Ann Darr, 87; Aviator During WWII, Poet

Ann Darr, at left as a pilot, when she flew in simulated strafing missions, and at right with her daughter Deborah.
Ann Darr, at left as a pilot, when she flew in simulated strafing missions, and at right with her daughter Deborah. (Family Photos)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ann Darr, 87, a well-known Washington poet who wrote about the "aerial dishwashery" she and other female pilots performed during World War II, died Dec. 2 at the Warren Barr Pavilion in Chicago. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Darr, who wrote, read and taught poetry in Washington and Bethesda for many years, was one of the 1,074 female aviators who were Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, between 1942 and 1944. They were Civil Service employees who were promised military commissions that never came through. It wasn't until 1977 that they were acknowledged as military veterans.

She flew every kind of aircraft in simulated strafing and smoking missions, searchlight tracking and mountain mapping. She flew a plane with wind-damaged wings from California to Texas for repair. She flew B-26s, towing targets at the gunnery school near Las Vegas, while gunners in B-17s fired live ammunition at the sleeve she towed. It was "aerial dishwashery," as the WASPs called it, the mundane but necessary tasks to keep the Air Force flying.

The enemy was not just overseas. Someone cut the rudder cable of one female pilot's plane in Texas and caused her to crash. Many of the planes were in no condition to fly, and one in South Carolina was sabotaged, with sugar found in its gas tank. Legend has it that when male pilots balked at flying the buggy B-29, WASP pilots were ordered into the cockpit to prove it was a plane that "even women could fly."

Thirty-eight WASPs died during the two years of the program, and Mrs. Darr never forgot one crash near Las Vegas, which killed everyone aboard. The body of the male Army Air Forces pilot was sent home with honors. Both the Army and the Civil Service disavowed responsibility for the female co-pilot; Mrs. Darr and the other WASPs took up a collection to ship her body home.

The weather could also pose a danger. One windy morning, the pilots were called to the flight line. "We saw what we had to do," she wrote. "We lined up on both sides of the runway so that as each plane came in, we grabbed the wings and kept it steady as we ran alongside it. I think we saved all the trainers who landed that day."

But despite the promise that WASPs would become members of the military, Congress did not agree to it. Ordered to keep silent during the debate and not to write their congressmen, the pilots watched as their program was disbanded in December 1944, before the war ended.

Lois Ann Russell was born in Bagley, Iowa, and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1941. The previous year, she had skipped a college class to sign up for Civilian Pilot Training courses, in which she learned to fly. "I was a prairie child," she wrote. "We didn't have the mountains, the sea; what we had was sky."

After college, she worked for NBC Radio in New York, writing and broadcasting "The Women of Tomorrow" daily program, with the responsibility of filling the 30 minutes with fashion, food and tips for keeping husbands happy. She started using news bulletins about the war in Europe and urged women listening to save sugar, tinfoil and gasoline.

Her husband was going into the Navy when his medical training ended, and Mrs. Darr was one of the 25,000 women who applied for the WASP program. Only 1,830 were chosen, and 1,074 earned their wings. Mrs. Darr, dark-haired, 5-foot-8-inches tall and wearing a size 8 flight suit, trained at Sweetwater, Tex., under Jacqueline Cochran, the first female aviator to break the sound barrier.

After the war ended, she and her husband settled in Alexandria and then Bethesda. For the next decade, she was a full-time homemaker and mother.

Her marriage to Dr. George Darr ended in divorce. Three daughters survive her, Dr. Elizabeth Darr of Worcester, Mass., Deborah Darr of Chicago and Shannon Darr of Eliot, Maine, as do four grandchildren.

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