Cleared for Take-Off … Flying Time to Full Recognition, 34 years!

January 30, 2014

Dora J. Dougherty standing in front of a helicopter.As a young girl, Dora Dougherty became fascinated with flight as she watched airplanes in the sky over her Long Island home. Visits with her parents to the local airport only grew that interest. In 1940, during summer break from her studies at Cottey College, she decided to chase her childhood dream and enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program to earn her pilot license.

When the United States entered World War II, there was a surge in demand for qualified pilots to make stateside flights. In 1943, Dougherty put her academic career on hold and joined the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). WASPs piloted military flights within the continental United States. There were approximately 1,100 WASPs pilots, who flew a total of 60 million miles!

Dougherty was one of two women selected by Lt. Col. Paul Tibbetts to test fly the B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber. Many men were fearful of flying the B-29 due to its reputation for unreliability. Tibbetts’ motive was more publicity stunt than push for gender equality. Dougherty and her flight partner flew around to different air bases, landed, and emerged from the cockpit. Lo and behold, when the men saw women flying the B-29, they volunteered to do so as well. The success of the B-29 is considered to be an important contribution to the Allied victory.

Despite performing critical military functions, WASPs were always considered civilians and, therefore, received no military benefits. The women received pay of $250 per month, but paid for their own food, clothing, and transportation. Dougherty went on to continue her education (receiving a doctorate from Northwestern University, a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, and the first-ever Ph.D. in aviation science awarded by New York University), but she did so without the benefits of the G.I. Bill, unlike male veterans.

Later in her life, Dougherty worked at Bell Helicopter as chief of the human factors division. She designed research-based helicopter cockpits and set two records for helicopter altitude and distance as a test pilot for the company.

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In 1966, AAUW awarded Dougherty the Achievement Award for “achieving many firsts and breaking many barriers.” I am so proud of AAUW for recognizing her contributions 11 years before the U.S. government even did! In her acceptance speech, Dougherty spoke of her experiences as a female aviator and of the country’s greatest untapped natural resource, “the female American mind.”

These days we see books and documentaries about and public recognition for the roles of women in World War II. But it took so many years to get to this point! In 1977, Dougherty’s testimony led President Jimmy Carter to sign the law giving the WASPs veteran status and benefits, a full 34 years after the unit was formed. More recently, on July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.

Sadly, Dora Dougherty Strother McKeown, trailblazer and former member of the AAUW Fort Worth (TX) Branch, passed away in November 2013. But at least she was one of the few women who lived long enough to receive the recognition she so deserved.

By:   |   January 30, 2014

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