Started Flying Club at Smith
Earned her wings and flew for WASPs
Worked in 1st years at Flight Safety Foundation
Led early SARS efforts and beyond
Sadly, it took too long for the story of Gloria Heath and her sisters to be told and even more ridiculously there was a debate about whether WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Death is a time for reflection on and celebration of a life well-lived. Ms. Heath’s contributions to the pioneering of women in aviation, to the war effort and to aviation safety. She was a remarkable woman whose accomplishments merit considerable praise and attention.
Her interest in flying began. when first flew in a plane at age four, sharing an interest in flying with her older brother Royal. While at Smith College, the intrepid student started a flying club (in addition to playing lacrosse for the school’s and after the war for the national team). Her college documented her initiative in its website:
Ms. Heath participated in many activities while at Smith College, from lacrosse to working on the college newspaper. The most notable, however, was her role in the Smith College Flying Club. Heath had become interested in flying over the course of her Spring vacation in 1941. Prior to that time, there had been no flying activity at Smith. When she returned from vacation, she recruited fourteen other students and they bought a plane for a one hundred dollar share each. As she recalls, they were a very enthusiastic group, and in due course the plane was painted black with highlights of each of the four class colors (red, yellow, green and blue) and christened “the Bird of Paradise.” In addition to the initial cost of buying the plane, the students paid for gas and oil, as well as lessons—three dollars per hour. They flew out of the local airport, La Fleur Field, and with help from the owner the cost of flying lessons was greatly reduced for the Smith women.
This accomplishment was even more remarkable because, as Heath mentions, only students at men’s colleges had flying clubs and considered flying “really, a sport”. In contrast, the Smith women, as Heath recalls, were all very serious about their desire to learn to fly.
Indeed, this desire required effort and dedication by the women, as all learning was extracurricular. Ground instruction (learning the subjects necessary to flying such as meteorology, weather, and navigation) were all done from manuals obtained from the national government. Heath fondly recalls the willingness of Smith faculty to help her pursue her interest. In one instance, she asked an astronomy professor to include a course on celestial navigation. The professor told her that “he didn’t know how to do celestial navigation, but if I wanted to learn, he’d stay two weeks ahead of me.” Gloria Heath’s enthusiasm for learning attaining higher credentials is summed up by her statement that she looked to the new subjects as “another mountain to climb.”
World War II service: this chapter is not as complete as one would hope, but it is known that
- Heath applied to the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
- Of the 25,000 women who applied, she was among the 1,074 who completed the seven months of training.
- She was stationed at Pocatello, Idaho, where she flew B-26 bombers at 6,000 feet, towing a target, while US Army Air Forces P-47 fighters fired live ammunition
- Heath flew B-26 bombers used for target practice at Grissom Air Reserve Basein Indiana
- Heath recalled a training mission that went awry. Fighter pilots were firing live ammunition against a target that she and another pilot were towing behind them, and a bullet smashed into Heath’s cockpit from an errant shot at the target.
hose accomplishments alone are enough to be enshrined in an aviation Hall of Fame, but Ms. Heath could not get the AvGas out of her veins.
After leaving the WASPS (there is some debate about whether all of these pilots were “discharged), she worked for Aero Insurance Underwriters. Another veteran of he insurance industry Jerome Lederer in 1947 started the Flight Safety Foundation. He hired Heath to be the head of his Engineering for Safety Group.
In 1965 she became the assistant director to the Cornell-Guggenheim Safety Center and in 1968 she founded a Search and Rescue consulting company, which advanced the effectiveness of locating distress sites on land, at sea, or in aircraft operations. During this time Heath led many advances in Search and Rescue technology.
Heath was also named an expert consultant to NASA in the field of Search and Rescue. As her pioneering efforts had attracted much interest internationally in the realm of space activities she was asked to chair and guide the Studies Committee on Space Safety and Rescue of the International Academy of Astronautics.
Finally, on July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama signed S.614 in the Oval Office at the White House. S.614 authorized the issuance of a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Here is a picture of Ms. Heath with her Medal:
The excellence in aviation is demonstrated by this list of honors which she received:
- 1957: Amelia Earhart Award
- 1955: the Lady Hay Drummond Trophy
- 1965: Barbour International Air Safety Award
- 1971: Smith College Medal
- 1990: Engineering Sciences Award of the International Academy of Astronautics
- 1995: Lifetime Achievement Award of the Women in Aerospace
- 2000: President’s Award of Flight Safety Foundation
- 2001: Listed as one of the 100 most influential women in aviation
- 2003: named one of the most influential woman in aviation.
- 2006: Inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame
- 2010: Congressional Gold Medal
Those accomplishments and that incredible array of awards establish a bar of achievement in flying, air safety, engineering, search and rescue space plus service to country meriting the creation of a Scholarship in honor of Gloria Heath. She’s clearly a person who should inspire. Good idea Women in Aviation to honor Gloria Heath with an annual scholarship in her name?
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