The Veterans That Nearly Weren't

When Scotty was still small she read that pilots must have very good eyesight and so she began to eat carrots, one each day for the rest of her life. In high school she hung around the airfield out in Glendale. After graduating, she worked at a bank and put her money toward flight school, getting her hours up, readying to be a professional pilot all while knowing this was all but impossible. She’d already lost a college scholarship after she told the interviewing committee about her airborne ambitions.

Her given name was Virginia Bradley, but even in those earliest, most sunburnt and dusty days in Los Angeles in the 1920s, everyone called her Scotty. It was while Scotty was in flight school, while she was out practicing her landings, that the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. During the war, it was forbidden for civilians to fly within 200 miles of the coast, so Scotty moved inland, to an airfield in Blythe, California. She kept up her training, worked the control tower, and on weekends taught other women to fly.

It was in Blythe that Scotty started jumping out of planes. The owner of the airfield gave her a deal — pull in crowds with her flying leaps and he’d give her free airtime for her training. Scotty parachuted over and over again. The only piece of advice the pilot shouted back at her before her first jump was to count to ten, very slowly, before opening her chute, so as not to get it caught in the plane’s tail. She was 19.

A year later Scotty joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first military program to train women to fly — even while designating them as civilians. The WASPs’ ferried aircraft across the country, base to base. It was dangerous work. Often they piloted nearly junked planes, beat up old test aircraft with engine troubles, while wearing jumpsuits cut for men. The commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces said at the time no one was certain “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”

But they could, and they did. Thirty-eight WASPs died during wartime, many in terrible crashes; none were given military funerals. After the war ended none of the WASPs, living or dead, were given veterans’ status or benefits, let alone any medals or promotions. Incredibly, the files on the WASP program were sealed until 1977, and only opened after the Air Force issued a big splashy press release about how it was going to be the first arm of the military to train women to fly. The WASPs, which everyone had apparently forgotten about, had them beat by decades.

Scotty was a squadron commander in WASP training in Sweetwater, Texas, and after she earned her wings she flew AT-6’s, chunky single-prop advanced training aircraft, out of Arizona. Her job was to take the beat-up old ATs from one base to the next. She was also a test pilot, meaning that she flew patched-up planes to make sure they were safe enough for the cadets and instructors. Is it even worth pointing out that the cadets and instructors were all men? It is.

Many years later, after her service to the country had gone largely ignored, Scotty reflected on her experience: “To tell you the truth, and every WASP will agree with me on this: if I had had the money at that time, I would have gladly paid them for that wonderful training and the opportunity to fly those wonderful airplanes.”

After the war, she kept flying. On the day Idlewild Airport became JFK, Scotty flew in the opening ceremonies. She was seven months pregnant with her first child.

In 2007, Scotty and four of her fellow WASPs were inducted into the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame. I took the train down from New York but failed to bring clothes to match the occasion and had to borrow an extra sportcoat from my grandfather, her older brother. I remember it hanging awkwardly around my too-narrow shoulders and feeling doubly embarrassed when I saw Scotty, beaming, dressed in her perfect crisp WASP blues. “Hello, love,” she said to me — her signature line; a beautiful, generous greeting.

I hadn’t seen Scotty in nearly a decade, and it was the first time I became fully aware of the magnitude of what it was she had been a part of. There were exhibits and speeches and photo ops and a dinner that night in Wilmington. It was like that scene at the end of A League of Their Own, when the old ballplayers come back to see the museum commemorating their time together, and that song by Madonna plays. We were the bit players, the sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, the ones taking the pictures and maybe trying to understand but knowing we cannot. Too much time had passed, too much about the world had changed.

In 2010, Scotty and several of her WASP sisters went down to D.C. to be presented with a congressional gold medal for their service. There’s now a museum for the WASPs down in Sweetwater. Recognition came late, too late for most of the 1,102 WASP women to see, but it came.

Scotty died this May, at 90. When I called my grandfather to talk about her life, his voice got very small and very sad. “She was my sister…” was what he said. He had served in the war, too.

A moment, finally, the first thing I remember about Scotty, so etched in my mind’s eye it will also be the last: It’s summer, I’m eight or nine and we’re on a lake in Maine. Scotty and her husband, their kids and grandkids, all live in the East, far from where she (and I) grew up. The light is different on this coast, the flies are bigger and they bite. We’re near the shore, the sun is behind Scotty and the light is slanted, streaming down around her, casting a shadow across her face. “Hello, love,” she says to me as she takes my face in her hands, which are strong and boney and rough and warm. “Let me see you, love,” and she tilts my head up at her and for a moment her face is blocking the sun and I can see her looking, really looking, with those perfect eyes, those pilot’s eyes, and I look back and see her for the first time.

Ryan Bradley is a senior editor at Fortune.