A job applicant posting in a Michigan hospital opened the door to a young Minnesota farm girl in the early 1940s.
“A medical technologist friend told me they were seeking up to 2,000 females for the new Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASPs) organization,” recalls Sylvia Clayton, who also was a med tech at Harper Hospital in Detroit at that time.
“I already was getting weary of being a medical technician, and that sounded like a great opportunity,” said Clayton.
The rest is history. Then 23 years old, she was one of 1,074 women from an applicant pool of 25,000 from across the United States who were accepted and completed training. From March 1943 to December 1944, she helped ferry 10 different types of military planes – from the P-51 Mustang to the B-24 Liberator – on domestic flights between Montreal and locations in the U.S. As a result, she helped to open the doors for today’s female military pilots.
Her favorite: the P-51 Mustang, the model legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager used to fly. Her biggest regret: “I would have liked to fly the P-38 fighter, but never got that chance!”
It was the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to her and the almost 300 surviving WASP pilots in 2009 that proved to be the trigger for last week’s special event at the Marana Regional Airport.
“Sylvia brought her medal and other memorabilia to our Veteran’s Day event in November at The Fountains of LaCholla (where she lives),” remembers Bill Zachau, a flying enthusiast and national sales director for Tucson-based Watermark Retirement Communities throughout the U.S.
“I knew I had to find her and talk with her more.”
So, for the first time since the mid-1940s, Sylvia Dahmes Clayton, now 91, piloted a single-propeller plane for 40 minutes Friday morning over the Greater Tucson skies. Eliza Wade, the chief flight instructor for Tucson Aeroservice Center, was also onboard along with Sylvia’s son, Bob, who lives in Tucson.
The nonagenarian had a great time in the air, but noted “it felt like we had to ‘push’ the plane today.” She explained the military planes she had piloted went up to 400 miles per hour since they lacked today’s high-tech navigational systems.
“She did a great job,” says Wade. “Sylvia flew the entire flight, but wanted me to help with the landing.”
Wade “bumped” another instructor for the special flight with Clayton, according to Zachau, who completed his private pilot requirements last December. While in college, Wade got interested in and wrote a research paper on the WASP program.
“Mom has always been strong-willed,” remembers son Bob. “For her to get involved in the WASP program long ago and then fly again today is not surprising. In fact, she’s been talking about today’s event for many weeks with eager expectations.”
Bob and his sister Sharon of Chattanooga, Tenn., were the only children of Sylvia and Henry Clayton. The couple was married 53 years before Henry’s death in 2001. The two met and lived in California, where Sylvia spent several years working as an airline mechanic.
Her early years found her growing up on a farm near Redwood Falls, Minn., and then taking a medical technician course at Minnesota Medical Institute in Minneapolis. That was followed by her brief stint at the Detroit hospital and then, of course, flight training at LeMars, Iowa, prior to her WASP program start in March 1943.
In the early stages of World War II, WASPs were desperately needed to shuttle new aircraft from manufacturers to the East Coast, where they then were sent to the European theater via ship. The WASP program was disbanded at the end of 1944 when retiring male military pilots took over those duties.
In the WASP program’ short history, Clayton and other female pilots flew 77 different types of single- and twin-engine airplanes over nine million miles. Although they were under military authority, the WASPs were considered Civil Service employees and were paid less than standard pilots pay.
Last week’s trip proved as memorable for Clayton as for those who stopped by to watch her flight.
“It was so much fun,” she said afterward.