THE MOOD OF THE CROWD gathered to witness the space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral last February was electric. Even though all space launches are characteristically tense and expectant, this one seemed to have added a distinct edge to the normal level of excitement.
While it - and all of the great, roaring launches from that empty coastal plain - are metaphors of humankind's spirit in an expanding universe, this one was to be truly different than all the others before it. It was to be the first time in the history of space flight that one of these great birds would be flown with a woman pilot at the controls. The significance of the event was not lost on Teresa James, a 99 and an aviation pioneer who had soloed more than 60 years before this far different kind of takeoff that she was about to witness. She sat in a section reserved for relatives and friends of astronauts. Her VIP status was a product of a friendship with Eileen Collins, the woman who would pilot the space shuttle. The two met at a Women Military Aviators Association (WMAA) meeting while Eileen was a pilot Instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Teresa had flown fighter planes between manufacturing sites and military bases during WWII. When the telephone call came from Eileen inviting her to the Cape for the historic launch, Teresa told her, "I wish I were in your shoes. My God! you're going to see that great big grapefruit we live on. I'll say a lot of prayers for you, kid." On her drive to the launch site from her home in Lake Worth, Florida, Teresa had time to reflect on the great sweeping changes in aviation since her solo flight back in 1933.
While the advance in aviation seemed to have been fast and furious, the progress of women pilots, by comparison, seemed to have been slow and difficult. But she consoled herself with the thought that the gap in the flying opportunities for men and women pilots is closing.
Teresa's start in aviation was not auspcious. She was terrified of flying when she was young. Part of the reason for her fright was that her older brother, Francis, had been seriously injured in a plane crash. While recovering, Francis persuaded her to drive him to the Wilkinsburg (Pennsylvania) Airport. There she developed a crush on a handsome pilot. And eventually, she accepted his invitation for a ride in his biplane. Then, when the pilot left for a job in Chicago, a flight instructor suggested that she learn how to fly to surprise him when he got back.
The pilot married someone else. But Teresa learned to fly. To earn money, she performed stunts in air shows, usually wearing a white helmet and flying a blue plane. Her specialty was a 26-turn spin from two miles up, coming as close as 1,000 feet to the ground. She also hauled parachute jumpers, flew the mail and worked at her family's flower shop. In the 1940s, she earned her commercial license. She also fell in love with another pilot, George "Dink" Martin and they were married in 1942. Martin enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He died when he was shot down during a mission over France in 1944. In 1942, Teresa became part of a select group of 25 experienced woman pilots who ferried military planes between the manufacturer and military bases.
She recounted one of her experiences during those years when she visited with Eileen a few weeks ago. In 1944, Teresa had to be tested in the P-47 Thunderbolt, a 2,800-HP fighter-bomber. "The male pilots told me that it was a hard airplane to fly...never having flown a plane with that kind of horsepower in a single-seat pursuit aircraft, that it would be hard to handle. I don't know what they meant by that. I think that half of Washington, D.C., was up there to see if I was going to splatter myself all over the runway. To me, it flew like a little old Cub."
Teresa and the other women in the ferry service lost their jobs in 1945 when men returned from the war. "I was heartbroken. I'll never forget walking out the gate that morning," she said. She resumed giving flying lessons, but few were interested after the war. Nor would the airlines hire a woman pilot. So she returned to another job she loved-the flower shop.
In 1950, she accepted a commission in the Air Force Reserve. She retired 27 years later at the rank of major after serving in Pennsylvania, California and Alaska.
Teresa gives Sally Ride much credit as the first American woman in space in 1983 --but Sally was not the pilot. "We have had such a hard time in aviation, trying to break into it -- even at though we proved that we flew every Air Force airplane that was ever made," she commented. "It's only been in the past six years that women are really coming into their own," Teresa said, in an interview reported by Eleanor Chute in the Feb. 4 issue of the Pittburgh Post-Gazette.
Although Teresa and Eileen are generations apart, the two have excelled in a world where women have not been readily accepted and, needless to say, Teresa is "delighted" that Eileen is leading women to a new frontier. "The launch was spectacular!" she said. "My goosebumps had bumps."