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WWII pilot revving up exhibit

Betty Jane Williams took risks and pursued dreams during her long career in aviation. Now she's working to establish a North Hills campus museum.

January 08, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Betty Jane Williams never crashes and burns.

She was unshakable the time the DC-3 she was working on as a flight attendant was struck by lightning and then dropped 1,000 feet, sending passengers -- and their lunches -- hurling all over the cabin.

She didn't bat an eye when she was a World War II WASP pilot test-flying a supposedly repaired Army plane when its still-damaged wings sent it into a spin and then into a 9,500-foot dive. It ended only when she pulled its nose up while 500 feet from the ground.

And now the 88-year-old Williams is unfazed as she sorts through books and memorabilia and searches for a vintage airplane to convert into a mobile museum.

Plans for the unusual aviation exhibition are scheduled to be announced Wednesday at James Monroe High School in North Hills, where a permanent aviation and aerospace library is being established, starting out with some of Williams' own keepsakes.

Williams envisions taking an old DC-3 or similar plane, removing its wings and mounting it on a trailer that can be moved to middle and high school campuses and to career fairs.

The plane's interior would be remodeled to showcase displays that trace the history of aviation and aerospace exploration from Kitty Hawk to Mars and beyond.

"We'll let the kids sit in the cockpit and get the feel of the plane. It will be fabulous," Williams said Monday at her Woodland Hills home, which is filled with trophies from her own life in aviation.

Her love for flying started when she was a teenager in her native Pennsylvania. One day she saw a barnstorming pilot grab a fluttering handkerchief as he flew his plane upside down a few feet off the ground.

"I told my father I wanted to do that," she said. "But it was 1939 and we didn't have any money. One day Daddy saw something in the paper about a government training program for pilots, so I signed up -- me and 50 guys."

Williams was a private pilot for about a year before she joined tiny Canadian Colonial Airways as a flight attendant. That's when the 1942 jolt from above struck.

"We got hit by a bolt of lightning and we dropped a thousand feet without warning," she said. "I was tossed over three seats and landed in the lap of a passenger. Everybody on the plane, including the pilot and co-pilot, was throwing up."

It was an era when flight crew members didn't order passengers to fasten their seat belts. They politely offered, instead, "to help with the belts," Williams said.

"Back in those days stewardesses were like Miss America on the runways. The seams on our hose had to be perfect. We treated passengers like they were guests in our living room."

Williams returned to the cockpit after the outbreak of World War II. She joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots as a test pilot.

"I'd fly wrecked planes that had been repaired to make sure they were airworthy," Williams said. That's where she had her spiral-and-dive incident, high above San Antonio.

"It was an AT-6, a basic trainer, and the maintenance crew asked me when we were walking around the plane before takeoff what kind of flowers I wanted" at the funeral, she said. The ground crew watched in horror as the plane plummeted before Williams managed to pull up "without ripping the wings off."

"Those creepy crew chiefs never bought me those flowers," she laughed Monday.

Williams was a commercial pilot and flight instructor and created network television's first aviation show for CBS after the war. Later she worked for North American Aviation and then, for 20 years, at Lockheed Aircraft as a technical writer and in-house filmmaker.

She linked up with Monroe High last year after reading a newspaper story about the school's engineering and design program and its involvement with several dozen companies through the San Fernando Valley Aviation-Aerospace Collaborative.

Would the school like to have some of her hundreds of books, photographs and paintings? she asked.

Monroe High engineering teacher Lewis Chappelear suggested permanently installing an actual plane on the Haskell Avenue campus to draw attention to the collection.

"But we talked to the administration and they said that would take years," said Chappelear, 35, of Sherman Oaks. "So we thought, let's make it mobile and then we don't need to get all the permits. And it can be shared with other schools and career fairs and the Van Nuys Airport."

Chappelear said he and Williams have envisioned engineering students traveling with the plane museum and discussing aviation careers with other youngsters.

"When kids are in a teaching role is when education comes alive and they really learn," said Chappelear -- who last year was named one of five California Teachers of the Year for 2008. It was announced early today that he's one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

He said he has no doubt that Williams' DC-3 plan will get off the ground.

Neither does Williams.

"They're out there. And it doesn't have to be a DC-3," she said. Just something with a fuselage big enough to hold aviation displays and a look that is sleek enough to capture teenagers' fancy.

Her goal, she said, is to have the mobile museum on the road by her 90th birthday on April 2, 2009.

"Southern California is the birthplace of so much aviation. I want children to get the same passion for it that I have," Williams said.

"This is so exciting. I feel like I'm 30 years old again."

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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