Dora Dougherty Strother

I did not expect to find a connection to Cottey College as I walked through Seattle's Museum of Flight recently. The museum's exhibits cover all aspects of aviation, from the Wright brothers to the International Space Station. Imagine my surprise and delight at finding a familiar name among the World War II displays ― that of pilot and Cottey College alumna Dora Dougherty Strother. Her path links Cottey College to an integral time in U.S. history, when women were finally allowed to fly in the military, but not officially recognized as part of the armed forces.

Dora Dougherty at Cottey, c. 1940
Dora Dougherty sits on the steps of P.E.O. Hall for a Cottey brochure, c. 1940.10
Dora Dougherty at Cottey, c. 1940
Dora poses with Cottey classmates at the Radio Springs lake, c. 1940.10 She graduated from Cottey in 1941.

Dora Dougherty was only 18 when she earned her pilot's license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program in 1940.1 When she heard about the Women's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) program in 1942, she left school and worked at an airport to accumulate enough hours to apply.3 She completed WASP training and graduated in 1943. Dougherty had myriad jobs as a WASP. She towed aerial targets for anti-aircraft gunnery, ferried aircraft, performed flight training, and flew remote-controlled drones. However, her most memorable mission came in the summer of 1944.

The First Women to Pilot a B-29

Boeing's B-29 Superfortress had just been released, and it was the Air Force's largest and heaviest bomber to date.3 It hadn't been put through the years of testing that Boeing had performed on its predecessor, the B-17. It was quite known for having engine fires, which caused the fighter pilots considerable worry. Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbets (who would later pilot the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) was in charge of training the pilots on this new behemoth ― but many of his soldiers simply refused to fly it. To show the men that the B-29 was both safe and reliable, Tibbets decided to train two women to fly it.

Dougherty with fellow WASPs, c. 1943
Dougherty (top) and fellow WASPs, c. 1943.4
Dougherty with the B-29 crew, 1944
Crew of the B-29 Ladybird, 1944.2 From left: Lt. Col. Tibbets, Moorman, Dougherty.
Moorman, Dougherty, and Tibbets, 1944
Moorman, Dougherty, Lt. Col. Tibbets, and Civil Aeronautics Administration inspector Dean Hudson, 1944.5

In June of 1944, Lt. Col. Tibbets recruited Dora Dougherty and Dorothea "Didi" Moorman to fly demos of the B-29.3 Neither woman had ever flown a four-engine plane before. The WASPs were trained on the bomber for just three days, and not told about the engines' tendency to catch fire (although there was such a fire on their first check ride).2 To avoid the engines overheating, Tibbets trained the women not to perform the standard power checks before taking off.3 Following their brief instruction, Dougherty and Moorman flew multiple demonstrations of the B-29 "Ladybird" without any other pilots aboard. Fellow WASP Mary Ellen Keil described the demos: "They had the two women flying around to the various B-29 bases and the men would see them land the plane and get out. That would give them second thoughts, when they saw a woman flying the plane!"6

These flights were quickly stopped a few days later, when Air Staff Major General Barney Giles told Tibbets that the women were "putting the big football players to shame." The Army also harbored fears of a fatal accident and the bad publicity it would bring. Dougherty and Moorman were sent back to Eglin Army Air Field, but their mission had been a success: Tibbets' men finally consented to fly the B-29, and Dougherty and Moorman became the first women to pilot a B-29 from start to finish.*

After the WASP Program

After the WASP program was ended, Dougherty became a flight instructor at the University of Illinois.3 In 1950 she was chief pilot for the school's aviation psychology lab. She achieved a Masters degree from the university in 1953, and earned her Ph.D. in aviation psychology at New York University. Dougherty worked briefly for Martin Aircraft, then took a job at Bell Helicopter, where she eventually became the director of Human Factors Engineering and Cockpit Arrangement.1 In 1961, she set two world records for rotorcraft, one for altitude and one for distance. Dougherty was also in the Air Force Reserve, rising to the level of lieutenant colonel.8

Moorman and Dougherty in a B-17, 1944
Moorman and Dougherty in a B-17, 1944.5
Dora Dougherty exhibit at the Museum of Flight
The Dora Dougherty placard at Seattle's Museum of Flight, 2009.1

A Note on the WASP

Women Airforce Service Pilots were never officially considered military personnel, but rather civil service employees of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).9 Their salary was $250 per month, from which they had to pay for their own food, housing, clothing, insurance, and transportation (unlike male soldiers).8 If a WASP was killed, comrades or family had to pay for the body to be shipped home. They received no military service stars and no military burials, even though they were subject to military regulations and procedures. Many trainees joined the WASP with the hope that it would soon be militarized. Despite the massive efforts of Jackie Cochran and others, it never was. (In fact, the WASP was the only female auxiliary branch not to be militarized.)

This also meant that WASPs could not claim veteran status or receive any of its benefits. The military seemed to forget about the WASPs altogether, as in the mid-1970s, the Navy announced that women would be allowed to fly government planes for the first time in history.5 Spurred by this incredulous statement, former WASPs banded together again to fight for the recognition they deserved. They testified before the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees in hopes of changing their mind about the WASP. (Dora Dougherty Strother was the first to testify at the Senate committee hearings.8) Finally, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act, which granted the WASPs full veterans' status. It was about time.

Notes:

* Mildred "Micky" Axton was the first woman to fly a B-29 on May 4, 1944.7 She was a WASP test pilot who was invited to take control of the bomber on a test flight. (She was not checked out as first pilot, unlike Dougherty and Moorman.)

Works Cited:

  1. "Dora Dougherty." The Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA. 2009.
  2. "Dora Dougherty Strother." National Museum of the US Air Force. Web.
  3. "WWII Reunion of B-29 Pilots." The Ninety-Nines. Web.
  4. "Historic Photos." National Museum of the US Air Force. Web.
  5. "Fly Girls." Web.
  6. Hascall Cole, Jean and Wendy Cole. Women Pilots of World War II. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1992. Print.
  7. Molene, John. "Micky Axton is still flying high." Eden Prairie News. Eden Prairie, MN. 29 Oct 2008. Web.
  8. Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Print.
  9. Goodpaster Strebe, Amy and Trish Beckman. Flying For Her Country. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
  10. Cottey Junior College promotional booklet. c. 1940. Print.
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