A day in the life of a Goodfellow WASP

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- When Mary Anna Martin reported to Goodfellow Field on December 11, 1944, to begin her first assignment, she knew her career would last only 10 days. Marty was a WASP, one of the thousand or so Women Airforce Service Pilots who trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, to take over some of the domestic flying duties that would free an equal number of male pilots for combat. By late 1944, however, American success in the air war had resulted in a surplus of combat pilots. WASPs were no longer needed, they were told; the program would be shut down.

Marty's commanding officer at Goodfellow, Col Harold Gunn, had been briefed that she and the other newly minted WASPs would be around for little more than a week. Sympathetic, he told the WASPs he had no duties for them to perform. Instead, they could do as they pleased and "fly the BT-13s as often as we wanted."

Built by Vultee Aircraft Corporation, the BT-13s Gunn described dominated basic pilot training during the war. On Goodfellow alone there could be found hundreds of these aircraft at any one time. Sprinkled among them, from time to time, would be the occasional BT-15, another Vultee product absolutely indistinguishable from the BT-13 except for its more powerful engine and stronger wings. That becomes important later in this article.

With Colonel Gunn's blank check in hand, Marty and the other WASPs "flew every day" and "as often and as long as we wanted." But there was one flight in particular during her very short career that she could never forget.

"We had been flying aerobatics in the primary and the advance[d] trainers" at Avenger, she recalled years later, so she and a fellow WASP reasoned that "surely you could take a basic trainer" and do the same. Climbing aboard a BT, they took it up to a reasonably safe altitude where, pulling back on the stick, Marty "got on my tail, you know, trying to get it over the top for the loop." Instead, "it just stopped. The engine quit, the propeller stopped and it just ran out of - poop! You know, it just didn't have the power to go that way. "

The BT had stalled. Then it tumbled.

"Nothing was controlled, I mean nothing was working," Martin explained, remembering how, with the engine stopped, everything got so "very quiet." "We weren't screaming," she allowed, but "we weren't doing anything" either. "We were just petrified."

From an altitude of about 10,000 feet they tumbled and fell "until all of a sudden," somehow, at about 800 feet, the plane "started righting itself." It was nothing Marty or her cohort in the front seat of the BT had done, but the plane just "started gliding."

"Well," said Marty, "it really wasn't gliding but it was not tumbling" anymore either. With the propeller now "windmilling," Marty "pumped the throttle a little bit and it caught on. And then it started flying."

Landing the BT, and more than a little surprised to be alive, Marty and her fellow WASP agreed to keep quiet about the incident rather than "admit that we did a stupid thing." But the next day, talking to an instructor, curiosity got the better of her.

"If you were going to do any aerobatics in a BT-13," she asked, "how would you do it?"

"Oh, my gosh," he said. "It's so underpowered you couldn't do anything in a BT, so don't even try it. If you do, you'll get in a whipstall and you'll just tear the wings right off."

Shuddering, and wondering quietly to herself how her BT had survived the fall with its wings intact, Marty pressed the point.

"How come?" she asked. "What's with the wings?" Well, he said, their structural skin was made of wood.

"They don't have the strength for all that pressure." In fact, out of the hundreds of trainers at the air field there was "only one plane" that had a structural skin with enough steel to survive that level of stress.

"Well," Marty asked, "which one is that?" The BT-15, he told her. The one she was flying.