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Book chronicles triumphs of women aviators

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 02 - September 3, 1998

Just as Mercury astronaut John Glenn is preparing to return to space this fall and Jerrie Cobb, one of the first women to pass medical testing required of astronauts, is petitioning NASA to put her on a shuttle, Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey have published Amelia Earhart's Daughters: The Wild and Glorious Story of American Women Aviators from World War II to the Dawn of the Space Age.
Glenn and Cobb both made history back in the 60s, Glenn as one of the first men in space, Cobb as one of a little-known group of women who passed the same medical and psychological tests administered to Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts, said Toomey, who teaches in the Department of English. But, because NASA required astronauts to be qualified jet pilots--slots open only to men--the women never made it into space. In fact, no woman would pilot an American spacecraft until 1995, when Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery, Toomey said. In January, Collins will become NASA's first female space commander.
But that's putting the ending first. The story of aiming for the stars started in earnest in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh flew solo non-stop from New York to Paris, "and the great age of aviation--records, heroes, technology, drama and war--was under way," according to William Morrow, publisher of the book. And some of those who reached for the sky were women.
Toomey said that, although the story of Amelia Earhart is familiar to most Americans, "hundreds of other women faced down discrimination, incredible odds and torturous bureaucracy to take their rightful place in aviation's pantheon of heroes," the William Morrow press release said. "Amelia Earhart's Daughters: The Wild and Glorious Story of American Women Aviators from World War II to the Dawn of the Space Age is the riveting tale of the emotion, excitement, and frequent success of women pilots in the second half of the 20th century.
In researching the book, which reached the shelves in major bookstores this month, Toomey said, he and his co-author conducted scores of interviews and researched Air Force and NASA records and government transcripts.
The book includes profiles of such aviators as Jackie Cochran, who rallied women pilots during World War II and was, according to Toomey, "a key figure in convincing the Army that women could be used to fill the personnel deficit created by war." It includes Nancy Harkness Love, who headed up the first squadron of female aviators, paving the way for the WASP program, which saw some 1,000 women flying for the Army Air Force. Toomey said that, from 1942 to 1944, the WASP flew every plane in the inventory of the Army Air Force, including the P-51 Mustang, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the first American jet. Thirty-eight died in service to their country, but, because they were not officially Army Air Force personnel, they did not get military funerals, he said.
When the war ended, so did the WASP program, but not the women's love of flying. Even though they did not make it into space, 13 women, in 1961, passed the exhaustive series of medical examinations given to John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and the other Mercury astronauts. That fact surprised Toomey and was the initial impetus for the book.
"I was one of those kids in the 60s who watched every launch and knew all the astronauts' names," Toomey said. "Then I read that Collins had invited a group of 60-year-old women to her launch. I learned then that there was a medical-testing program for the women set up in 1961, a few years after the one for men." So he conferred with Haynsworth, and they decided the story merited telling
They met and began conceptualizing the book when both were Ph.D. candidates in English literature at the University of Virginia. Haynsworth, now nearing the completion of her doctorate, is a freelance writer in Columbia, S.C. Toomey has since earned the Ph.D. and now teaches here in the English department.
Publisher's Weekly called Amelia Earhart's Daughters "informative, often gripping" and "a must-read for those who would understand the indelible contrail women in aviation and space flight have left in their wake since the invention of the airplane."