Monday, June 02, 2003  
December 14. 2002 6:01AM
Pioneer female pilot to share story

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ZOOM (ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun)
Gainesville resident Kaddy Steele will be heard on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" next week, discussing her experiences as a World War II pilot in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program or WASPs. The program was activated after a shortage of male pilots left a need for female pilots to carry out various missions.
"The WASPs" at a glance
  n WHAT:
A 22-minute radio documentary.
  • WHEN:
    Will air on NPR's "All Things Considered" on Wednesday.

  • WHERE:
    The program can be heard in Gainesville on WUFT-FM from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Ashley Rowland
    Sun staff writer

    Gainesville resident Kaddy Steele served in the WASPs in World War II.

    or some women, it was a chance to join in the groundswell of patriotism during World War II. Others saw it as a way to take revenge for husbands or brothers killed by enemy fire.

    For Kaddy Landry, a 24-year-old from a tiny Michigan town near the Canadian border, it was a chance to sit behind the controls of a top-of-the-line aircraft.

    "I knew that never again in my lifetime would I get an opportunity to fly those airplanes," she said.

    Now married and named Kaddy Steele, the Gainesville resident was one of 1,074 women who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) - a wartime program that enlisted women on the home front to train and aid male pilots who would eventually fight overseas.

    Steele, a UF graduate and former employee, will be featured in a documentary Wednesday on National Public Radio.

    Producer Joe Richman interviewed about 20 former WASPs at their biannual reunion in Tucson, Ariz. He said the women - now in their 80s and 90s - still get excited talking about the speed of the planes they flew.

    "All of these women are just strong, kick-ass, powerful women," he said. "Obviously this was only two years of their life, but it was just a bubble of opportunity."

    Steele learned to fly during her senior year at Northern Michigan University after she joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

    The program, started before World War II, was meant to encourage young men to join the military. But a woman challenged the admission requirements in court, and the program was required to admit one female per 10 males.

    Northern Michigan's athletic director recruited Steele, a "tomboy" who loved to swim and ski, to join the school's CPTP. She also got two hours of credit for participating.

    "I had only seen two planes in my life, and I was 21 years old," she said. "After the first couple of rides, I was sold."

    Call to duty
    Steele took a teaching job in a small Michigan town after she graduated. She resigned the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and took a high-paying job testing equipment in a defense plant.

    In early 1943, she received a telegram ordering her to report for pilot training.

    That May, Steele began a year-and-a-half stint with the program. She and other WASPs ferried planes between bases, broke in new planes just off the production line, and participated in "war games" to help train men who would eventually face enemy aircraft.

    "Every pilot that was in World War II didn't fly in combat. It took 12 to 14 utility pilots to keep one pilot in combat," she said, adding that the women were not officially considered part of the U.S. Air Force, and were forced to pay for their own transportation to training camp and buy their own uniforms.

    Even though the WASPs never faced enemy fire, their jobs were still dangerous. Thirty-eight women died in accidents, some caused by engine failure or mid-air collisions, while on active duty.

    In an era where women worked as teachers, nurses or librarians - if they worked outside the home at all - many men found it degrading to be working alongside a female.

    "Our problem wasn't with the men we worked with every day, who were our age. The top brass were the ones who didn't want us in there," Steele said. "They did everything they could to keep us from getting the flying jobs we would have liked."

    The program was deactivated in December 1944, as men returned from combat to take their spots.

    A turning point
    For Steele, who had drifted between schools during her college years, serving as a WASP was a turning point.

    "It made me realize if I really wanted something bad enough, I could do it," she said. "I think for all of us, it was the high point of our life - bigger than going to college, bigger than getting your first job, bigger than getting married."

    Women didn't fly in the military until 37 years later. And the former WASPs weren't awarded veteran status until 1978 - too late for many of them to enjoy military insurance benefits or the GI Bill, which provided higher-education tuition for veterans.

    In the late 1940s, Steele performed acrobatic maneuvers with an air show for 2 1/2 years, but she said there were few civilian pilot jobs for women.

    Now retired as an associate director of UF's Office of Instructional Resources, Steele still gives speeches about her days as a pilot. And last month, she got to fly a restored B-25 at a Veterans Day celebration, nearly 60 years after she last piloted one of the aircraft.

    "I never dreamed I'd get a chance to do that," she said. "I was very surprised I remembered that much about it."

    Ashley Rowland can be reached at 374-5095 or