The recent movie Hidden Figures introduced many of us to women who worked behind the scenes to send men into outer space. There are similar heroines in the aviation industry, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few of them and share their inspiring stories.
Six years ago I got an unexpected call from a Boeing executive who asked whether I’d like to write a book about the women of Boeing—women have been active in the company since its start in 1916. My mother had always inspired me to champion women’s issues, so I was thrilled about the idea.
I replied, “I think it’s high time their stories are told!” And during the writing journey that became Trailblazers: The Women of The Boeing Company, I made treasured new friends and learned valuable life lessons. Here are three of them:
Never take no for an answer
Dr. Sandi Jeffcoat inspires me with her dedication to sharing the love of science, technology, engineering, and math with young women. On a job interview in the early 1970s, Sandi, the first African-American woman to become a member of the Boeing Technical Excellence Program, was told she would not get the position because she was “black and a woman.” She thanked the interviewer and then approached the receptionist asking to speak to “the person who runs this organization.” She did—and presented him with multiple reasons why she was the ideal candidate. She got the job. Now retired from Boeing, Sandi says, “I’ve been proving everyone wrong ever since.”
Always be willing to give it a try
Nelda Lee was hired by McDonnell Douglas in 1969 and became the company’s first female flight test engineer in 1978. She and her brothers were inspired by parents who raised them to believe they could do anything, as exemplified by a favorite family tale, “The Truck Story.” While working with Nelda’s two brothers in the pasture of the family farm, Nelda’s dad turned to 8-year-old Roger, asked him to get in the truck, drive to the barn, and retrieve a needed tool. Wild eyed, Roger said, “But dad, I can’t drive the truck.” The response was “How do you know you can’t unless you try?” Roger hopped in the truck, drove to the barn, and returned victorious with the tool. Years later, Nelda became the first woman to fly an F-15 fighter jet. How do you know you can’t fly an F-15 unless you try?
Nelda still approaches life with the belief that she can do anything. At age 70—three years into retirement—she plays her trumpet, swings a mean golf club, and stays fit in innumerable ways including bicycling. She tirelessly supports Women in Aviation International (she’s in their Pioneer Hall of Fame); WhirlyGirls, a worldwide organization of helicopter pilots; and The 99s, an association of female pilots founded by Amelia Earhart. She speaks to girls about aviation at every opportunity. And she is passionately involved in 100+ Women Strong, an organization she helped form at Alabama’s Auburn University to recruit, retain, and reward female engineering students with scholarships and internships. She recently earned the Auburn University Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2016.
On aging with confidence, Nelda advises, “Do something that engages you every day, even if you do it by yourself. Stay in touch with younger people—be part of their lives!” And finally, she says, “The older I get the more important I think it is to give back—do something for somebody else because in turn you help yourself.”
Have passion for what you do
Barbara Jean Erickson-London, a University of Washington home economics major in the 1940s, had a passion for flying. She quit school, became a Rosie working on B-17s, and then became the only Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (WASP—women who ferried airplanes from factories to military bases in World War II) to receive the Army Air Medal during the war. Her photo is on my book’s cover, her face shining with her joy for flying as she sits in a C-47. Her dream of being a commercial airline pilot after the war was never realized, but her passion for aviation was her legacy: Her daughter was commercial pilot for 28 years and her four grandchildren are pilots.
While writing Trailblazers, I encountered corporate roadblocks, but I rarely took no for an answer thanks to Sandi. I had to dig hard for information about nearly-forgotten women, and I kept on trying because of Nelda. As for having passion, the book become a labor of love—for Boeing’s trailblazing women, their extraordinary courage, and the life lessons they can teach us all.
Author Betsy Case began her career as owner of a Seattle advertising agency for 13 years. A marketing writer at Boeing for 18 years, she created a wide variety of communication materials. She also authored In Plane View, The Jumbo Jet: Changing the World of Flight, and Houseboat: Reflections of North America’s Floating Homes.