| Sylvia Barter was a special
guest on Scholastic during the "Flight of Amelia Earhart"
project. Like Earhart, Ms. Barter is a pioneer in women's aviation,
serving as one of the first female military pilots during World War
II. Ms. Barter was also a member of the Ninety-Nines, the organization
of women pilots cofounded by Amelia Earhart in 1929. Read about Ms.
Barter's fascinating life and experiences in the following transcript
of her bulletin board exchange.
Learning to Fly
Women in Aviation
WW II Experiences
Remembering Amelia Earhart
What did you enjoy doing as a child?
I was raised on a ranch. I had my own horse and enjoyed horseback
riding. I also enjoyed school activities I was very active.
My favorite subject in school was English. I lived in a small
valley where I knew everyone and everyone knew me.
When was the first time you flew in a plane as a passenger
or as a pilot?
When I was about eight years old, about 1928. My father owned
a ranch in a valley in California. Barnstormers would land in
my father's field and take others for rides in open-cockpit
planes. My sister and I got rides in the open area of these high-wing
planes. I always loved flying I thought that was the
thing to do!
How did your family react when you told them you were going
to be a pilot?
My family was not too overjoyed at my decision. Flying was still
fairly new when I was a little girl; they were concerned about
the safety of it. But they supported me all the way. They were
glad that I was doing something I enjoyed.
When you were a little girl, did you think you could be anything
you wanted when you grew up?
Yes, I was sure of it. I had parents who encouraged us to
know we could do anything we wanted to do so long as
we were willing to work for it!
Why did you want to become a pilot?
I think because I have loved to fly from the time I was a little
Did you go to college ? If so, where?
I went to junior college in Salinas, California, and Merit
Business College in Oakland, California. If I hadn't been
a pilot, I had planned to go into medicine. I wanted to become
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Learning to Fly
How old were you when you decided you wanted to fly? When did
you take your first flight lesson?
I took my first flight lesson in Salinas, California,
when I was twenty years old, in March of 1940; I was very eager,
Is it difficult to fly a plane?
No, you must be very precise and accurate and want
How long did it take you to learn to fly a plane?
You fly eight hours with the instructor before you solo, then
you have to fly 35 hours before you get your license. It's
35 hours of flight time, and about that many hours of ground-school
time. You have to learn a lot in class, then you have to pass
a written and flight test. The written test is given by the FAA
(Federal Aviation Administration), because the government has
very strong rules and regulations on flying. The flight test must
be given by a certified FAA instructor. I started in March 1940
and got my license that September so, in all, about six
What was your destination the very first time you piloted a
My first flight was to Monterey, California, which was within
my own county all of a 20-minute flight!
What kinds of planes did you fly?
I learned in a 'Little Club,' a single-engine, 50-horsepower
plane. It had only two seats, one behind the other. When I got
into the air force, I flew a much larger aircraft the
primary trainer was a Fairchild, 175-horsepower, open cockpit.
Then in basic training, I got into a AT6 that's
a lovely plane, much more horsepower. Then I flew a twin-engine
aircraft, a Cessna UC78. It had a 42-foot wing span, two large
radial engines, it was ten feet tall, and about 42 feet long.
How did it feel to fly in a plane without a roof?
It was very exciting the first time it was on our
primary trainer, without a roof, without a cockpit. Very free!
Was it hard to fly without a lot of instruments on the plane?
No, because we had enough instruments to fly safely. We had
an altimeter to show us high we were, an air speed instrument
to show us how fast we were going, a turn and bank indicator,
which shows you the angle of your bank as you turn the plane.
Those were very basic when I started to learn to fly in 1940.
Did flying the airplanes of the 1930s require more physical
strength than those now?
The ones I flew in the forties were such small airplanes. They
didn't require much physical strength. The planes from
the thirties were very much the same.
What were some of the dangers of being a pilot then?
You had to always follow the rules and be aware of other aircraft
in the air at all times. Like today, you had obey the control
tower's commands and stay at the proper altitude and air space
to which you had been assigned. If not, well, you read the papers!
I've read that Amelia "ground looped" and crashed
on her first attempt to fly around the world. What is a "ground
A ground loop is when you're on the runway, and instead
of just going straight ahead, the airplane does a complete spin
on its wheels. So you do a 180 right there on the ground. It can
happen in a lot of ways you could touch the brakes accidentally,
a gust of wind could hit. But it's usually pilot error.
You're not supposed to ground loop!
Did you make any errors when you were flying?
I think in all things you make errors until you do it right. But
when you're flying, if you find you're doing something
wrong, you immediately correct it so it's right!
Were you scared when flying at high altitudes?
No, people who flew weren't scared because they studied
very hard before they ever got into an airplane so they would
know exactly what to do when they were in the air and an emergency
What is the longest distance you have ever piloted a plane?
The longest I ever piloted was a five-hour trip. I was flying
on a WASP mission from Douglas, Arizona, to San Bernadino, California.
What did you do when you had to go to the bathroom?
If I needed to use a bathroom, I just had to wait until we
got back on the ground. You have to cut down on liquids! The men
had 'relief tubes.'
Have you ever flown across the ocean?
I haven't ever flown over the ocean, but have flown
over San Francisco Bay. With the instruments pilots have
like the ones that track altitude flying over water is
not that different from flying over land. I have flown as a passenger
from California to Hawaii and as a passenger, you are
very much aware that you're over water all this time. It's
really not a worry, though. It's no different than going
over land, from the pilot's standpoint
Have you ever been close to crashing while flying?
No, I've been very low on fuel, but I was near the
airport when that happened.
Did your plane ever stall in the air?
No, it never stalled when I wasn't expecting it. But part
of learning to fly is learning to stall the aircraft and recover
from that stall. See, when you come in from a landing, you're
actually 'stalling' the aircraft on the runway. So
you have to learn to stall in the air so you can handle it when
you have to stall when you land.
What did you like about flying a plane?
I love being up in the air. The view is very exalting, wonderful.
But it is a very good feeling to go places so quickly
a real feeling of accomplishment to get from one point to another!
How many flights have you flown?
Over 19 years of flying, I have flown about 850 hours.
For how many years did you keep flying? Do you still
fly a plane?
In 1940 I got my pilot license. I flew until 1944, then took 30
years off to raise my family. I got my license again in 1976 and
flew until 1991 so that's 19 years altogether.
My husband and I owned our own plane for the last few years. It
was a Cessna 172 a four-seat, enclosed, high-wing, single-engine
plane. It was a very nice cross-country plane.
So, no, I haven't flown for about four years. I'm
77 years old. I still have my license, but my flying days are
over. I live next to airport now I love the sounds of
the airplanes, and I'm still active in women's pilots
groups. Age is no barrier.
What one event from your life are you most proud of?
Well, I'm proud of a lot of things. I am proud of what
I did in the war as a WASP and having been a woman pilot. I'm
also proud of having raised four children who are now healthy
adults with children of their own.
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Women in Aviation
What was it like to be a female pilot at a time when there
were relatively few?
It was no different from now, a woman in a man's world.
But we were treated with respect; we had shown that we were able
to fly safely and well. I found that personally I received a lot
of commendations for the kind of flying that I did.
Did anyone ever make you feel like you were stepping out of
bounds when you became a pilot?
No, no one ever made me feel uncomfortable. Even the male
pilots supported us; they were glad to have anyone interested
in aviation male or female.
Are there many women pilots today?
Yes, there are many women pilots today. Women pilots are not
only flying in civilian aircraft but many are military pilots,
Were there many other women pilots from Earhart's period
that you remember when growing up?
They were many outstanding women in their time. But
Amelia Earhart was the outstanding one, as far as
I was concerned.
What one person, do you feel, best exemplifies the changing
role of women in aviation today?
Maybe the first woman in space, Sally Ride. In general, things
have really changed a lot for women in our country and in the
I'm a young girl and I think I want to be a pilot when I grow
up. What can I do now to prepare myself?
You can study about aviation, or go to an airport and talk
to an instructor about wanting to learn to fly. You'll
find most instructors are happy to talk to you about different
aspects of being a pilot or recommend books to read. Even though
you can't get a license until you're sixteen, you
can still get information that would be very helpful to you. Your
interest in aviation is very encouraging. Remember, there's
no limit to your opportunities if you want to pursue that. I would
encourage you all to get acquainted with aviation and the future
it holds for you.
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What inspired you to be in the WASP program?
I already had a private pilot's license, logging in 55
hours of flying time. And when they established the WASPs (Women's
Airforce Service Pilots), they contacted every women in the U.S.
who had a private pilot's license and many hours flying
time my 55 hours qualified me. After a physical and an
interview I received an invitation to report and went to Sweetwater,
Texas, where they trained all of us. My husband was already in
the air force, and I was anxious to be part of the war effort.
What sort of qualifications did you need to become a WASP?
You had to be between the ages of 21 and 35, be five foot
two inches tall or taller, and have logged at least 35 hours of
flying time. (The age requirement eased to 18 and a half as the
program progressed). I was 23, five foot nine inches tall, had
over 55 hours in the air, and I was raring to go!
What was WASP training school like?
I joined the seventh class, a total of 104 women. Training
was military in every respect. We were restricted to base, housed
in barracks, marched to ground school, to calisthenics, to flight
line, to mess hall and to parade ground. Our lives were completely
regulated, but we sang as we marched and loved it. Our standard
wearing apparel was a one-piece olive-drab coverall which we called
our "zoot suit." Dress-up parade uniforms consisted
of white shirt, beige pants and beige overseas cap. Later, in
1944, regulation uniforms were issued in Santiago Blue.
Ground school and flight training were conducted along the same
lines as the male Air Corps cadets and flight tests by army pilots
were very exacting and were given on a regular basis. Our regular
instructors were civilian but were dedicated to teaching us "the
Army Way." Our training was thorough. Planes which we flew
during training were the Fairchild PT-19 primary trainer, the
Vultee BT-13 basic trainer, and the North American AT-6 advanced
trainer, and the UC-78 and AT-17, Cessna twin engine advanced
We trained very hard through a hot Texas summer and in November
1943, 59 of our class proudly marched up to accept our silver
Although we were civil service, we wore the uniform of the Air
Corps officer and were given the unofficial status of Second Lieutenant.
The first six classes were involved in ferrying all types of aircraft
within the United States. When our class graduated we were ordered
to various military bases some to weather bases, some
to bases where target-towing airplanes were needed, and others
to flight schools. We were all confident and jubilant in the knowledge
that we were doing a patriotic duty in being able to relieve a
male pilot for combat.
Did you know Jackie Cochran? If so, how did you meet her?
Yes, she was the head of the WASP program. She would fly into
Sweetwater, Texas, where we were training. She was a very attractive
and personable lady a good leader. And, of course, she
was very interested in aviation. She was a very famous woman pilot.
Why do you think the Army Air Force did not use Cochran's idea
for a women's air force when she first came up with it?
Well, they finally did. But she had to prove to them that it was
a workable project which she did! She went to Washington,
D.C., to prove her ideas.
What was your scariest moment as a WASP?
I can't really say. There were many scary moments when
there were so many of us coming in for a landing at the same time.
You had to leave a narrow margin between you and the next aircraft
My aunt served in WW II in the WACs (Women's Army Corp, the
administrative officers on the ground). One of my favorite pictures
in the family album is of her in uniform standing in front of
a plane. Are there reunions of women from this era who served
in the military?
Yes, WASPs do have reunions we meet every other year.
We meet all over the country. Four years ago, we met in Washington,
D.C.; next year, we're going to Omaha, Nebraska. I keep
in touch with all the other WASPs. A sisterhood developed in the
experiences we had together not only in training, but
in the execution of our duties and the fact that we were serving
our country in a time that we were in need.
We have a roster of names and addresses of all the WASPs
both living and passed away, and every three to four months, we
have a magazine that comes out. It tells what's happening
and provides news from all the areas.
How did you feel when the WASP program was disbanded?
When the WASPs were disbanded in December 1944, I felt a deep
sense of sadness. There were so many women still waiting to get
into the program. We were told, however, that the need which had
existed was no longer there as male pilots were returning from
overseas to take up their stateside duties again. Many of the
WASPs joined the regular military services after being disbanded,
though not on flight status.
Of the 25,000 women who had originally applied to enter the WASP
program, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 graduated, earned their
wings and served their country in a time of need. These women
pilots had done an outstanding job, flying every type of aircraft
used by the military at the time. A large number had been trained
in Pursuit School and, along with all the other planes they flew,
were qualified to ferry this fastest and most complicated aircraft
of World War II. Those who were assigned to towing targets for
gunnery practice did a magnificent job in a very dangerous environment.
A total 38 women lost their lives while serving, 11 in training
and 27 on active duty.
When did the WASPs receive veteran status?
Our veteran status was finally forthcoming in 1979, due to
a long-fought battle by a dedicated group of our active WASPs.
Those of us who could not be in Washington, D.C., in person were
wholeheartedly there in spirit.
Our reunions are held every other year, the last one having been
held in Washington, D.C., in October 1994. We shared a period
in our lives like no other. A deep friendship exists among all
of us and when we renew memories from the days of our service
it seems as if we are all young again.
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WW II Experiences
Was the U.S. Air Force a good experience?
Yes, it was. It was a privilege to have served in the
United States Air Force. I still keep in touch with all the other
WASPs. A sisterhood developed in the experiences we had together
not only in training, but in the execution of our duties
and the fact that we were serving our country in a time that we
were in need.
What was it like being the only female pilot at Douglas Army
It was a little scary at first. They didn't really have
any experience with female pilots at the Douglas Army Air Force
base in Arizona. There were 500 officers, who were either instructors
or administrative personnel. They looked at me as an oddity in
the beginning, but I had to show them that I could fly an aircraft,
and I was assigned to engineer and maintenance department, where
I did a lot of flying. They knew I could handle myself, and gained
a lot of respect for me. I had occasions to fly with most of those
officers from time to time. I made many friends, some of whom
are still my friends today.
Did you ever fly combat missions in WW II? If so, what
was it like?
WASPs didn't fly combat missions in the war; we flew
during World War II within the U.S. We felt very proud of doing
our duty for our country. I was anxious to be part of the war
How old were you when you were a wartime WASP pilot?
I was 23 and 24 years old.
Were you ever shot at?
No, during the war I only flew within the United States. Many
of the WASPs towed targets for the ground personnel of the Army
Air Force who were practicing targets. But as far as I know they
were never shot down.
How many flights did you make as a first pilot during World
Most of my flights were as the first pilot, or as the only
pilot, but I did make a number of flights as a co-pilot. Co-pilots
are required on some aircraft, such as twin engines or larger.
Two pilots are needed one in command and one as co-pilot.
A co-pilot's job is to assist the pilot. They call the
tower, check the course, help plot the course, monitor the radio,
check weather reports, check instruments, and keep the pilot in
tune with the estimated times of arrival and departure.
Were you and your husband afraid of getting hurt or possibly
injured in World War II?
No, neither of us was. He flew B-24 big four-engine bombers overseas.
He came back in one piece.
Is your husband still alive?
No, he passed away in September '96 after 56 years of marriage.
Was it difficult flying during the war?
No, because we had enough instruments to fly safely. I didn't
fly any combat missions overseas; I flew exclusively in this country,
and only from one base.
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What was it like being a member of the Ninety-Nines?
As of December 31, 1996, there were 36,433 women pilots
in the United States.
I enjoy being with other women pilots. They're very active
in teaching children about aviation. They take kids flying sometimes
and teach them about aircraft, how to check a plane and all the
controls. They go through this with young children. They're
very good at what they do.
How many women were in the Ninety-Nines?
When the Ninety-Nines started, there were 99 women at the first
meeting, Amelia Earhart among them. I gather she was the first
captain or president of the group. I'll find out how many
Ninety-Nines there are today and let you know!
Some of you asked how many women pilots there are today and how
many members are in the Ninety-Nines. I did some research with
the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the Ninety-Nines
organization and found:
When the Ninety-Nines was cofounded by Amelia Earhart in
1929, there were 99 members. Today there are 6,500 members from
35 countries around the world, including: the United States, Pakistan,
Spain, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland, India, Japan, Canada,
Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Israel.
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Remembering Amelia Earhart
Do you remember when you first heard of Amelia Earhart? What
were your reactions?
I was in high school when I first heard of Amelia Earhart.
I was very interested in what she was doing. I did not meet her
personally but she was in the news and we were very much aware
of her activities. She was a national celebrity and was asked
to give speeches in many places. She was very much in demand wherever
she went. She had an aura about her. She very definitely made
Did you know Amelia Earhart? What was she like?
I didn't know Amelia Earhart. I was in high school when
Amelia Earhart disappeared, but I know a lot about her because
of the women's pilots groups I belong to. She's
very much a model for us. She's a role model because of
her willingness to complete the job she had set out to do
not only in the beginning, but when she decided to fly around
the world. Even though she didn't make it, she was still
a role model. She carried herself very well, with dignity.
What do you think happened to Amelia Earhart when she disappeared
over the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii?
I really wish I knew, along with the rest of the world! I do think
though that they probably ran out of fuel and went into the sea.
I can't even speculate. There are so many different versions
about what people think happened.
But I feel like we shouldn't dwell on her disappearance,
but instead celebrate her life. She was definitely on a trip that
she felt was very important. I think it's like what other
modern-day aviators are trying to prove you can do whatever
you set your mind to.
Did Amelia have any backup crew to help her on that last flight?
Her only backup crew was Fred Noonan, her navigator. She was
the pilot in command and he was along as her navigator. It was
not unusual to have a navigator when flying a twin-engine aircraft.
It was also not unusual that the pilot receives the recognition.
What were people's reactions to Amelia Earhart's disappearance?
I think the mystery of it was the same as it is today. We
all wondered what happened. The whole navy was out there searching
for her, but didn't find any trace. We were all concerned.
I was especially concerned, being a women knowing that one day
I was going to fly. At first it was not a catastrophe, though,
because we kept thinking they would find her. We thought for years
that they would find her, or at least discover a sign of her.
We have read about a number of other women pilots that flew
when Amelia did. Why do you think she became so popular compared
with the others?
Because the other women were instructors and were not as traveled
as Amelia Earhart. She was also setting records and a
newsworthy item all the time. But she was not flamboyant at all
in the way she carried herself. Her personality was very shy.
Even in her speeches she was quiet in her approach to everything.
I don't think she wanted the publicity but I think
she was proud that as a woman she was doing the job she set out
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to Meet a Pioneer Pilot