In August 1995, the WASP community suffered a loss with the death of Marianne Verges, a non-member who admired their accomplishments and helped preserve their legacy by authoring the book, On Silver Wings: The Women Air Force Pilots of World War II (1991). The book’s final paragraph captures the spirit of women like Betty who saw possibilities, stood tall in a decidedly male bastion, the military, and fought for the right to make equal contributions to the nation’s future: “As with many others of their generation who forged their characters during World War II, the true legacy of the WASPs is found in their lives, the opportunities they expected and accepted for themselves and others through the years, and their exuberant vision of unlimited human possibility.”
Betty continued to maintain a high level of activity despite a couple of health setbacks late in the year, described in her own words: “… a fall on my face after Thanksgiving, and another fall resulting in a broken wrist. I think that’s enough falls for the time being!” At the time, besides working as historian, she was busy making edits and corrections in a reprint of Byrd Granger’s On Final Approach, one of numerous books covering the WASP story from many angles.
Among Betty’s trips in 1996 was one to Oklahoma City in July for the 99s’ International Women Pilots Homecoming Convention. During the three-day event, the honoring of Colonel Kelly Hamilton’s accomplishments was a strong reminder of the groundwork laid during the past 50 years that allowed her to become a modern pioneer in women’s aviation. The WASP newsletter lauded her achievements of the past 23 years: “She is a distinguished graduate of the K-135 Aircraft Commanders School with over 200 hours logged flying in Desert Storm; is rated as a flight instructor, avionics maintenance officer, Command Pilot, and transport pilot with over 3700 hours. Kelly will retire as the Air Force’s highest-ranking woman pilot.” There was no doubt that women like Hamilton owed a debt of gratitude to WASPs and 99s like Betty who led the battle for equality in aviation and opened doors that made it all possible.
Betty vacationed in California in October of that year to attend the WASP convention. By then she had been a pilot for 53 years, all the time maintaining a passion for flying. With an appreciation for humor in relation to her longevity, she submitted a brief item to the WASP editor.
If you haven’t published the newsletter yet, you may want to include this story.
I was walking up a street in my neighborhood recently when I saw three boys playing ball. One pulled away and approached me.
“My sister says you were a jet pilot.”
“No,” I responded, “I was a test pilot on an advanced trainer in the war.”
“Oh,” he said, “was that the Civil War?”
He was only six or seven years old so I didn’t kill him!
She remained active in both WASP (a member for 55 years) and the 99s (a member for 53 years) until the very end, which came on February 6, 1998, when she suffered a heart arrhythmia that led to a stroke eight hours later. Within two more hours, she was gone.
The Indianapolis Star called her a “pioneer aviatrix” and recounted the highlights of her remarkable career in WASP, the 99s, the Civil Air Patrol, and the local Aero Club. They also added a unique claim that applied to Betty: “A mannequin dressed as a WASP at the National Air & Space Museum carried a handbag donated by Mrs. Nicholas.”
With her passing, many people lost a beloved friend and mentor, but amid the mourning, it was important to remember how the efforts of individuals like Betty served to elevate the role of female citizens, allowing future, like-minded women to stand on the shoulders of their accomplishments and rise even higher. While Betty was gone, her half-century legacy in support of women’s aviation helped bring about concrete changes in their status. In short, she made a difference, something we would all like to do.
And the changes didn’t end with her death. Greater recognition of WASP came in 2009, when President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the 300 surviving WASPs, and lauded their role in history:
“The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since. Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.”
Others carried the baton of promise forward in the quest for full military equality. They had won official recognition and veteran status in the late 1970s, had been honored with statues and museum displays at a number of military facilities, and been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, but there was one more important goal on the horizon.
It was achieved in 2016 when President Obama signed a bill into law that allowed WASPs and others who played nontraditional roles in the military to be eligible for Arlington National Cemetery as their final resting place. While the law’s name had been revised to cover a number of groups affected, the original bill’s title included the highest-profile organization to lead the fight: it had been initially labeled the “Women Airforce Service Pilot Arlington Inurnment Restoration Act.”
With persistence and determination, despite so many obstacles and disappointments, women continued the fight decade after decade, and it paid off. If only Betty had survived to receive the gold medal and acceptance at Arlington, the ultimate fruits of her labor. But she was there for the victory of gaining veteran status, which led to everything else.
Hers was a very fruitful life that benefited so many others along the way. For those reasons and more, Betty Pettitt Nicholas can always be remembered as a great 99, a great WASP, a valued citizen — and a North Country native.
Note: In April 2017, Thomas Kail, director of Hamilton, announced a new project: telling the story of WASP in a feature film adapted from Katherine Sharp Landdeck’s book, The Women With Silver Wings.
Photos: Book cover (1991); the Silver Wings of WASP (Wings Across America); Betty Pettitt in her skywriting AT-6 aircraft (1949; from 1994 WASP newsletter); WASP medal, front, with AT-6 (2009); WASP medal, back, with AT-6s (2009)