Several years ago, a reporter from one of the local papers called me to see if I knew of any women aviators in Greenwich. At that time I wasn’t aware of any, but it made sense that there would be at least one since we’re so close to Westchester Airport. As I was trying to come up with a topic for this week’s blog, I came across an Oral History transcript on “Pioneer In Women’s Aviation and Flight Safety”. It was narrated by Gloria Whitton Heath, who served as a WASP in World War II. She has lived in town since 1963.
Gloria Whitton Heath’s Background
Gloria Whitton Heath was born on May 7, 1922 in New York City. Her parents were Royal Vale Heath and Lillian (Hart) Heath. She graduated from Putney School in Vermont in 1939, and received an AB from Smith College in 1943. Her brother, Royal Vale Heath, Jr., attended the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and participated in a pilot training program. It was result of FDR encouraging Americans to help Great Britain fight the Axis powers. Royal Jr. encouraged Gloria to take up aviation.
Smith College happened to be close to LaFleur Airport. Gloria pedalled a bicycle five miles out to the airport, and asked the manager about taking flying lessons. He talked her into getting several other students to chip in for an airplane – which cost about $1500 at that time. She posted an ad on the college bulletin board, and several female students responded. They named the plane the “Bird of Paradise” after a pond on campus. The college colors were painted on the plane. Gloria and others continued to take flying lessons and some earned their pilot’s license.
Opportunity In War
When World War II broke out in 1941, Gloria Heath saw an opportunity for women to contribute to the war effort. A group of women aviators from America had gone over to Britain and to help ferrry planes from factories to to air fields. It was known as the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Another woman, Jacqueline Cochran, approached Henry “Hap” Arnold – the Chief of the Army Air Forces – and tried to convince him that women could handle the same jobs as men (i.e. fill in for them). Arnold resisted since he believed woman were physically unable to handle the manual flight controls. Meanwhile, some women started to fly in the Army Air Forces in Texas, thus becoming the first WASPs (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots).
It wasn’t long before there was a dire need for volunteers to perform a number of military duties. General Arnold consented to letting women fly military aircraft, but would not let them fly in combat. He set up a base at Avenger Field in the Texas panhandle. They underwent the same training as men; but if they failed a check flight, they were immediately removed, as opposed to men who could choose to become a bombadier or navigator. Men automatically became second lieutenants after graduation, but women received no commission. (This was determined by Congress.) There were a lot of men who were opposed to women in the Air Corps. Some even sabotaged the planes, causing accidents and even death. It wasn’t unusual for someone to put sand in the gas tank. Records were sealed and classified to supress information on women’s service in World War II.
Women in the Air Corps served with distinction. There were 1100 at the height of the war. Thirty-five gave their lives. What is most interesting is that there wasn’t as much attrtion among the women as there were the men. Yet, they filled a great void during a critical time. One thing is for sure: the WASPs were indeed aviation pioneers.
After The War
After the war, some people continued their association with aviation . Some went to work for Boeing Aircraft. Some went to the Air College in Boulder, Colorado. Gloria Heath became a founding member of the Flight Safety Foundation. This organization was established to improve flight safety around the globe. Manufacturers and airlines joined together to establish flight safety standards all over the world. One provision required pilots to file flight plans. Another required private planes to carry crash locator beacons, and transport planes to carry “black boxes” (flight data recorders). Member countries helped train the less technically advanced countries with training and implementing new standards. This helped level the playing field and improve safety.
Gloria W. Heath held a number of prominent jobs in the aviation safety field over time. She was a special assistant to the Chief of Engineering Loss Prevention at the Aerospace Insurance Underwriters from 1945 to 1948, and continued to serve on the Flight Safety Foundation from 1948 to 1965. From 1967 to 1970, Gloria was Assistant Director at the Cornell-Guggenheim Aviation Safety Center. She served on the FAA Civilian Advisory Committee from 1967 to 1970. Heath was a member of the Barbour International Air Safety Award Board from 1955. Her expertise in aviation safety was greatly valued.
New Flight Frontier – Space
When the space program began in the 1960s, she found herself involved in space safety and rescue. Gloria was appointed chair of the International Academy of Astronautics – an organization funded by Harry Guggenheim. It sought to foster cooperation with Russia and other countries in the exploration of space. She even visited the United Technologies headquarters to view some fuel cell prototypes.
Heath received many awards throughout her life. In 1955, she was awarded the Lady Hay Drummond Trophy. She received the Amelia Earhart Award in 1957. Gloria was made an Honorary Member of the wives wing of the Aerospace Medical Association in 1962. She was awarded the Laura Tabor Barbour International Air Safety Award in 1965. In 1971 she received the Smith College Medal as an outstanding alumna. During the 100th Anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight (2003), she was named one of the most inluential woman in aviation. Heath was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009.
In 2010, First Selectman Peter Tesei issued a proclamation making May 11 Gloria W. Heath Day in Greenwich. She had distinguished herself throughout her life as one of the first woman aviators. In a man’s world where women are not expected to pursue certain fields, she broke the stereotype. Her contributions can not be overstated. The skies are a lot safer for air travel because of her efforts.
Heath, G.; Pioneer in Women’s Aviation and Flight Safety; Greenwich Oral History Project, 2012.