Elizabeth Strohfus, a pilot who ferried military aircraft during World War II as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), breaking down barriers for future generations of women pilots, died March 6 in her hometown of Faribault, Minnesota. Strohfus was 96.
Born on Nov. 15, 1919, in Faribault and known as Betty Wall during her service days, she was one of about 1,100 women who flew military aircraft on a variety of missions, and was twice awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
Not only did Strohfus blaze trails as a female pilot serving her country in wartime, she also took pride in seeing to it that the contributions of women aviators did not go unrecognized.
“They said, ‘We didn’t know there were any women in the Air Force.’ For the longest time nobody knew women flew the airplane. But I let as many know as I could,” she said during an AOPA Live interview in August 2015 at the AOPA Regional Fly-In in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“It broke my heart when they told me I couldn’t fly anymore,” she recalled about learning that the WASP program had been canceled late in 1944.
The aviation community has never forgotten the contributions of Betty Wall and the other WASPs. When she was laid to rest on March 15, two AT-6 advanced trainers flew over her grave site in a tribute by the American Aviation Heritage Foundation. The group had hoped honor her with a full four-aircraft “missing woman formation,” but low ceilings and bad weather precluded that plan from taking shape, it said on its Facebook page.
The same organization has mounted a project to restore a BT-13 airplane—one that had been flown by WASPs as a primary trainer—to flying condition for the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas, as a flying monument to WASPs, as its president, Terry Baker, discusses in the AOPA Live video interview with Strohfus, describing the story of the WASPs as “a compelling human story.”
The Experimental Aircraft Association recalled a 2014 visit to the EAA Museum from Strohfus, having noted her saying that she had never had her name on an airplane because the aircraft she flew were always being delivered to others.
As she walked toward a T-6 in the EAA museum, “We explained to her as we approached the aircraft that we knew she had never had her name on an airplane, and that we wanted to fix that. As she rounded the left side of the engine cowling, and looked up, she saw it: her name proudly displayed beneath the canopy. She just stood there for a moment to let it sink in. When she looked back at us, tears had formed in her eyes, and ours as well. She said, ‘I don’t even know what to say,’ and that said it all,” said a news item about her death on the EAA website.
Strohfus, who was widowed in 1972, according to news reports, was an inductee of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, which noted in a biography that after the war, she had raised a family and did not fly again until 1991.
She did, however, make many appearances as a speaker before women pilots’ groups, and “as one of Minnesota’s most visible aviation ambassadors,” it said.