Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. --
On Monday, Margaret Ringenberg, an accomplished aviator and World War II Women's Air Force Service Pilot (WASP), was the guest speaker at the Distinguished Lecturer Program presented by the Tennessee Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the H.H. Arnold Chapter of the Air Force Association.
Mrs. Ringenberg was an original WASP recruit in 1943 after General of the Air Force Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold authorized the formation of the WASP program. Her primary assignments included testing and transporting planes used to train men for combat flying. She has piloted several planes including the PT-19, AT-6, C-45, B-24 and C-54.
"I feel like I'm just the lady next door, but I have had some wonderful opportunities," she said.
Whether it was Uncle Sam calling to recruit her into the WASP program, Tom Brokaw calling to interview her for his book The Greatest Generation, or a fellow aviator asking her to join them in race, Mrs. Ringenberg said she has had many great experiences.
In her interview with Mr. Brokaw she said, "I started flying because I wanted to be a stewardess - you call them flight attendants nowadays - and I thought 'what if the pilot gets sick or needs help? I don't know the first thing about airplanes and that's where I found my challenge. I never intended to solo or become a pilot."
Part of the reason Mrs. Ringenberg never expected to pilot an airplane was because she considered that to be a man's job.
"After I graduated from high school and dreamed of being a stewardess, I wanted to fly but I thought the word pilot meant boy," she said.
To become a stewardess, Mrs. Ringenberg had to go to nurses' training and while there she decided to take some flying lessons.
"After my first lesson I never again thought of being a stewardess," she said.
After completing her flight classes, she said she vividly remembers her neighbor in Fort Wayne, Ind., receiving the telegram from Western Union inviting her to join the WASP program.
"Responding to that telegram changed my life. I felt very privileged," she said. "Over 26,000 women applied for the WASP program, 1,800 were accepted and 1,074 graduated and received their wings."
After receiving her wings Mrs. Ringenberg was stationed with the 2nd Ferry Division at Newcastle Army Air Base, Wilmington, Del., where she was required to pay for her own transportation and uniforms. She then began testing airplanes that had never been flown and delivering them to bases where they were needed, all for $250 a month.
At the end of 1944 when the WASP received orders that they were no longer needed in the war effort, Mrs. Ringenberg said she had to pay for her own way home and the women who died serving their country as a WASP, their families also had to pay to have their bodies brought home.
After the war she became an instructor, but she said at the time no one wanted to fly with a girl pilot.
"I had more time, ratings and experience than any of the instructors," she said, "but I was a girl and it took time to be accepted, and I had to be patient."
In 1945, after Japan's surrender from World War II, Mrs. Ringenberg's local newspaper in Fort Wayne was on strike, and she continued to support the war effort by flying over Main Street dropping leaflets announcing Japan's surrender. In 1995, she had the privilege of flying in a reenactment of the event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Mrs. Ringenberg has flown in many races including a race around the world in 1994 in a twin engine, Cessna 340 at the age of 72. She called herself and her co-pilots in that race the "grandmas." She said they had to make a few unscheduled stops, including at an air base in Turkey.
"Now wouldn't you be surprised if you were an American air base in Turkey and a small plane landed and three American grandmas climbed out," she asked jokingly.
That was in no way the end of Mrs. Ringenberg's adventures. In March 2001 she flew in a race from London to Sydney at the age of 80. She said it wasn't until then she realized what a land of opportunity that we live in being in the United States.
"I flew over countries where women could only be in public wearing black veils, where women were not allowed to drive cars much less fly airplanes," she said. "I flew over countries where neither men nor women had a voice in the election of their leaders, where they lived in government housing and did not have the opportunity to select or own their own homes. I flew over countries were people had so little to call their own. We are blessed with luxuries that make our lives and our children's lives so much better."
During her aviation career, Mrs. Ringenberg has logged more than 40,000 flight hours, has collected more than 150 racing trophies, and has written her own book, Girls Can't be Pilots.
"I've worked hard to get my story out and I'm sure everyone here has a story to tell," she said.
She encouraged everyone to write something, even if it is short, to leave behind for their children and grandchildren.
"What I wouldn't give to have just a paragraph from my grandparents," she said. "I don't know anything about them and I have been asked many times were I get my get-up-and-go and I just don't know. Leave some notes on your life."
In November 1999, Mrs. Ringenberg received the National Aeronautic Association Elder Statesman in Aviation award.
She continues to speak to groups all over the country about her experiences and has spoken to cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and to astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Along with 13 other WASP she attended the Air Force Memorial dedication in 2006 and was a witness as President Bush received the memorial on behalf of the nation.
Mrs. Ringenberg was married to her late husband Morris, who she says was her greatest fan and supporter, for more than 55 years.
They have two children and five grandchildren, all of whom have flown with her in races and been in the winners circle with her to receive trophies.