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Women Pioneers of Aviation to Be Saluted at Airport Expo : Van Nuys: The two-day event begins today. Honorees include an Operation Desert Storm veteran and a famous 1920s pilot.

August 21, 1993|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Betty Jane Williams and Annette (Nini) Cutter might be considered pioneers of the feminist movement, standard bearers of the small band of women who pushed into the young world of aviation from the 1920s to the 1940s.

To others perhaps, but not to themselves.

Williams of Woodland Hills flew military missions in the United States during World War II to free male pilots for oversea duties. Cutter of Sherman Oaks guided airline pilots as one of the nation's first female air traffic controllers.

Even though they won places in what was a mostly masculine world, they don't consider themselves trailblazers.

"I never really thought about the women's movement," Williams said. "I just did what I wanted to do."

Nonetheless, what women such as Williams and Cutter did advanced women's roles in aviation, and for that they and nine other women will be honored at the Van Nuys Airport's annual expo, titled "A Tribute to Women in Aviation."

The two-day event--which often draws crowds of 200,000 or more--will begin today with a 10:30 a.m. ceremony honoring a diversified group of females that include an Air Force veteran of Operation Desert Storm, a 10-year-old flying ace and one of America's first flight attendants.

The most noted female aviator honored at the expo will be 87-year-old Bobbi Trout, a world-famous 1920s pilot who has held numerous records for endurance, mileage and altitude.

And in keeping with the theme, the expo's aerial demonstrations will include appearances by the Misty Blues, a 15-woman sky-diving team.

Previous expos paid tribute to the veterans of the Persian Gulf War and to the people who helped restore calm and safety after last year's Los Angeles riots.

Airport spokeswoman Stacy Geere said she suggested the theme of women in aviation for this year's expo because "it seemed appropriate with the changing role of women in the military and the significant role women play in aviation."

But it was not always easy being a woman in a field that some male fliers then considered too demanding or too complicated for women. There were sour as well as sweet moments.

For example, Williams, a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel, recalls being among only 1,074 women who graduated in 1944 from training for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, an elite training program for women.

"That training paved the way for so many facets of my career from that point on," she said.

The WASPs picked up new warplanes at factories and delivered them to Army Air Force bases, served as test pilots, were flying chauffeurs for civilian and military leaders and towed targets through the sky to provide antiaircraft gunnery practice for male troops--who sometimes left bullet holes in the tow planes.

At the time, few men hassled female pilots because of their gender, Williams said.

"Everyone was supportive," she said. "Everyone was doing something" for the war effort.

But that support didn't extend to providing full veteran status to the WASPs--who were technically civilians throughout the organization's existence, although they wore uniforms, lived in barracks, were subject to military discipline and 38 lost their lives in flying accidents.

Because they were ineligible at the time for military benefits, the military provided no life insurance benefits to the families of the dead. When a WASP was buried, they did not receive the full military funeral honors, as was done for their male service counterparts.

With the end of the war in sight, the WASPs were disbanded in December, 1944, as the military sloughed off the civilian support groups that had been thrown together at the start of the conflict. It was a controversial move, then and now, blamed variously on sexism or on the failure to formally incorporate the WASP into the Army.

"We just thought we did an extraordinary job," Williams said. "But to be booted out . . . it was a terrible injustice."

Not until 35 years later, in 1979, did the U.S. government give the WASPs veteran status. Williams went on to write and produce flight training films.

Nini Cutter also fell into a male-dominated field during World War II when she sought training to become an air traffic controller.

Cutter, who now describes herself as an "arch feminist," said she didn't become an air traffic controller to advance the cause of women. She was simply desperate for work, she said. Besides, the job paid $150 a month--an exceptional wage for the Depression era.

"In those days, men supported families on $110 a month," she said.

Cutter was one of three or four women out of 15 would-be air traffic controllers in a training class taught in a ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier.

Once she graduated and was assigned to work in Oakland and later in Phoenix, she felt "we had to be twice as good as any man to get promoted," she said. And there was always the fear that female controllers would be eliminated once men returned from war.

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