Margaret Helburn Kocher
by Julia Lauria Blum
Some 53 years following the end of World War II,
Margaret (Helburn) Kocher of Douglaston Queens, now views her contribution to the
American mobilized war effort of the 1940's, as a significant, yet, distant experience.
of our nation's first women trained to pilot military aircraft, she reflects upon her
extraordinary service to the country as a Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), with
humility and graciousness.
Margaret "Peg" Kocher's recollections of WWII unfold
to reveal herself as a young woman who had provided her skills as a pilot to the United
States Army Air Forces (AAF) when it faced a critical shortage of qualified male pilots
needed to fill combat pilot positions abroad. By performing essential flying tasks on the
homefront, she was one of just over 1,100 civilian women pilots who flew for the AAF
between 1942-1944 and whose efforts helped train and release male pilots for overseas duty
as the war escalated.
Originally from Massachusetts, Margaret Helburn first had the
opportunity to learn to fly in 1941 when she entered Harvard's Civilian Pilot Training
Program. CPT was offered through universities all over the country, in an effort to
produce more pilots and thus, strengthen the force of the U.S. Air Corps. One woman per
class of 10 men was allowed into CPT and Margaret would be one of the students who
successfully completed the program.
By 1943, Margaret would log the required certified flight time
to be a candidate for the Women's Pilot Training Program, an organization later known as
the WASP or Women Airforce Service Pilots, which she was subsequently recruited into that
same year. She attended the training facility at Avenger Field, in the dusty town of
Sweetwater, Texas. It seemed like the ends of the earth for a girl from the East Coast,
but it was there that she completed an intensive training program that covered three
phases-military, ground school and flying.
Although WASP graduates were hired on civilian status (with the
possibility of militarization, which was eventually approved by Congress in 1977), Army
orders directed them to air bases throughout the U.S. to ferrying and training commands.
In October of 1943, WASP Helburn graduated from Sweetwater and was assigned to the Flight
Training Command at South Plains Army Air Base in Lubbock Texas. She was trained to tow
CG-4A gliders while piloting a Lockheed C-60 at low altitudes and mostly at night.
the gliders helped train and prepare male glider pilots and troops for proposed air drops
over European battle zones, therefore, avoiding radar and visual detection.
In 1944, Helburn attended the AAF Strategic Command School in Orlando,
Florida. She was assigned to Eagle Pass Army Air Base, Texas as WASP squadron leader.
Eagle Pass was an Advanced Gunnery School where anti-aircraft gunnery practice was
provided to male trainees. Due to the hazardous and often tedious nature of this work,
male pilots were often reluctant to perform this type of duty, as well as skeptical to
have a woman perform the task. The job required Helburn to fly with a long strip of fabric
attached to the airplane by a long tow-line. The fabric sleeve would be unfurled from the
rear of the plane and trainees would fire live ammunition at it for either ground to air
or for air to air gunnery practice. Within a short time, the skills and proficiency of
Helburn and her squadron were duly acknowledged and accepted at Eagle Pass.
When the Allied Forces began winning the war in Europe, male
pilots began to return home. The availability of these pilots signaled the end of the WASP
program and deactivation was issued, albeit abruptly, effective December 1944.
Margaret Helburn had served her country well as a Woman Airforce
Service Pilot, and in a remarkably brief time period. Although piloting jobs were
difficult to come by for a woman toward war's end and after, Helburn was hired as a pilot
by Republic Aviation in Farmingdale to work on an experimental amphibian aircraft, known
as the Seabee. She also took part in the testing of innovative designs involving
automobile accident safety and injury reduction, many of the innovations continue to be
used today. For over 20 years, Margaret (Helburn) Kocher worked in the Foreign Service
with her husband. After becoming a mother of 4, she only occasionally got the opportunity
to fly small private planes. She still, however, recalls the opportunities that flying had
given her and remembers the feel of the wind in her hair.
While recently lunching with Margaret Kocher, I asked her how
she would feel about flying in a military WWII airplane again after 55 years. She
responded, "Well, my eyes and my ears and my reflexes aren't what they used to be,
but as a passenger
..that would be delightful! Unlikely, though." And only to
myself, I thought, "Maybe you will." The waiter came over to our table and I
asked him to take a photo of Peg and me, as I asked her, "Feel like a
celebrity?" She answered only with a smile and as I looked into this fine, elderly
woman's eyes that have seen so much of life, I said to her, smiling back, "Everyone
has their hero."