The word was out, the WASP float had overcome all of the hurdles to become a reality and we were in the Rose Parade!
In quick order, Kate Landdeck of the sponsoring Wingtip to Wingtip Association invited several women military aviators from the 70’s to walk alongside the float to represent the legacy of the WASP.
The women of the WASP proudly served their country in WWII flying military aircraft domestically to free up men for combat overseas.
This float was a final opportunity to demonstrate to them our gratitude and thanks for their courage, sacrifice and patriotism.
The Navy had 100 women air navigators (officers on active duty during WWII) who taught air navigation, and some wore observer wings and earned flight pay, but the WASP were the only women pilots flying military aircraft.
As members of the next generation of women military aviators, we were going to be living examples of this legacy.
To say this was an honor for me is a huge understatement. I was thrilled to join up with some old friends from the Navy: Capt Joellen Drag Oslund, first female naval helicopter pilot, CDR Carol Skiber, now flying for Southwest, and CDR Trish Beckman, a pioneer naval flight officer. LtCol Samantha Weeks, Thunderbird pilot and F-15C combat pilot, LtCol Kimberly Scott, C-17 pilot and Alaska Airlines pilot, LtCol Jen Cress, AWACS pilot ably represented the US Air Force pilots. Col Sandy Opeka, Col Nancy Sumner, Col Wendy Cooper, SMSgt Gina Louis, Suzette McComas, tanker aircrew and Southwest Airlines pilot and Captain Connie Tobias of USAirways rounded out a very accomplished group of aviators.
We were pre-screened by the TSA and I had to send Kate three signed releases to get on the official list of participants. I was able to get the time off from my job at USAirways, thanks to a very supportive chief pilot, and I was on my way.
Our base of operations was a hotel in Pomona, CA and it was like old home week to meet up with old friends and make new ones. Tuesday morning we boarded a rented school bus and headed to Irwindale, CA and the Fiesta Floats barn where our float and ten other floats were created and built, and the official judging was to occur. The infrastructure and racks of flowers (what was left after they had finished the floats) was amazing, but the finished products were simply spectacular.
Our float was instantly recognizable by the AT-6 aircraft, the WASP statue and the rotating hexagon with six images on it. Every photo image had been created with seeds of different colors. The Fifinella mascot and the 1943 LIFE magazine cover were instantly recognizable. Thirty-eight stars represented the WASP who lost their lives in the war. The Congressional Gold Medal was displayed on each side of the float. There were eight chairs on the float, four facing each side.
New Year’s day dawned very early for us, and as we headed out to the bus, a huge cadre of US Marines in dress blues came through, members of the Marine Corps composite west coast band. The pageantry was starting!
The bus driver expertly guided us to our float staging area on S. Orange Grove Blvd. A Fiesta Floats RV was set up on a side street as a base of operations. The “handler” for our float, dressed in the uniform of white suit and red tie, briefed us on the bus and called the roll, handing us our green wrist bands, required on the parade route. He would be hovering around the float at all times on his Honda scooter, providing water and other assistance. The only rule was if someone departed the float, they could not return.
Pasadena is a gorgeous city nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Although chilly when we arrived, the Mediterranean climate provided clear skies and temperatures climbing well into the 70’s. Perfect! The parade started at 8 am and we were told it would take two hours to reach the start. The route is 5 1/2 miles, starting at Green Street and Orange Grove Blvd, and makes a right turn onto Colorado Blvd at the famous “media corner”, and continues down Colorado Blvd, onto Sierra Madre Blvd and ends at Villa St. All told, we covered over six miles and I was glad I had road tested my shoes and socks to avoid blisters.
After we made the turn at Media Corner, the sheer enormity of the crowd became apparent. The estimated 800,000 fans were ebullient throughout, and even though we were very near the end of the parade, there was no sign that fans had left early. We waved so much at the fans that our arms started to ache. Many fans stood up and saluted the WASP and we returned their salutes. When the float would stop occasionally, fans would sneak out and take photos with us. I saw thousands of iPads used as cameras. The crowd was so enthusiastic that adrenaline kicked in. I could have walked forever! People were up on rooftops and balconies and anywhere they could find a viewing spot.
LA Sheriffs were stationed throughout the route as were the volunteers, or “white suiters” making sure the parade proceeded safely. This was the 125th Rose Parade, and they have perfected the massive operation, feeding in the equestrian groups and marching bands effortlessly. A fleet of tow trucks lurked along the route and two disabled floats had to be towed clear.
The WASP continue to inspire us, as we had the pleasure of dinner with them and their friends and family that evening back at the hotel. I fervently hope that they have all recorded their stories for posterity.
Kate Landdeck and the president of Wingtip to Wingtip, Chig Lewis, are to be commended for their incredible efforts to bring the WASP float to fruition.
Why the theme was chosen:
“Our Eyes Are On The Stars” is an impressive floral presentation and an inspiring salute to the 1,102 brave members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who so proudly served their country at the height of World War II from 1942 to 1944. They were the first women in history to fly for the U.S. military, technically as civil service employees but subject to military discipline, and with their domestic flying relieved male pilots for combat flying overseas. Thirty-eight WASP pilots lost their lives while flying for America in its time of need.
After training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, these courageous women flew any mission within the continental United States the U.S. Army Air Forces needed done during World War II except combat. The WASP flew seventy-seven different types of American military planes over sixty million miles. Planes they flew included the AT-6, the P-51, and the B-29. The WASP piloting skills were equal to their male counterparts and Commanding General Henry “Hap” Arnold acknowledged they could fly “wingtip to wingtip” with their brother pilots, proving women could be counted on in times of national emergency.
The women of the WASP turned their eyes upward to the stars, knowing they could fly and knowing they could help America win World War II. Their example has led countless other American women to turn skyward, fly, and serve their nation in both military and commercial aviation.