In World War II, more than 25,000 young women applied to become members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as the WASPs. Only 1,879 women were accepted, and of those, just 1,074 graduated. One of them was 27-year old Dorothy Eleanor Olsen, born in 1916.
Dorothy’s love of flying started years before she donned the WASP uniform. She once recounted that it began when she took a biplane ride at a state fair as a girl. This experience prompted her to work to pay for flying lessons during her 20’s and earn her private pilot’s license in the 1930’s. It’s alleged Dorothy was one of only three female pilots in Portland, her hometown, at the time.
Dorothy takes to the skies as a WASP
Standing at just five feet tall, Dorothy had to go on a weight-gaining regimen to meet the minimum 100-lb requirement to join the WASP corps. She graduated WASP training August 7, 1943, and was assigned to the 6th Ferry Group in Long Beach, California.
Members of the WASP program were private pilots who tested aircraft, ferried aircraft for male fighter pilots to use, towed shooting targets, and trained other pilots. Their primary purpose was to free male pilots for combat roles during World War II. The women were required to jump into any aircraft that needed to be moved, for whatever reason, and know how to fly it wherever it needed to go. In some cases, the women flew captured German or Japanese planes back to the United States, where the aircraft were tested for vulnerabilities.
In her two-year stint flying private planes to support the war effort, Dorothy flew 61 missions and was one of only 12 women certified for night flight. She often flew alone, which, according to her close friends, was her favorite way to fly. Some reports put the number of aircraft types she could fly proficiently as around 69, both Army and Navy types. Her reported favorite aircraft to fly was the P-51 Mustang. Recounting the feeling of her first time flying at night to the Chinook Observer, Olsen said, “It was the closest to heaven I have ever been.”
A country’s gratitude, a long time coming
Despite the armed forces involvement in creating the WASP program and the fact that 38 female pilots lost their lives in service, the WASP had no military standing and therefore no claim to military benefits as war veterans. This all changed in 1977 when the members were granted retroactive veteran status by President Jimmy Carter.
In 2010, President Obama awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal to commemorate their service. Approximately 200 members, many of whom were in their eighties and nineties, attended the ceremony at the Capitol.
On July 23, 2019, Dorothy passed away at the age of 103 years old. She was given military honors at her funeral. At the time of her death, Dorothy was one of just 38 living members of the WASP program.
A lasting legacy
The WASPs inspired the next generation of women aviators, including Jerrie Cobb, Desert Storm pilot Kelly Hamilton, astronaut Eileen Collins, and Terry London Rinehart, one of the first women to be hired as a commercial airline pilot in 1976.
In 2008, Air Force Captain Jammie Jamieson, the first combat-ready female pilot of the F-22 Raptor, met with Dorothy Olsen and acknowledged her influence on young women with the desire to fly.
Debbie Jennings, Dorothy’s longtime friend and the developer of the WASP exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, remembers Dorothy as a fearless daredevil who preferred fighter planes. “She was like nobody I’ve ever known,” said Jennings. “So determined to do whatever she wanted to do.”
At Olsen’s funeral service, Jennings read the poem “Celestial Flight” by WASP Elizabeth MacKethan Magid.
The first verse reads:
“She is not dead —
But only flying higher,
Higher than she’s flown before,
And earthly limitations will hinder her no more.”
Image: Dorothy Olsen, seen on a P-38 Lightning, during her time with the Women Airforce Service Pilots. (Courtesy photo, USAF).