The late-morning sun casts a warm sheen over Barbara Ward Lazarsky's face, but its glow ranks a distant second to that brought on as she talks of her favorite subject.

"Have you ever," she begins, then pauses for a sip of coffee, "have you ever had any desire to fly an airplane?"

The visitor nods assent.

"I'm glad to hear it," she says. "Because they used to think I was crazy."

Hardly surprising. Lazarsky, who turns 71 this month, learned to fly in 1940, a time when there were fewer than 500 commercial airplanes in this country. A male pilot was something of a curiosity. But a woman in the cockpit?

Lazarsky, who lives in Middleburg with her husband, Joseph, shrugs. "I wanted to fly," she says.

She wasn't the only one. Today Lazarsky is president of the Women Air Force Service Pilots, whose 1,000 or so members -- about 800 of whom are still alive -- flew domestic missions during World War II.

As civilians, and women, they could not fly overseas or be in combat, but for more than two years they transported aircraft from factories to ships and bases. They towed targets. They flew experimental jets and ferried weapons and military personnel.

Thirty-eight died in training or on Air Force missions, but because the group was not officially recognized by the Air Force until 1979, they were buried without military honors. The women now have veteran status.

In December 1944, the group was disbanded.

"That was a difficult time for all of us," Lazarsky said. "We'd been flying. It had been our life . . . . To be dismissed was very, very -- I think traumatic is the word."

Members of the group have a reunion every other year. In August, they will gather in Seattle to again renew friendships and relive their days in the sky.

This year, they will be sharing a new experience. Lazarsky led 48 of her former colleagues on a 12-day trip to the Soviet Union last month and they met 20 Soviet women who also flew during the war.

"For a number of years, we have been aware that there were Russian women pilots in the military and that they flew in combat, which we did not," she said. "We wanted to meet, and we figured the only way to do that was to go."

The trip was arranged by People to People, which sets up meetings between people of different countries who share an occupation or interest. Their first evening in Moscow, the Americans met their Soviet counterparts at a reception.

"We sort of got acquainted through interpreters," Lazarsky said. "By the time the party ended, we had a conga line going . . . . Pilots have a very strong bond . . . . You've been through pretty much the same experiences."

Lazarsky spoke admiringly of daring Soviet pilots such as Lily Litvak, who was killed during the war. "She had 12 kills," Lazarsky said. "She was called the White Rose of Stalingrad . . . . For each Nazi she shot down, she had a white rose painted on her cockpit."

Would American women have done the same, given the chance? "I don't think anybody would have chosen to do what they did, flying in enemy-dominated skies," Lazarsky said. "But I think all of us would have done it if it were needed."

Lazarsky said the Soviet women acted as tour guides for their American visitors, and the Americans hope to return the favor someday. The women also wrote President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev wishing them a successful summit in Washington last week.

"I came back convinced that {the Soviets} want peace," Lazarsky said. "They desperately need peace."

Lazarsky, who last flew a plane 2 1/2 years ago, got her license in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a prewar and wartime effort in which the government financed flight instruction for young people. Women made up 4 percent of the trainees.

After graduation, she worked as an airline hostess -- "that was the closest I could get to airplanes" -- and then for the Navy, which hired her to write a book on airplane engines for cadets just out of high school. She enjoyed the work, but still wanted only one thing.

"To fly," Lazarsky said. "I thought, 'I'll wait and see if something opens up for me,' and fortunately it did."

In 1942 the Air Force, needing pilots, decided to expand its one female squadron and opened training to licensed women pilots.

That was the chance Lazarsky had been waiting for. By 1943, she and more than a thousand other women had passed flight school at Houston and Sweetwater, Tex., and were part of the Women Air Force Service Pilots. Pilot Jacqueline Cochran, who devised the plan to train the women, was named their director, but their instructors and trainers were men.

"They were not overjoyed at the prospect of teaching girls to fly," Lazarsky recalled. "I wouldn't say they were completely unsympathetic, but they had to be shown" that women could be good pilots.

One of Lazarsky's most vivid memories is of the time she was caught in a "wild snowstorm" while ferrying an advanced-training plane between Montreal and Fort Dix, N.J. She had no radio.

Flying by sight, she headed for Watertown, N.Y., which she judged to be the nearest town with an airfield. She landed on the one strip of pavement she could see on the otherwise snow-covered field and walked into the terminal, startling the dispatcher, who had been on the lookout for a possible crash.

"Within two days after that, three airplanes went onto their backs there," Lazarsky said. "I've been very fortunate. I never scratched an airplane, which I'm very proud of, and no airplane ever hurt me."