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‘Flying on wings of gold’: New book shares Betty Gillies’ history as WAFS pilot

Betty Gillies in the cockpit of a P-47.
Betty Gillies in the cockpit of a P-47.

(Courtesy)

The late Betty Gillies, a trailblazer in women’s aviation, is featured in the new young adult novel “Betty Gillies: WAFS Pilot”, a true story written by Sarah Byrn Rickman drawing on the words of Gillies’ personal diaries of flying for the United States during World War II.

Gillies was a Rancho Santa Fe resident for 38 years until she passed away in 1998 at the age of 90. The book chronicles her experiences as a ferry pilot and squadron leader of the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) during World War II. Gillies led a squadron of 80 women pilots whose job it was to ferry aircraft from the factories to flight schools, Army air bases and to the docks at Newark, New Jersey to be shipped abroad. Gillies served as a squadron leader stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware until the WAFS (renamed WASPS or Women Airforce Service Pilots) were disbanded in December 1944.

“Based on her meticulously kept diaries the book is a factual account of the commitment of these women pilots,” said Gillies’ daughter Patricia Astier, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. “Sarah has done a fantastic job. I hear my mother’s voice when I read the book.”

Born in Long Island, New York, Gillies started flying in 1928 while she was working as a student nurse. She earned her pilot’s license in 1929 when she was 21 years old and in 1942 she was the first pilot to qualify for the WAFS. Gillies was known to the women in her squadron as “The Mighty Atom”: Only 5 feet 1½ inches tall, she flew every twin and single-engine and single-seat fighter aircraft needed to win World War II, using specially made blocks that allowed her to reach the rudder pedals.

As Betty Huyler, she was also one of the 99 charter members of The Ninety Nines, the international organization of women’s pilots founded in 1929 and led by Amelia Earhart. Gillies would serve as president of The Ninety Nines from 1939-41.

“I met Betty once,” Rickman said. “I thought I was meeting royalty.”

Rickman has been interested in aviation since she was a 13-year-old girl reading about Earhart. A journalist for 20 years, she left the field in the 1990s to get her masters in creative writing with the intention of writing the great American novel. She veered off course, however, while she was working on publicity for a new exhibit at the National Museum of Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. As part of the project, she was able to meet and interview six of the 28 original WAFS. She felt their stories were such an essential part of history that she decided to no longer spend time trying to make up fiction when there were such important real-life stories that needed to be told.

A new book on Betty Gillies, a late Rancho Santa Fe resident.
(Courtesy)

“That’s been my career ever since,” said Rickman, 83, who resides in Colorado Springs. “I was totally blessed by this. I wanted to write books and I sure as hell have.”

Her first book on the WAFS pilots, “The Originals”, was published in 2001 and is now in its second printing. “Betty Gillies” is her 10th book and her third young adult book. About four years ago Rickman decided to adapt her writing to reach a younger audience, publishing books “for today’s young women who need to read them.”

After having the opportunity to meet the WAFS, Rickman was inspired to take flying lessons herself. Late in life, she got her pilot’s license and is herself a member of The Ninety Nines.

“The WAFS are sort of the best kept secret of World War II and I’ve been trying to change that for 20 years,” Rickman said. “I think I’m making some slight headway.”

For Rickman, the romance of all her books is in the flying as she takes readers inside the cockpit to relive history. The magic in this one, she says, is how it carries Betty’s voice.

“At nine hundred feet, the airplane burst through into a cloudless blue sky,” writes Gillies in the book. “The sun’s rays hit my silver wings and turned them to gold. I wanted to pull something and stop right there in the air. Directly in front of me were these two snow-covered peaks, well over ten thousand feet, the sun coming up through the pass between them.

“And above it all was this sleek airplane, flying on wings of gold.”

After the WASPS disbanded, Gillies moved west. Her husband Bud was a Navy pilot who went on to work with Grumman Aircraft, becoming the vice president of flight test engineers. Bud took a position at Ryan Aeronautical Company, which brought the couple to San Diego in 1945.

Betty Gillies
(Courtesy)

Gillies stayed connected to the aviation world and joined up in the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race that flew in the Los Angeles area. She flew in her first race in 1949 and was hooked. Within two years she was the chairman of the board and ran the race for nine years.

“She and three other WAFS put the race on the map and it lasted for 30 years,” said Rickman, who has chosen the history of the race as the topic of her next book.

Gillies flew planes until her vision failed in the 1980s and her legacy of flight has continued on in her family. Her daughter Patricia and son Peter both became pilots; Peter is a well-known and respected helicopter pilot. Four of Betty’s grandchildren have also become pilots.

Rickman was pleased to be part of a book launch party held on Zoom with the whole family in attendance, including great-grandchildren. She is grateful that the family allowed her access into Betty’s personal writings to help tell her story. As granddaughter and pilot Glen Gillies wrote in the book’s foreward, the project was also a chance for the family to learn more about their matriarch and her contributions to aviation.

“She seemed not to understand what all the fuss was about, why everybody wanted to meet her and speak to her and interview her because as she would say, ‘I was just living my life’,” wrote Glen, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. “She wasn’t overly humble or modest. She was doing her part for the war effort, for her beloved USA, and she knew she was lucky to have a skill that she enjoyed and that made a difference.

“I feel that the message she would want this book to pass on is to step up, do your job and do it well, and with dignity and grace step down when the time comes. And don’t underestimate the ‘short’ people. Stature comes from within, from honing your skills and doing your job with confidence.”

To purchase the book, visit amazon.com/Betty-Gillies-WAFS-Pilot-Squadron/dp/1735059501. For more on author Sarah Bryn Rickman’s and her books visit sarahbyrnrickman.com


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