Can't keep this one down
Benjie Sanders / Staff
stands at the entrance to the Pima Air and
Space Museum, one of the groups that has counted her
among its members.
Ruth Helm's life has been one of activityBy
World War II pilot Ruth Dailey Helm first crawled
into a cockpit at age 11, and she's been flying ever
Not even retirement, her third, is going to slow down
this petite, feisty lady who's co-piloted a tuition
scholarship organization for the last five years -
almost half a century after her last flight.
Thursday marked the end of her most recent mission as
treasurer for the Institute for Better Education in
Helm, 86, was one of the Women Air Service Pilots, or
WASPs, of World War II, ferrying training and pursuit
planes - the precursor to today's fighter jets - over
the Midwest and Texas prairies.
All told, she's flown more than 2,500 hours - 800 of
them for the military.
She also earned degrees in business and accounting,
and helped develop and operate a fly-in guest ranch.
Twenty years later, Helm and a friend co-founded the
Institute for Better Education, an organization that
gives scholarships to needy students who want to attend
"She got an early start, and she ran with it," said
Preston Hurd, president of the Institute for Better
Education. "You can't retire her. She's got to go do
When she was 11 years old, a barnstormer had to
force-land his plane near Helm's small town of
Grapeland, Texas. Her father, who ran a Chevrolet
dealership, offered to let the pilot use his tools to
fix his plane.
The grateful pilot said: "I don't have any money. But
I'll give you a free ride."
When her mother objected to her father going up in
the plane, Helm begged for her chance at a bird's-eye
view of Texas.
"I think mostly it was looking down at the little
houses. They looked like tiny toys," Helm said. "I said:
'Someday I'm going to be a pilot. I'm going to fly.' "
After earning a bachelor's degree in business from
Baylor University, Helm got her pilot's license in 1939.
She accumulated more than 250 hours' flight time in
three years. Flight time cost money, so Helm became a
frugal, practical young woman.
"I decided that I didn't have to have a new outfit
every year," she said. "I spent all my money on flying."
In 1942, she qualified to serve in the Women's Air
Service Pilots and trained in Houston. Helm earned her
wings on May 28, 1943.
She reported to the 5th Ferrying Group at Love Field
in Dallas. "The guys were awfully nice. It was a
different atmosphere back then," Helm said. "The guys
treated us more like sisters."
With the help of her husband, Helm developed and
managed the fly-in Thunderhead Ranch in Tucson from 1948
until 1957. They later developed the 50-acre parcel of
land into 1-acre lots, creating the Thunderhead Ranch
Subdivision in 1977.
She raised two children and earned a master's degree
in accounting from the University of Arizona. Even after
she quit flying in 1954, Helm stayed active in the
community - participating in such organizations as the
Tucson Chapter of Ninety-Nines - a group created in 1929
by 99 women pilots, including Amelia Earhart - the
Tucson Chapter of WASPs, the Pima Air and Space Museum,
the Oasis Church and the Old Pueblo Community
"She's had a wonderful impact on my life - as a
friend and as a fellow WASP," said Dawn Seymour. Seymour
and Helm were both inducted into the Arizona Aviation
Hall of Fame in 1999 at the Pima Air and Space Museum.
"She loves the wide-open spaces," Seymour said. "Her
friendships are deep and lasting."
When Arizona passed its school tax credit
legislation, Helm called on friend Mark Harris to make
full use of it. It provides Arizonans a
dollar-for-dollar credit on their state taxes if they
donate to private school tuition organizations.
"When I was in college was during the Depression,"
Helm said. "I saw a lot of students who couldn't be
there without scholarships."
The Institute for Better Education awarded almost
$27,000 in scholarships to 55 students during its first
year. Since then, it has given more than 1,434
scholarships totaling almost $1.5 million. It raised
$780,000 in 2002 alone.
Board President Hurd hopes to garner more than a
million this year.
"Capable. Caring. High-energy. Intelligent. Fun. Very
loving woman. Feisty."
That's how Hurd, director of development for Desert
Christian Schools, describes cofounder Helm, whom he's
known for 2 1/2 years.
"She surrounded herself with volunteers who were
quite capable," he said. "She recognized an opportunity.
Now it's a much broader, collaborative effort."
Helm plans to stay busy in her retirement by
continuing to meet monthly with her WASP friends for
lunches and birthdays, or just "being together." She
also is determined to stay active in her church's Bible
study, joking they'll have to kick her out to get her to
"She's a real go-getter," said Angie Brown, a fellow
member of the Tucson Chapter of the Ninety-Nines.
"She's given me that feeling that if she can do it,
so can I."
* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or
Follow spring training news and scoreboards at azcactusleague.com
Subscribe to the StarNet
Newsletter to receive news bulletins and an e-mail
each weekday with links to the top new content on
ARTICLE IS REPUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION.