Sisters in Service: Following Your Dreams
Inspiring the Next Generation of Women
By Michelle Bridges, VALOR Forge Publications Manager
As young girls, both Nell Bright and Christine Burckle dreamed of flying. They both got their chance: Bright as a WWII WASP and Burckle as a navigator on a refueling tanker. One night, Burckle and I were in the audience as Bright told her authentic and unapologetic life story. Afterward, Burckle graciously thanked Bright for creating a path for her to follow her dream. I was awestruck by the exchange. One day, I dreamed I would be able to bring them together so they could share their stories with future generations. Read both their stories here or listen to Bright tell her story.
Authentic and Unapologetic with Nell Bright, WWII WASP
When Nell Bright was 8 years old, her dad took her to see an old WWI biplane that had landed in a nearby field. For $1, she got her first airplane ride. “It was the most glorious thing in the world,” she said. “I decided then that sometime in my life I was going to fly.”
Aviator Jacqueline Cochran created the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) program in August 1943. Bright had earned her private pilot’s license during college and one day saw an advertisement in a flying magazine, asking women who were interested in the program to write Cochran. Candidates had to have a private license, 75 hours flight time and be 21 to even apply. Bright applied and was accepted. Of the more than 25,000 women who applied, 1,800 were accepted, but only 1,074 graduated.
The program trained female pilots to test and ferry aircraft and train other pilots in order to free up male pilots for combat roles. WASP pilots completed the same basic and advanced training as men. “We had to learn to fly the Army way,” Bright said. “It was a tough program.”
At the all-women airfield in Sweetwater, Texas, pilots trained seven days a week, 12 hours a day. By graduation, WASP pilots had 560 hours of ground school and 210 hours of flight training. They knew Morse code, meteorology, military law, physics, aircraft mechanics and navigation. WASP pilots transported every type of military aircraft, towed targets for live anti-aircraft practice, simulated gasmask and strafing missions. After graduation Bright trained for an additional 200 hours on B-25s before receiving orders to Biggs Field in El Paso. As part of a tow-target squadron, Bright piloted planes while anti-aircraft crews would shoot real bullets at the flying targets. “It wasn’t a glamorous job,” she said. “If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were putting your life on the line.”
Gas mask missions simulated ground troops putting on gas masks while in the field. Bright said gas tanks were attached under “their wings with the real stuff” and they would fly out over soldiers. “Of course, they didn’t give us gas masks in the cockpits,” she said. “We were just lucky it didn’t come back on us.”
The women got their silver wings from the Army Air Corps and had officer status but they were civilians. Through several accidents, 38 women were killed during duty, and one disappeared. When a WASP lost her life, another would escort the body home. Cochran herself met a big part of the expenses because the government did not pay any expenses if the girls were killed. Parents could not put a gold star in their window. In response to Congress’ failed promise to vote to militarize the program, Cochran deactivated the WASP in December 1944. Many thought the WASPs weren’t more than Red Cross people, some thought they were simply stewardesses. The women disbursed, went home and few ever flew again. Mainly because there weren’t any flying jobs available, most went to men returning from war.
Even brave Bright never piloted a plane again. She conquered other frontiers: she married, raised a family, succeeded as one of the first women stockbrokers in Arizona and played violin with the Phoenix Orchestra. She was part of a core group of WASPs who, along with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, fought for 30 years for recognition for the women pilots. In 1977, they were given veteran status and an honorable discharge, qualifying them for veterans’ benefits. In July 2009, President Barack Obama recognized the WASPs’ invaluable service during World War II with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Adjustment and Perseverance with BGen Christine Burckle (Ret)
Life began on a farm in rural Ohio for Christine Burckle, but her father’s career took the family east to Connecticut. “I wanted to be an astronaut,” Burckle recalls. “It was the space race and I thought that was cool.” She knew she wanted to fly, but didn’t know it was planes until a chance outing at age 10 when a friend of her dad’s took her up in a small plane. “I was hooked,” she said. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.” She had no idea how she was going to do that but credits her high school counselor for putting her on a path to the military.
Burckle earned a scholarship and attended Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She wanted to be a pilot — a fighter pilot — but her vision disqualified her. So she selected the navigation route and graduated first in her Undergraduate Navigator Training Class at Mather Air Force Base, California. Being at the top of her class, she could pick her assignment and requested bombers, but at the time, women were not allowed to serve on combat bomber aircraft. “To be told I couldn’t do something just because I’m a woman,” she said, “That was really hard to take.” She persevered and asked what she could do. She chose an air-refueling mission.
On her first assignment at Carswell AFB, Texas, Burckle went to the Azores on her first deployment in preparation for Desert Storm. On the first night that Baghdad was bombed, she was in the No. 1 tanker refueling the B-52s that flew over and bombed Iraq. “I’m a First Lieutenant, this is my first mission, and it’s my first time ever leaving the US,” Burckle said. “And I’m in a war.”
“You never know when you’re going to meet that one person who says, ‘listen, if there’s a will, there’s a way.’ You may get told a few no’s along the way, but then you adjust course, and just keep going.” —Christine Burckle
In what Burckle calls a “serendipitous moment,” she moved to Utah and joined the Utah Air National Guard (UTANG) as a KC-135 Navigator, eventually logging more than 3,000 flying hours and earning the rating of Master Navigator. Living in Utah allowed Burckle to pursue another dream of owning her own business: she opened a coffee bar. She also met her husband, George, and began a family.
Her final flight was in 2005 when navigators were replaced with global positioning systems (GPS). Burckle continued her service in staff and command assignments and in 2016 became the first female promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in UNG’s history. She retired in 2019.
Burckle believes it is important to mentor other women and lift them up. “You never know when you’re going to meet that one person who says, ‘listen, if there’s a will, there’s a way’,” she said. “You may get told a few no’s along the way, but then you adjust course, and keep going.”
When Burckle first heard Nell Bright’s story she realized how important it is to remember those who paved the way before you. If it wasn’t for the Women Aviation Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II and what they endured to fly is the only reason “why any of the rest of us ever actually got to fly in the military. You cannot forget that.”
Michelle Bridges is the publications manager for VALOR Forge.
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