Female pilots performing flyover for esteemed woman aviator, 99, in assisted living
BY IKE CRUMPLER
PALM CITY — She’s among the most accomplished women in aviation but now 99 years old, in assisted living and far removed from her favored pastime of piloting planes. Sunday, her spirits are sure to soar as more than 20 female pilots perform a “flyover” in her honor.
Dr. Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu will watch from Water’s Edge Extended Care in Palm City as women pilots with the Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines do a flyover to recognize her service to the country, the military and aviation.
“I know how much my mother loves aviation and I know how much the Ninety-Nines mean to her,” says Bee’s daughter, Diana Potter of Stuart. “For this sort of effort to be put forth for her, it’s overwhelming.”
At 10 a.m. Sunday, women pilots from around the state will arrive at Stuart Jet Center at Witham Field before departing in unison at 11 a.m. to fly over the Palm City assisted living facility, where Bee will be waiting outside.
“Without a doubt, Bee made tremendous contributions to our country and really paved a way for women aviators,” says Dan Capen, president and CEO of the Stuart Jet Center. “We’re excited about the opportunity to meet the pilots, serve as their staging ground and in some small way show our gratitude to Bee—and all women pilots—for their service to our nation and the field of aviation.”
As members of the International Organization of Ninety-Nines, the Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines promote advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and sharing their love of flight. Pilots participating in Bee’s flyover will arrive at the Stuart Jet Center in Cessna’s, Pipers, Tigers, Beech’s and more. Five total chapters will participate, comprising 53 pilots and passengers in 22 different planes.
“Some are coming from the Keys, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers—all women pilots,” says Ruth Jacobs, an organizer with the Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines. “…They’ll fly over the river so they can see her.”
Knowing Bee is only currently able to see family through strict social-distancing measures, the Ninety-Nines wanted to give her a “visit” unlike any other, says Jacobs.
As one of the 1,074 WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II, Bee—who earned her nickname for “flying like a bumblebee”—was among the first women pilots to fly military aircraft. Today, her uniform is on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Created from the Women’s Air Corps, WASP performed key aviation duties to free up male pilots for combat in World War II. Although they didn’t fly outside the continental United States, the hazards ran high. In addition to ferrying aircraft to various destinations, they flew decommissioned planes — often stripped of anything of value, including instrumentation — to the aircraft “graveyard.” Finally, they towed targets, flying maneuvers dragging cloth targets their male counterparts fired upon — using live ammo — from other planes.
Thirty-eight WASP died in service. Their courage was even tapped to inspire — and motivate — male flight crews. When engine problems caused some B-29s to catch fire, the aircraft earned a reputation as a widow maker. Even as improvements were made, troubles persisted, making some male pilots skittish. To quell their fears, the colonel in charge of the B-29 program called on the WASP to fly the plane between bases. The move prompted male pilots back to the aircraft, which proved a decisive advantage in the Allied victory.
As aircraft manufacturers geared up for private aviation, Bee got hired to ferry planes. In time, she became a dealer, selling enough planes to afford two for herself, which she used to start a flight school. A master pilot with more than 50 years flying, she operated as a race pilot for a time. Her late husband and Diana’s father, Joseph Haydu, served in the Army Air Corps. Both flew until their 70s.
In the 1970s, Bee also led lobbying efforts in Congress to ensure WASP were recognized as veterans of World War II, as originally promised. She joined other WASP in the White House in 2008 when they received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Admission in the WASP program was rigorous, with mild, even non-aviation infractions risking removal. For aviation aficionados like Bee — who also authored two books about her service — the biggest fear was dismal from the program, denying her the chance to fly.
“You could wash out because your bed wasn’t made right,” says Potter. “She was only afraid of washing out. One thing I can say about every single one of (the WASP) is they love their country and they love to fly. Get them in a plane and they just light up.”
Even though she’ll be far from the cockpit Sunday, there’s little doubt Bee will do just that when her flyover is overhead.