Tack, the adventurous WASP

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Stephen Delgado
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
We often hear the phrase, "bigger than life."

Meet Betty "Tack" Blake. She was a World War II pilot who ferried more than 35 models of aircraft to various destinations during the war. Ms. Blake, 89, has experienced enough adventures in her life to fill volumes. She was a trailblazer long before her experience as a Women Air Force Service Pilot.

Her life began in Hawaii in 1920 and has spanned 17 U.S. presidents.

It seems as if she was destined to fly. Betty was flying at 14, when many people that age are concerned with dating or what movie to see.

"I read every book in the library about aviation," she said. "I was fascinated by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, but I also wanted to read as much as I could to find out about women in aviation. I was hooked on the idea that I could be a pilot."

One of her most profound and memorable experiences, which set the tone for her feelings about aviation, happened when she was 14. Amelia Earhart visited the University of Hawaii for a speaking engagement.

"I made sure I got a front-row seat," Ms. Blake said. "She looked at me during much of her speech. It gave me the feeling she was personally talking to me. After the speech, Amelia Earhart answered all my questions, much to the chagrin of the adults in the audience."

She grew up with two brothers and a neighborhood full of boys. She said she could hang with the best of them.

"I was the catcher on the baseball team and, unfortunately, we didn't have mitts, which resulted in two broken fingers," she said. "I learned to burp on cue, spit through my teeth and crack my knuckles, so I was set for what came later in life."

More than that, the pitcher on the team was two years older and had a pilot's license.

"He took me for an airplane ride which was a defining moment in my life," she said. "From that moment, I was hooked on flying."

Ms. Blake, who could double for actress Helen Hayes, earned her pilot's license and flew tourists around the islands until late 1941.

"I would fly tourists from island to island or around Oahu in an open-canopy bi-plane," she said. "It was fun, but by today's standards it was dangerous because we had no life jackets or life raft on the airplane. I loved flying people over the sugar cane and pineapple fields. My private pilot's license only cost $26.55."

However, on an infamous early December morning in 1941, the world and Ms. Blake drastically changed.

She could have been part of the tragedy of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but fate moved its hand and prevented that from happening.

"A passenger I was scheduled to fly contacted me on the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, to cancel a sightseeing trip planned for early morning the following day, which would have put us in the air during the attack on Pearl Harbor," Ms. Blake said. "It was just as well because I went to a party at the officers club to celebrate my 21st birthday and met three ensigns I had dated. Unfortunately, I had my first experience with liquor. I drank Southern Comfort. It went down smoothly that evening, but in the morning I had a terrible hangover. I was in no shape to fly anyway."

"Two of the ensigns were killed in the attack, and the third was saved because my father invited him to stay at our home. I married him three months later. We watched the attack from our home on a hillside overlooking Pearl Harbor."

Ms. Blake put her love of flying in service to the country's war effort.

With most of the male pilots committed to overseas combat duty, there was a vital need for qualified pilots to shuttle aircraft from assembly lines and factories to sites where they could be sent to combat areas.

Ms. Blake was part of the Guinea Pigs. She started training at the Houston Airport Nov. 16, 1942, and was one of 23 graduates of the first class.

"We were the experimental group," she said. "The important thing that came out of the class was showing that women could fly, and fly well."

The next 20 months kept Ms. Blake busy flying aircraft.

"I had the opportunity to fly a large variety of airplanes, but my favorite was the P-51 Mustang," she said. "I was fortunate that I didn't have any mishaps, but I did have a close call when I was flying a P-39. I was flying at 15,000 (feet) when I noticed smoke coming out of the engine. Fortunately, I was flying over the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The clinic had a runway. I landed safely, but the engine was completely burned."

Ms. Blake's time as a WASP created many memories, but one of her favorites was meeting Barry Goldwater.

"Bad weather kept me in Dallas at the Red Cross canteen," she said. "A young captain came to my table and asked me if it was all right to sit with me. The young captain was Barry Goldwater. We stayed in touch throughout the years."

Ms. Blake moved to Arizona in 1946 and raised three sons.

She has a message she likes to share with students.

"Always be true to yourself, and if you have a dream go after it," she said. "Don't let anyone discourage you. Dreams don't just happen with good wishes. It takes hard work and constant determination to make a dream come true."

General Henry "Hap" Arnold summed up the WASP contribution to the war effort in late 1944.

"The WASPs have completed their mission. Their job has been successful. But, as is usual in war, the cost has been heavy. Thirty-eight WASP have died while helping their country move toward the moment of final victory. The Air Force will long remember their service and their final sacrifice."

As the decades have past, the WASPs have been recognized by others. President Jimmy Carter signed legislation in 1977 granting the WASP corps full military status. President Barack Obama and the Congress awarded the WASP corps the Congressional Gold Medal July 1.