From Lubbock Online: Texas woman recalls early days as military pilot
CONROE — When Mary Helen Foster arrived in the Malden Army Airfield in Missouri in 1944, excited at getting to serve and sure they would be happy to have her, her commanding officer took one look at her and said, “I didn’t ask for a woman pilot.”
“I did not ask to come to Missouri, sir,” Foster had said.
Foster, 90, a resident of the Conservatory at Alden Bridge in The Woodlands, was one of more than 1,700 women chosen for the groundbreaking Women Airforce Service Pilots program during World War II. The program allowed women to test aircraft undergoing maintenance and train pilots to allow men to fly in combat.
For seven months, Foster was stationed in Malden, testing aircraft for maintenance and ensuring they were safe for use in combat, despite the discrimination she faced along the way.
Foster did not always want to be a pilot.
She was born in Cuero, just outside of San Antonio. After graduating from Brackenridge High School, she started working at Fort Sam Houston as a secretary. Foster and a friend took a vacation to Corpus Christi and decided to fly there because it was “a new experience.”
That first flight changed her life.
Upon her arrival home, she decided to take flying lessons.
Foster drove out to Brown’s Flying School at Stinson Field in San Antonio and convinced the flight instructor to take her up in a plane. After a half-hour flight, the instructor told her she “wasn’t the type” for flying lessons.
“I said, ‘I’ll be here and I’ll have the money in my hand and you’re going to teach me how to fly’,” Foster recalled demanding.
While taking flight lessons, Foster read an advertisement in a newspaper that famous pilot Jacqueline Cochran was recruiting female pilots for the military. Foster wrote back and sent in an application, waiting months before receiving her orders to head to Sweetwater in 1943 where all the WASP pilots trained.
“It was very difficult, because they really were not happy to have us. They graduated less than half of every class. The rest of them they washed out. Any little minor thing, you went home the same day,” Foster said.
At the time, she said she did not pay much attention to the discrimination, because she knew she could handle it. During her seven months testing aircrafts in Missouri, she said she was never scared about piloting a damaged aircraft.
Foster recalled one incident flying co-pilot on a C-47 when the tower called to tell her there was a fire in the left engine. She had the option to jump or continue to fly the plane and said “Who would want to want to jump in the air and leave a perfectly good plane?” She cut the engine, put out the fire and landed the aircraft.
“I wasn’t nervous at all, except when I came into my final approach I looked ahead of me and there were two ambulances and two firetrucks,” she said. “They were waiting to pick up the pieces.”
Her male co-pilot was not quite as calm and had exclaimed, “I always knew I was going to die in a fire.”
At dinner that night, other pilots asked him what it was like to have an emergency with her on board.
“He looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘I was hysterical. The woman flew the plane’,” Foster said.
When the war ended, her commanding officer got a letter from Washington stating the men were coming home from war, they want their jobs back and the female pilots should go home.
“I was so sad and so angry. To take all that training and I knew they still needed pilots, and I don’t know why this happened. I never did know. They didn’t tell us anything,” she said.
The commanding officer who initially questioned her abilities as a woman convinced her to visit an FAA inspector to get a commercial license. He even had a brother at an airline who he thought might help her, but his brother told Foster “the American public is not ready for a woman pilot.”
“They all needed pilots. And they’d say that, but not women,” she said. “So I just gave up and went back to secretary work.”
After working briefly for a jeweler, Foster and a friend went back to college at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. With a semester remaining, she met her husband, Paul Chapman, an engineer from Galveston, and they were married about a year later in 1948.
She graduated with a degree in library science in the 1950s at San Jacinto College in Houston when she and Chapman began having children and worked as a librarian and substitute teacher at schools in Dickinson. Foster has five children, 10 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Foster still flies when she visits her oldest son, Paul Chapman Jr., in northeast Texas. A friend of her son’s has World War II era planes, which she said she enjoys flying in and reminiscing.
In 2009, Foster was one of more than 300 of the remaining members of the WASP program received a Congressional Gold Medal in Washington. She said she was “very excited” and “very proud.”
Her granddaughter, Tonya Farmer, of Spring, said Foster was always accepting and supportive growing up and is proud of her grandmother’s accomplishments.
“We always felt like we could do whatever and everything was possible if I put my mind to it,” Farmer said. “That’s a neat legacy.”
Foster spoke at Shindelwolf Intermediate School in Spring recently for Farmer’s 14-year-old son’s social studies class. Sandy Abt, lifestyle director at the Conservatory at Alden Bridge, said Foster also tells the story to a theater of retired residents.
“Today, we don’t go through what she went through and part of that is because she went there. She kind of paved the way for it to be easier for us,” Abt said.
The remaining WASP members attend the occasional meeting of the Women’s Military Aviators, Foster said. The beginning of every meeting, she said someone always stands up to remind them of their contribution to women’s aviation.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” Foster recalls them saying.