Happy 100th birthday (December 15, 2020) to one of our favorite aviation ‘sheroes’, Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu! She's a WWII pilot, entrepreneurial aviator, and lifelong advocate for women military pilots.
During World War II, Haydu, known as Bee Falk at the time, volunteered for the civilian Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) in early 1944 because she loved flying and wanted to help the war effort (her older brother Lloyd was already serving in the Army Air Forces in England). She trained for seven months at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where she logged 210 hours in aircraft including the PT-17 Stearman, BT-13 Valiant, AT-6 Texan, and the AT-17 Bobcat. Haydu recalls her September 1944 graduation from WASP class 44-W-7 as “one of the happiest days” of her life. Her mother pinned her silver wings onto her uniform after the ceremony. She went on to serve at Pecos Army Airfield as an engineering test pilot and a utility pilot before the WASP program was canceled in December 1944.
Like many WASP, Haydu looked for work in aviation after the end of the WASP program, writing to airlines and aircraft companies to inquire about jobs. "I never heard ‘no' said in so many different ways,” she remembered in a 2006 interview. Yet she was able to engineer a successful commercial career in aviation thanks to her experience in the cockpit, understanding of the aviation business, and connections with WASP. She went on to work as a freelance flight instructor, ferry pilot, and later owned a Cessna dealership and flight school.
Haydu was also determined to receive recognition and retroactive veteran status for the WASP who proudly served their country during WWII. Because of the WASP program’s civilian status, the pilots were denied the benefits of the GI Bill and ineligible for military burials, among other things. As President of the WASP alumni association, Order of the Fifinella, between 1975-78, Haydu spearheaded the publicity campaign leading up to the 1977 congressional hearings to recognize the service and sacrifice of WASP.
Through the legal battles, Haydu encouraged her fellow WASP to keep fighting for recognition, insisting, “It’s so close; let’s not let it slip from our fingers.” Haydu had already donated her complete Santiago-blue WASP uniform to the Smithsonian in 1971 (and in 1989 she donated some of her personal papers), so she borrowed the uniform of her friend, Gretchen Gorman Graba (43-W-3), to wear at the Senate hearing on May 25 and House hearing September 20-21. On November 3, 1977, Congress approved H.R. 8701 granting the WASP veteran status, and Haydu mobilized the WASP phone tree to inform members of the good news. On November 23, President Carter signed the bill into law.
Haydu advocated for all women military aviators, not only the WASP but also the women who followed them down the runway. Together with Sara Payne Hayden, she created a nonprofit in 1978 to promote and preserve the roles of women who have contributed to military aviation at war and in peacetime. This organization, which became the Women Military Aviators, has grown from an inaugural membership of nine women to more than 800 members around the world today.
In recognition of Haydu and the other WASP who made their careers possible, 86 U.S. Air Force reservist women attended the 2008 WASP reunion. Lining the banquet stage, several stepped forward to recite a favorite quote by a WASP that had inspired them. One woman shared these words from Haydu: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Haydu’s hard work was recognized again in 2009. She was one of three surviving WASP to stand beside President Obama in the Oval Office as he awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP for their service during World War II.
Today we celebrate Haydu’s contributions to aviation and her support for women aviators. Happy birthday, Bee!