The Chick Fighter Pilots were on a mission Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery.
These are women who fly F-16s, who scramble to take down enemy planes, who pull nine G’s, who dogfight. And they’re fearless dropping the kids off at day care, too.
They gathered on a hot September morning to honor one of the pioneers who made everything they do possible: Elaine Harmon.
“Please know how much she helped change the world,” Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney told Harmon’s family.
Penney, an F-16 pilot who scrambled over Washington on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, on a potential suicide mission to take down Flight 93 before it could hit Washington, considers Harmon her spiritual grandmother.
“Look at any female aviator,” she said, “and please know she is still alive.”
Harmon defied the chauvinists and misogynists when she flew P-51 Mustangs during World War II as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
Then, she showed Congress that women should be treated as proper veterans when she testified for the recognition of the WASPs and finally got what she was seeking in 1977.
And, finally, after her death at 95 last year, she brought down one more barrier when an act of Congress made it legal for her and the approximately 100 surviving WASPs to be buried at Arlington with full military honors.
Her ashes were inurned Wednesday morning after a 21-gun salute and a flyover of the planes she once piloted.
“Doesn’t that bring back memories?” one of the female pilots said at the service as three P-51 Mustangs roared overhead.
Harmon was one of a little more than 1,100 women who applied to serve as a WASP and earned her wings. The WASPs paid for their own room and board during training. They scrounged up clothing that looked like the men’s uniforms.
During their last graduation ceremony, in 1944, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, who said he wasn’t even sure a girl could handle the controls of a plane, admitted: “Now, in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
They ferried planes across the country and the oceans, they were test pilots, and they towed targets to give the artillery boys live shooting practice.
When one of them died — this happened 38 times — Harmon said she remembered the WASPs passing around a hat to collect money to ship the body home. The government wouldn’t even pay for that.
But those fights seemed over in 1977, when they were finally recognized as veterans and received full benefits, said WASP Shirley C. Kruse, 94. But in 2015, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh rescinded their eligibility for the cemetery, saying they don’t meet the requirements to be buried there.
“I was just shocked,” said Kruse, who now lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. “It was appalling, if I can use that word.”
Another barrier for women in the military turned out to be a graveyard wall.
This infuriated Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the nation’s first female pilot to fly in combat.
Her support system during her flying days, when she was often the only female pilot anywhere, was a group of three WASPs she met at a luncheon. The times she told them she was fed up with the Air Force and wanted to quit, they yelled at her.
“Why would you leave? They made us leave. Why would you choose to leave?” McSally said they told her. She owed those women, she said, including Harmon.
That Arlington burial ban happened right when the military was opening up most combat jobs to women.
McSally teamed up with Harmon’s family, who were writing letters and circulating a petition to get her final, handwritten wish fulfilled — to be laid to rest in Arlington.
Erin Miller, one of Harmon’s granddaughters, put her law firm work on hold and worked like mad to reverse the ban, all the while storing her grandmother’s ashes in her closet.
Legislation was quickly written, McSally got bipartisan support, and the bill allowing all WASPs to be buried in Arlington with full honors was passed within 20 weeks — a miracle when it comes to Congress.
After the fight, the ceremony on Wednesday was emotional and largely triumphant.
The family members — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — had great stories about their feisty and adventurous “Gammy,” who went bungee jumping at 80, dressed up for holidays and was a notoriously horrid cook.
And the Chick Fighter Pilots (a real association) were there to tell them how much she meant to them, too.
Lt. Col. Caroline Jensen, an Air Force reservist with more than 200 combat hours who was the Thunderbirds’ first flying mom, said she is one of the Harmon Air Force granddaughters.
And to honor her before the funeral, female pilots across the country took turns flying Harmon’s burial flag in their planes — from jet fighters to commercial airliners.
At the service, Jensen read the flag’s flight log. Among the trips: a flight across the D.C. skies in an F-16; several missions out of California to “undisclosed locations”; an F-16 combat maneuvering mission over Arizona, where the flag went supersonic and pulled “8.7 Gs, just for fun”; a trip above Texas in a T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer; and a final flight in an F-15 Eagle.
Some of the pilots thanked Harmon in the flight log. She showed women could not only fly, but could be considered equals in the air.
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