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Celebrating the 'Women of C-47 Miss Montana'

An excerpt from Bryan Douglass' book "Every Reason to Fail" Chapter 10

It’s no secret that men have dominated aviation, like many early industrial revolution professions, from the beginning. There are many reasons, most of which are irrelevant at this date so far removed from the Wright Brothers and the Kill Devil Hills. The most recent statistics indicate that female pilots make up seven percent of all pilots today.

About 1,100 women flew noncombat missions in World War II as Women Airforce Service Pilots. While they contributed immeasurably to the war effort, they were considered civilians and not granted military benefits or funerals. In order to apply, they had to earn a private pilot license at their own expense and pay their own way to Texas for WASP training. Thirty-eight WASPs would die during the war. None of the WASPs went on to military aviation careers because it wasn’t allowed until several decades later. The WASPs were disbanded in late 1944 but were retroactively—and belatedly—granted veteran status in 1977.

There was a noticeable increase in female pilots during the loud feminist glory years between 1960 and 1980, but there has not been much change since. Compare this to the number of women today as physicians and surgeons (31.8 percent), police and sheriff officers (15 percent), boat captains (8.2 percent), air traffic controllers (26 percent), and aerospace engineers (9.2 percent). Almost no women worked in these professions in 1960.

In the group of fifteen airplanes that eventually made up the D-Day Squadron there were exactly three women who served as pilots or mechanics. Crystal Schonemann was a mechanic on our crew; the other two women were pilots of other planes. Each plane had multiple pilots and mechanics who were meaningfully affiliated for the duration of the mission. There were at least a hundred total crew members for the D-Day Squadron. Less than three percent of those crew members were women.

The conundrum is that it doesn’t take superior strength or mechanical ability to fly an airplane. Unless you’re flying a Ford Trimotor and having to work on it yourself, there is no inherent advantage for males in the profession. In fact, considering the many traits at which women typically excel, the numbers ought to be much more even.

One explanation is that men are simply perceived by many to make better pilots, and this discourages women from entering aviation. Statistically this is just not true. Another credible theory is that the training environment—mostly male instructors teaching in ways that work best for male students—discourages females from completing flight training. There may also be the complicated gender relationship between male instructors and female students that puts some women off, discouraging them from completing training. Based on personal experience, the women who do pursue aviation seem to be very competent and determined.

The real reason for a discussion of women is to point out that through no real fault or intent of our own, the Miss Montana crew, volunteers, and jumpers were made up of an unusually large number of women. We are immensely proud of that fact.

These are the women of Miss Montana:

  1. Crystal Schonemann was on The Crew that made the entire trip to Europe and back as an apprentice mechanic and all-around good hand. She was one of those three women D-Day Squadron crew members. She worked her butt off on the restoration and was an important contributor for the entire project.

  2. On June 5, 2019, 200 paratroopers in authentic World War II uniforms jumped out of D-Day Squadron airplanes under round canopies. Exactly seven of them were women. Four of them jumped out the door on Miss Montana. One of them, Kim Maynard, was the very first woman smokejumper in Montana.

  3. Approximately one third of all the volunteers that made the Miss Montana story happen, showing up and putting in long hours doing inglorious work, were women, and hardly a one had ever laid a hand on an airplane before.

  4. On Friday, January 18, 2019, before our engines or propellers returned from overhaul, approximately twenty women showed up for a Rosie the Riveter workday. The ages ranged from eleven to over seventy. This was not the only day these women worked on the plane. We were amazed by how much work they got done. They cleaned, polished, riveted, attached stuff, and eagerly did whatever we needed. Some of us expected it to be primarily a social occasion and photo opportunity. We should have known better because, by the end of the war, sixty-five percent of U.S. aviation workers were women. These airplanes were originally built by women.

It’s a little hard to say why we had so many women involved. It’s possible that Montanans still have a bit of the frontier ethic in that what you do means more than who you are. In fact, pioneer women worked alongside their husbands at farming, cutting wood, and defending the family. They also did their traditional female jobs. Montana is not far removed from frontier roots. It’s also plausible that we badly needed the help and women stepped up, so we put them to work. Every single woman volunteer contributed significantly to the effort with a positive attitude, good humor, and reliability. No matter the reason, as an organization we are very proud of our women volunteers and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They seemed to have fun as well.

The other two women D-Day Squadron pilots were Kathy Royer, a pilot for Placid Lassie, and Kathryn Burnham, a pilot for Hap-enstance (N341A). Kathy Royer is an Airbus captain from Florida as well as an experienced private and tailwheel pilot. Kathryn Burnham is an experienced British DC-3 captain and airline pilot who came to train in Missoula in preparation for the D-Day Squadron mission. She had been flying DC-3s for decades elsewhere in the world but due to regulatory nonsense, her type certificate was not valid in the U.S. Thus, she came to Missoula to train with Frank Moss and complete her check ride with Bob Steenbock. We enjoyed her company and sharp British humor while she was in Missoula and count her as another new friend.

 

Ian Twombly, AOPA Pilot Magazine, “The Seven Percent,” April 1, 2019

https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/women-wings-75-year-legacy-wasp

Mireille Goyer, Women of Aviation Week, “Five Decades of American Female Pilot Statistics, How Did We Do?” March 2, 2020

Ken Raymond, The Oklahoman, “A Real-Life ‘Rosie the Riveter’ from southwest Oklahoma City,” May 14, 2017

Photographer: Andrew Kane

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