Barbara Erickson London

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In 1939 Barbara "B.J." London was studying to be a Home Economics teacher when she took a Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) course and learned to fly. During WWII she trained other CPT students, delivered fighter and bomber airplanes as one of the original 25 pilots in the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, and is the only woman pilot to receive the Air Medal during WWII. Since then she has been an airplane dealer, executive secretary for the Powder Puff Derby, an aviation consultant, a community advocate for Long Beach Airport, and a mentor to other aviators in the family, including her two pilot daughters. In this month's Profile, B.J. talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about 60 years of adventures in and around airplanes.

Barbara LondonBarbara Erickson London was born July 1, 1920, in Seattle, Wash. Halfway through college she enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program. She was a natural pilot and worked quickly through her commercial and instructor's ratings. She stayed at the school and trained other CPT and Naval Transport Service students. In 1942, with the war in full swing, she joined the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the first group of women pilots formed during the war. Later, the Ferrying Squadron would become part of the larger organization called Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WAFS). The ferry pilots were often standing at the door as the airplane rolled out, so were they the first pilots to fly that particular airplane. Barbara (also known as "B.J.") flew all of the single-engine fighters and most of the twin-engine bombers of the era. She also logged some B-17 time. In one five-day period, she flew four 2,000-mile trips. Barbara became the Commanding Officer of the WAFS, stationed at Long Beach, Calif. In 1943 she was awarded the Air Medal by General Hap Arnold. She's the only woman pilot from WWII to receive that medal.

After the war she married Jack London Jr. (not the Jack London, but a relative), also a pilot. Barbara served as executive secretary for the Powder Puff Derby until the mid '60s, and raced every summer except the two summers she gave birth to her daughters. She sold airplanes with Barney Frazier until his death in 1983. She's now working on a couple of screenplays about aviation, and shares an office with her younger daughter, a pilot and transportation consultant. Her older daughter, Terry London Rinehart, was the first woman pilot hired by Western Airlines in 1975, and is now a Delta Air Lines captain. B.J. is something of an expert on Long Beach Airport, having worked there since the mid '40s. She stays busy as a community advocate for the airport, which hosts the AOPA Expo later this year and NBAA in 2001.

 


How did you get started in aviation?

I got started the way a lot of girls got started, through CPT [Civilian Pilot Training]. In 1939 I was a sophomore at the University of Washington and I saw an ad in the paper announcing a course. After a lot of discussion they decided to allow one woman for every ten men. So there were 40 men and four women. I took the physical and was accepted. I got my license, went back for the secondary program and got my instructor's permit. Girls weren't allowed past the first class. The attitude was that women pilots were never going to be used anywhere and would be of no value in an airplane, so there was no program to prepare them for anything further. But I had some friends at the CAA [now FAA] and with a little bit of push I got into the advanced classes.

I had never flown before. I didn't come from one of those families where we went down to the airport on the weekend and stared over the fence at the airplanes. I know that's how some people got into it, but that's not the case with me. I wasn't anywhere near an airport. Boeing was way across town. Sand Point wasn't too far away so occasionally we'd watch the military planes, but I was in no financial shape to tackle flight instruction on my own.

Sixty years ago, women didn't have the choices they have today. In those days if you were in college, unless you were studying to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or something specific, there were only a couple of alternatives open to women. You could take Social Studies, or Home Economics, or Physical Education. I decided to be a Home Economics major but once I found flying my interest in Home Economics waned.

Did you encounter any resistance as a female flight instructor?

There weren't a lot of us. But I had grown up with this particular flight school. They had put me through all the courses and when I got my instructor's rating they hired me to stay on and teach all the things I had just learned. The program had changed from CPT to WTS, which I think was War Training Service. Most of the students were navy cadets.

I got some resistance early on. I still correspond with the FAA man who gave me my first license in 1940. His name is Jack Feeny, he's 94, and we've been exchanging love notes for 60 years. He helped me get the instructor's job in Walla Walla, where the school moved when the government stopped all the flying along the west coast. The school had told him that the cadets didn't want some 20-year-old girl teaching them how to fly. But he asked them to give me a try and it worked. Most of the boys I was teaching were older than me, and it worked out fine.

Then I got the call to go into the military. Luckily, the guy I was working for said "go." He could have held me there because I was teaching under a government contract. But he knew it was a good opportunity for me and let me go.

Barbara London

How did you get the call?

Nancy Love and her husband Bob worked for the ferry command. Male pilots were in short supply so Nancy had been researching the possibility of using women who were already qualified pilots to help with the ferry command. She figured that there were about 100 women in the country that already had commercial and 200-horsepower ratings, were current, were between the ages of 21 and 25, and had at least 500 hours time. She did the research and there were about 100 of us. About half of us had come through the CPT program.

Since we already knew how to fly all we would need was to learn the military way. We had 30 days of indoctrination and we started ferrying in September 1942.

What was your first ferry flight?

It was in a Cub from Lockhaven, Pa., to New Orleans. It was the middle of the winter. To this day I can't tell you, with no radio, how we ever found where we were going, because the ground was covered with snow. You could see a railroad or a road once in a while, but that's about all. Flying the open-cockpit PTs [primary trainers] with goggles, the map on our lap, freezing cold, trying to look at the ground, which was covered with snow, I don't know how we ever found Greensboro, N.C. But that was our job, that's why we were there, so we used a compass and a map and we made each delivery without a problem.

Did you fly alone or as a group?

We flew alone. There may have been several pilots all headed in the same direction at the same time, but we didn't fly in formation or even loosely as a group. We were each responsible for getting our airplane where it was going.

How did the ferry pilots get back to base after your flights?

In the beginning we just hopped on the airlines, or took a train or a bus. If you landed in a big city like Atlanta or New Orleans you could probably take the airline. If it was a smaller place that probably meant taking a bus to a bigger city. As the program grew it got more sophisticated and as we dropped an airplane off they would try and align us with something coming back the other way. If we took a P-51 to Newark, we'd go to Long Island and pick up a P-47 and bring it back to Alameda. Eventually they were able to coordinate the trips, but in the beginning we just got on the airline and came home.

Were you flying airplanes that hadn't been flown yet?

Sure. We were told that only every fifth P-51 had ever been flown before we flew them. They didn't have time. They didn't have pilots. We were picking them up as they rolled out the door. The airplanes were built so well that we didn't have a lot of problems. They were putting almost two P-38s a day out the door, a B-17 a day, at least one P-51 a day. That's why we needed the ferry command, to deal with the volume of airplanes. And 90 percent of the people who were bucking those rivets were women who up to then had been home baking waffles for their families. And some of the men had no experience building airplanes. Somebody handed them a blowtorch and a rivet gun and off they went. Those airplanes were built for the war but so many of them are still flying, sixty years later. So those are the unsung heroes of the war.

What's the connection between the ferry pilots and the WASPs?

Barbara London

That's long, complicated, and somewhat sad story. There are some books on the subject, but if you weren't there it's hard to understand all the complexities. The women ferry pilots started out as a group of 25, in September of 1942. At that time, Jackie Cochran was in England with her group of women pilots. In fact, I was almost in that group. I had been accepted and was ready to go when I heard about the ferry pilot opening in the U.S. so I stayed home. So when Jackie heard that Nancy had started a group at home, she came back from England and pounded on Hap Arnold's desk and said that job had been promised to her. He had promised her that if a women's program ever started it would be hers to run. So what happened is Jackie started a training program, called the WTC, in Sweetwater, Tex. It was exactly the same flight training program as the men had, and the goal was to train women to be able to join Nancy Love's ferry command.

In January of '43, our group of 25 was split into four groups. Ten stayed in Wilmington, five went to Detroit, five went to Dallas, and five went to Long Beach. I was assigned as CO of the five that went to Long Beach. In April, when Jackie's first class graduated, they were split between the four groups of the original 25. I got a small group from class one, and a bigger group from class two, and a bigger group from class three, and I gradually built up my squadron here in Long Beach.

But after a few classes, Jackie ran out of women who met the qualifications, so the requirements dropped from age 21 and 500 hours to 18 years old and 35 hours. So by the sixth class, in the summer of '43, the girls that were graduating didn't have the 400 hours necessary to be a ferry pilot. They went in with 25 and maybe got another 250 in school. Because the graduates didn't meet the ferry command requirements, the ferry command stopped accepting graduates after about the sixth class.

So then Jackie had to find a place for the graduates. They started sending the girls to tow targets, which became very big. They did some engineering test work. When a new engine was put on an airplane it had to have five hours run-in time, so they were stationed at the bases and did that. And they did some courier work and some instruction. So as these various groups developed, the ferry pilots became one of the groups in the WASPs. Technically Jackie was in charge of everybody but in reality Nancy was in charge of the ferry pilots, which peaked at just under 300 girls.

Did the ferry pilots have a distinctive uniform?

The original 25, before Jackie got the name changed, had regulation gray uniforms. Later, we dressed just like the men. So for nine months we had no uniforms, so we wore pinks and greens in the winter and khakis in the summer, just like regular army. Then in August of '43 when Jackie got the name changed and came up with the blue uniforms, we wore those. The ferry pilots were more interested in the flying so nobody really cared much what we were wearing.

Our original WAFS group sort of broke up into three groups. One group was CPT girls, who came from average working-class families and were able to fly because of that program. Another group had enough money to go to private flight schools to get their training. And the third group made a living on the airshow circuit. Theresa James was in that group. She was a wingwalker, and Evelyn Sharp had given rides — she had flown over 2,000 people by the time she got to us. So our group had three elements but we blended together and did our jobs. The logical place for us in the military was the WACs but our backgrounds were different and it was not a good match.

Why was that?

A lot of our girls were older, some were married, some had children, and the WACs were a younger group that didn't have husbands or children. Some of our girls were 35 years old when they went in, so mixing with the younger girls in the Army was a misfit. That's part of the reason we were never militarized and didn't get Veteran status until over 30 years later. Also, Jackie Cochran didn't want to be under Oveta Hobby and the WAC organization.

Barbara London

What's your perspective on the end of the war and the end of the program?

In August of '44, when the Ramspeck Committee met, there was a group of us — Nancy Love, myself and a few others — that was in Orlando at Officer's school. They figured we were so close to being militarized that they'd get the first group through the school. But it was too late to militarize us. The war was winding down, they were closing the men's training schools, and the men who had been instructors and pilots had to be stationed somewhere. They had taken those jobs so they wouldn't be drafted, and it was a necessary job and they did it well, but by the same token they couldn't just show up the next morning and expect to take my job. In some respects the women were more qualified than the men. We had more P-51 time than the primary instructors. So as the schools closed we had thousands of men who needed a flying job which in some cases was already held by a more qualified woman.

Plus we had a lot of war-weary pilots coming back, who had served their tour of duty. They appealed to the veterans' groups, like the DAR and the VFW that the girls who had originally been brought in to release the men for war duty were now occupying "their" jobs. So that's the case that was made to the Ramspeck Committee, and when the vote to militarize us went before Congress, it failed. A lot of it was timing. The war was ending. If we were going to be militarized, we should have been militarized much earlier.

So they had a lot of pilots but not necessarily the right kind of pilots. The morning I and my 40 girls left Long Beach, there were 60-some P-38s and P-51s sitting in the middle of Long Beach airport that didn't get delivered that day. For months they had to go to fighter commands for pilots or spend time and money training other pilots to do the jobs we had been doing. I was devastated when I had to leave Long Beach. One day you're flying a P-51 to Newark and the next day you're driving back home to Seattle wondering if you can get your old job back at Macy's.

We all had a tough time adjusting. The men coming back had the same problem. One day they were dressed in uniform and being honored as heroes, and the next day they're walking down the street in jeans and nobody knows who they were.

I was 24. I applied for a job with the airlines and they sent me back an application to be a stewardess. Well, that wasn't what I had in mind. There were no opportunities for women pilots in general aviation. The plan was for GA to explode after the war. There was going to be a Piper Cub in every garage. Didn't happen. So finally I got offered a job at Ryan in San Diego. They had a test program in a new airplane. So I was on my way to Ryan and I stopped in Long Beach to visit my boyfriend and we decided to get married. So I stayed in Long Beach and never got to San Diego.

Was your husband Jack London related to Jack the writer?

Shirttail relative. Jack London was a penname. He was a boy from an unmarried relationship in Oklahoma that was adopted by my husband's family. So he took the name Jack London as his penname. So we're not blood relatives, but I do know which branch of the family tree adopted him. There are a million Londons in Oklahoma and Texas.

I'll tell you something interesting. My dad was in the book business. He worked for McMillan. I never had to go to a library because our house was loaded with books. My mother always wanted to name her first daughter Charmian. Charmian was Jack London's wife's name. My maiden name is Erickson and my dad wasn't crazy about the name Charmian but my mother said if she had known I was going to marry a Jack London I would have been Charmian no matter what my dad said. Barbara was a very popular name in my era. Of the original 25 ferry pilots, four of us were Barbaras. That's how I got the nickname B. J.

Who were some of the folks you flew with?

One of my best friends was Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan., who was a ferry pilot with us at Long Beach. His flight to Ireland started in Long Beach. Before he died, he would come to the Long Beach airport open houses and sit at a table and tell his stories. He was a character. He didn't like hotels and restaurants, so during the war he slept in his airplane and ate candy bars. He didn't like the military life, so he quit and went to work for Douglas as a test pilot. He didn't have half the airplane that Lindbergh had. You wouldn't think it would go across town, much less across the ocean. So the fact that he made it to Ireland with such a small, ill-equipped airplane was a real feat.

One of my ferry pilots was a Busby Berkley dancer. Her name is Loretta Foy. She became a famous helicopter pilot. Some were schoolteachers, clerks, buyers, housewives, they just came from everywhere.

Barbara London
Barbara receives the Air Medal from General Hap Arnold, 1943

What did you do after the war ended?

I was executive secretary for the Powder Puff Derby for 20 years. That was a great training ground for teaching how to fly cross- country. I raced every year except the two summers I had my girls. Then I went to work for Piper in the '60s until the company was sold. Then Barney Frazier, my sales manager, and I went into business for ourselves in 1970. He died in '83 and my younger daughter came to work for me for a while. Then she went on to start her own business. My other daughter went on to the airlines and is a Captain for Delta. Since I retired, I've become a consultant. I help anybody that's trying to buy or sell an airplane.

Do both of your daughters fly?

Yes. My younger daughter shares the office with me. She now does PR work for the transportation industry, did work for WinAir when they were based here, just started work for a company called Ejet, and does some work in local politics. She is a commercial, multiengine instrument pilot with about 1,000 hours. My older daughter Terry has been with the airlines for 25 years. She is now stationed in Salt Lake City flying 737s.

When did you first see aviation catch on with Terry?

She always wanted to be an airline pilot. But you have to understand my kids were raised in an airplane. When we went to grandma's we went in an airplane, not in a car. So both of them were exposed to aviation early on. Terry knew that it would be tough, but she wanted to be an airline pilot. It took her 10 years. The younger one didn't have that same drive to fly ... her passion was horses. She spent her teen years doing jumping contests. Then she gave up all the ceremony and went back to spurs and chaps and wound up as a state cutting champion. But she learned how to fly when she came to work for me after Barney died. Once she started she was a real natural pilot.

I always told them that there was no reason girls couldn't fly. The airplane doesn't know the difference. It's just a matter of learning. And the reward is you get to see the world from an airplane, and meet the greatest group of people on earth.

 


Smithsonian fellow Deborah G. Douglas gives some background on the WASP program


If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.