Tucson, Arizona  Saturday, 15 March 2003


Can't keep this one down


Benjie Sanders / Staff
Ruth Helm 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 activity

By Jennifer Sterba

World War II pilot Ruth Dailey Helm first crawled into a cockpit at age 11, and she's been flying ever since.

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 Tucson.

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 private schools.

"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 something."

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 Foundation.

"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 leave.

"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 jsterba@azstarnet.com.


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