Twelve years after taking a flying lesson from the man who would later become her husband, Esther Gebert Nelson spent WWII piloting B-25 and P-51 Mustang bombers across the country.
Nelson was an early member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron – later known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots – which played a vital role during the war by transporting military planes across the country to free male pilots. for combat service.
War work turned out to be a family affair as her husband, Arthur C. Nelson, made the same flight as a 43-year-old army lieutenant. Before the war, the couple had a flight school at what is now the Ontario International Airport.
Esther Nelson, born in Kern County and graduated from high school in Los Angeles, became fascinated with flying at the age of 21 after taking a lesson from Arthur Nelson in North Hollywood in 1930.
Their mutual interest in aviation led them to get married in Yuma, Arizona, in 1936. Even the honeymoon was all about flying. They bought a new plane in New York City, but a day later, while on their way to visit Arthur’s parents, the engine broke down and crashed. No one was hurt but it added quite a memorable moment to their trip.
In 1938, they opened the Nelson Flying Service at Ontario’s small municipal airport where they trained many pilots, about 300 of whom would later fly for the military during the war. During this time Esther continued to improve her flying skills and by 1941 she became just one of 10 women in the country with a flight instructor’s license.
But once Pearl Harbor sent the nation to war, the Nelson’s decided they wouldn’t spend WWII as spectators. They soon sold their flight school facilities to Chaffey College for use in their aviation lessons.
Arthur joined the Army Airlift Command in Long Beach and then served in Dallas while the 33-year-old Esther was invited to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron due to her instructor’s certification and of its 532 flight hours.
She was one of the first 28 to complete a four-week training session in Newcastle, Delaware, preparing to serve in the military despite being hired as a civil servant for $ 3,000 a year. Esther would eventually be trained to fly 11 different American planes, from small trainer planes to large multi-engine planes, transporting them from aircraft factories to where they would be shipped for service in Europe or the Pacific.
But it wasn’t easy for female pilots who faced constant prejudice from those who didn’t want to believe that a woman could be as good a pilot as a man.
Two of Esther’s colleagues – who were the most experienced pilots in the WAFS – flew a B-17 bomber from Maine to Labrador and prepared to cross the Atlantic to England. Once General Henry “Hap” Arnold heard that the flight was to be piloted by two women, he immediately ordered them to exit the plane, replacing them with men. Women were only limited to domestic flights during the war.
News articles of the time about flying women were always patronized, usually referring to attributes other than their flying skills. “Trim, shapely, photogenic” was their description in a September 28, 1942 article in the Los Angeles Daily News. The article called them “Ladybugs”.
When Esther and several other pilots delivered planes to North Carolina in November, the Charlotte News reported that they had “left the gay life of the company for the perilous and grueling task of piloting newly completed planes across the globe. country “. She featured in a Los Angeles Times article on January 10, 1943, in which she and her flight mates were referred to as “girls” throughout.
And there were logistical problems: “We were the first to participate in mixed barracks,” recalls Delphine Bohn, member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron in Dallas. âWe were the users of clients who were guarded by armed (security). Needless to say, there was no hanky-panky.
By early 1944, the Women Airforce Service Pilots program carried around 70% of the country’s single and twin-engine aircraft. All of the women were instrument qualified, most were trained for twin-engine aircraft and combatants. But in 1944, when the war was still a year from the end, the WASP program was suddenly phased out, despite calls to keep it going. Male pilots who had been injured or had completed combat duty were put to work transporting planes.
Esther returned to Southern California, where after the war ended, she and Arthur divorced. She then became a captain in the Air Force Reserve and obtained veteran status in 1977.
She married Emerson Carpenter in 1965 and lived most of the rest of her life in Laguna Hills. She died on February 21, 1991 and is buried in Riverside National Cemetery.
An article, “Women With Silver Wings,” written in 1978 for the newsletter of the 99s (a flying women’s organization dating back to Amelia Earhart), offered the belief that men would eventually accept the skills of flying women.
“Once past the initial ‘shock’ of seeing a woman exiting a pursuit or bomber, it was only a matter of time before the male pilots admitted the plane knew not that a woman was stealing.
The 10th Annual Route 66 Inland Empire California Association Cucamonga Classic Car Show will be held on October 16 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The event, free to spectators, will take place at the Sycamore Inn, 8318 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga. The registration fee is $ 45.
The first 12 winners will be photographed for use in the association’s 2022 calendar. To register: www.route66ieca.org/events.
The event also recognizes the 100th anniversary of the adjacent Red Hill Country Club. The club, designed by golf course architect George C. Thomas Jr., opened in 1921.
Joe Blackstock writes on the history of the Inland Empire. He can be contacted at [email protected] or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns from the past on Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.