurous sort, as proven already by her varied experiences. In 1947, while reading a flying magazine, she came across an advertisement that piqued her interest. A Kaiser-Frazer automobile distributor in Indiana, Rollin Stewart, was looking for a pilot/secretary, a position she had recently held for a company in New York. Such a specific title appealed to a decidedly limited job pool, and when Pettitt showed an interest, she was hired. While it was hardly obvious at the time, she was about to embark on a journey that determined the rest of her life’s course and led to a brief appearance in the national spotlight.
Next week, part 2: “secretarial work” miles high in the sky.
Photos: Mary Elizabeth Pettitt, WASP, 1944 (newsletter); LIFE magazine cover (1943); AT-6 aircraft in formation (LOC); Avenger Field, Sweetwater Texas, WASP training facility (newsletter); Link flight simulator, circa 1935 (Wikipedia)