Winning Essay for the "Flight of Aces"

It is a program meant to reconnect Long Islanders with their heritage. The essay to be submitted needed to detail how a friend or family member served our nation. The winner and his (in Julia's case, her) "hero" would be eligible to win a free flight in an historic 17G Flying Fortress or a B-24J Liberator on Labor Day weekend from Republic Field, Long Island.

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.

sideflag.gif (2828 bytes)As one 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.

Towing 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."


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