Members of the Ninety-Nines Inc. took off from Witham Field to honor Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu of Palm City
MARTIN COUNTY – If you heard a lot of small planes buzzing the skies near Stuart on the morning of Sunday, June 14, the sound was definitely in honor and a delight to the ears of Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, a member of the exclusive and once-overlooked Women Airforce Service Pilots, the veteran female pilots of World War II.
Nearly two dozen pilots representing five Florida chapters of the International Organization of Women Pilots known as The Ninety-Nines converged on Witham Field early that day to show their support for the former member of the WASP and founding member of the Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines. Although at age 99 Mrs. Falk Haydu may not be flying any planes, her heart still soars with the passion for aviation she shares with her fellow Ninety-Nines who still fly. She watched the tribute of more than 20 aircraft that day with the help of staff from her home at the Water’s Edge Extended Care in Palm City, an event that she couldn’t even share directly with her daughter Diana Potter of Stuart due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I know how much my mother loves aviation and I know how much the Ninety-Nines mean to her,” Ms. Potter said after the flyover. “For this sort of effort to be put forth for her, it was overwhelming.”
A native of Montclair, New Jersey, Miss Falk grew up during the Great Depression when she said there wasn’t enough money to send both her brother Lloyd and her to college, so she ended up working as a secretary. After a few years, her frustration with that career led to resolve.
“I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and do something about it,” she said. “I attended night courses at the Newark College of Engineering and enrolled in an aviation course. This is how I became interested in flying and took flying lessons in 1943. My brother was in the Army Air Corps, and I wanted to do something more for my country, so I applied and was accepted into the WASP.”
After completing seven months of flight training at Sweetwater, Texas, she was stationed at that state’s Pecos Army Airfield in 1944. One of the elite group of 1,074 WASP breaking gender barriers into the male-dominated aviation field, her primary duties were doing engineering tests and serving as a utility pilot. That latter specifically meant ferrying aircraft from one U.S. base to another in order to free up male pilots for combat duty. It was during this time that the then-single young lady earned the nickname of “Bee” for her flying skills, although she admits never knowing if it was meant to be a jab or a compliment. Other WASP duties included piloting decommissioned aircraft to their final graveyard destination, some even stripped of their instrumentation. Other WASPs towed cloth targets behind their aircraft so male pilots could use them for target practice with live ammo. Although Miss Falk never did the latter, she did recall a close call once when she wasn’t sure if she’d actually walk away.
“I was on a solo flight when the engine started smoking,” she recalled. “As conditions worsened, I had to decide whether to ditch the plane or fly it out. I choose to declare an emergency and fly it out. The ground crew was ready for me when I landed safely. They fixed my plane and I continued on my flight.”
With their proven piloting skills, WASP were even called upon by top Army Air Corps brass to fly B29s to show their male counterparts the plane was relatively safe. Some of the latter had nicknamed the aircraft a widow-maker for its reputation for catching fire. While Bee never piloted one, she did know WASP who did, and their proficiency in doing so touched the nerves of male pilots unready for equality in the military skies.
“The cowlings were a bit tight, which caused overheating, but if flown according to manufacturers’ specs, this problem did not occur,” Bee explained. “WASP Dora Doherty and DeeDee Moorman checked out on the B29 in three days. Their mission was to fly this plane from B29 base to B29 base and show the men that the plane could be safely flown, even by a woman. This program was halted by another Air Corps general who did not like his big strong football players being shamed by a pair of women. The plane was later modified to address the overheating.”
That experiment may have also been the beginning of the end for the WASP, who were ultimately disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944 and the Pecos Army Airfield converted into a B25 training base the following New Year’s Day.
“Had the program continued just 11 more days, I would have been flying B25s,” Bee said with a wishful sigh. “We had been promised that if this experimental program proved successful, we would be taken into the Army Air Corps. It was successful, [but] when the time came for Congress to pass a bill to that effect, lobbying efforts on the part of male pilots and cadets prevented this from happening.”
Bee continued flying after her wartime service, becoming part-owner of a flight school in New Jersey and also owning a Cessna Aircraft dealership. In 1951, she married Joseph Haydu after meeting him as a fellow guest being interviewed on a radio program for civilian pilots. He had served as a [Boeing] Stearman instructor during the war in Camden, S.C.
“When our three children were quite young, we went back to flying, continuing throughout our lives until our late 70s,” Ms. Falk-Haydu said.
In 1975 while serving as president of the WASP organization, the Order of Fifinella, she renewed the fight to win veteran status for former WASP.
“We wanted recognition as veterans of WWII as had been promised,” she explained. “The challenge to convince Congress to right that wrong done in 1944 was a monumental one. We were finally recognized as veterans of WWII in November of 1977.”
Ms. Falk-Haydu also saw another WASP milestone when she witnessed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office signing the bill awarding all WASP the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. She returned to Washington D.C. the following year to attend the awards ceremony.
“I was very proud to be a recipient and honored that the WASP were being recognized as contributors and veterans of WWII,” she said.
Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines founder Ruth Jacobs has known Ms. Falk-Haydu since meeting her at the Stuart Airshow in 2004 and took part in the recent flyover. She described the atmosphere that day at Witham Field prior to departure as the group of some 50 people prepared to take off to honor both Ms. Falk-Haydu, veteran WASP Shirley Kruse and the late WASP Kay Hilbrandt, the latter represented by four family members in the air that morning.
“The air was filled with excitement and anticipation as we looked at the honor we were giving to Bee, Kay – posthumously – and Shirley,” she said.
The president and CEO of the Stuart Jet Center, Dan Capen, was also on hand that day to witness the monumental tribute.
“Without a doubt, Bee made tremendous contributions to our country and really paved a way for women aviators,” he said. “We were excited about the opportunity to meet the pilots, serve as their staging ground and in some small way show our gratitude to Bee—and all women pilots—for their service to our nation and the field of aviation.”
Ms. Falk-Haydu has authored two books on her experiences, Letters Home 1944-1945 and
America’s First Women Military Pilots WASP. Today her old WASP uniform is proudly on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. She was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Teterboro, N.J. in 2000.