There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 3)

On this date in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that “the Women Airforce Service Pilots as having served on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration.” After the Navy decided in the mid-1970s that women could fly government planes, this legislation picked up a bill that had fallen by the wayside in 1944. WASPs who’d served during World War II did so as civilians and, until Carter signed this law more than thirty years later, had no formal military benefits.

Melissa Pembleton in her Edge 540

We started this series (for the first two parts, click HERE and HERE) after attending this year’s Jacqueline Cochran Air Show in the desert. For the last few weeks, we’ve planned to add a segment today and to get more specific about that show’s performers. What great serendipity that, when Anna turned the page in her calendar (yes, she keeps an old-fashioned paper calendar) this weekend, there was a note in the margin for Wednesday: Carter & WASPs. After all, it was Jackie Cochran who, in 1939 immediately after Germany’s invasion of Warsaw, wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting that women could be used as military pilots.

Jacqueline Cochran

The WASP program quickly grew out of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, which had been organized by Cochran, and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which had been organized by Nancy Harkness Love. We won’t go into the rivalry and politicking between these two women here, but Jackie Cochran became the WASP’s director and Nancy Love continued to oversee its ferrying operations to move aircraft about the country. When the WASP program ended in December 1944, largely because male pilots were being rotated home after flying overseas, 38 WASPs had died in service and 916 were still serving.

Among the women who lost their lives as WASPs were some of the most talented aviators in America. Cornelia Clark Fort was the first woman pilot to die in the service. After surviving Pearl Harbor—she was attacked by a Zero while giving a flying lesson—Fort ran out of luck and perished in a mid-air collision over Texas in March 1943. In the movie Tora-Tora-Tora, Fort was portrayed by a man.

Hazel Ying Lee, another WASP, was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912 and, in 1932, became the first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s certificate. Once, after a forced landing, she was chased around her aircraft by a pitchfork-wielding Kansan who assumed she was at the vanguard of a Japanese invasion force. While delivering a Bell P-63 Kingcobra to Great Falls, Montana, as a Lend-Lease aircraft destined for Russia, Lee collided with another P-63 after a control tower error. She died two days later.

Jackie Cochran, the only woman in the Bendix air race in 1937, went on to become the first women to break the sound barrier. For that record, she flew an F-86 Sabre, one of the two planes in the heritage flight at this year’s Jacqueline Cochran Air Show. Over the years, she held more records than any other pilot. Later in her career, Cochran initially championed the possibility of thirteen women as astronaut candidates, only to testify against allowing women to become astronauts later.

Her namesake air show’s website points out, “She was a long-time resident of the Coachella Valley, and is buried in Coachella Valley Cemetery. She regularly utilized Thermal Airport over the course of her long aviation career.” So on the morning of November 5, we headed into the mountains to see what there was to see there. The Thermal Airport is nestled in a valley formed by the San Bernadino Mountains to the north and northeast and the San Jacinto Mountains to the south and southwest. Nearby is the Salton Sea.

Steve Hinton in an F-86

As soon as we parked the car, it was clear that the how was underway. The sky was the cloudless, deep-blue that we’ve come to associate with the desert. As we walked toward the runways of the Thermal Airport, a Korean War era F-86 Sabre flashed overhead, its aluminum skin shimmering in the mid-morning sun. Piloted by Steven Hinton, president of Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino and veteran film and television pilot, the F-86’s routine was focused, enclosed by the nearby mountains that ring the airport. Up was the only direction that wasn’t constraining the sixty-year-old warbird, so again and again it finished high-speed passes down the runways centerline with soaring climbs.

Most current air shows feature acrobatic demonstrations, and the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show is no exception, with no fewer than four of the day’s sessions devoted to acrobatic flying: Doug Jardine, Rob Harrison, Jon Melby, and Melissa Pemberton. In honor of the barnstorming and acrobatic women flyers of decades past, we give a special nod to Melissa Pemberton today.

Melissa & Rex Pembleton

A hundred years ago, Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license. (What better names for little girl characters than Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby?) Nowadays, Melissa Pemberton, who is in her mid-twenties, flies torque rolls and gyroscopic tumbles above crowds at air shows not just here in the United States but also in Japan, Spain, and El Salvador. Melissa learned to fly with her grandfather, and she’s been flying aerobatics since she was 17 years old.

Melissa and her husband Rex, who was the youngest Australian to climb Mt. Everest, are both skydivers. Melissa performs with three other women—the only all-women four-way free-fly team. This year at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show, Melissa flew her Edge 540 while her husband wafted to the ground in his wingsuit, which has webbing between limbs so that he can fly three feet forward for every foot he drops.

They came up with this act that combines skydiving and aircraft aerobatics to combine their skills and create something new for the air show circuit. It was quite a sight as traced Rex’s descent by the smoke trailing behind him. Likewise, Melissa’s plane trailed smoke, drawing relatively tight circles around Rex’s path. They also  both have radios to banter with each other and the crowd as the shapes in the sky form.

The Jacqueline Cochran Air Show wrapped up this year’s season for Melissa Pemberton. Lofty Ambitions hasn’t quite wrapped up this air show series, though.

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