Barbara Jane Erickson London
D July 1, 1920 – 2013
Training Location: New Castle Army Air Base (Wilmington, Del.)
Planes flown: PT-17, PT-13, BT-13, BT-14, AT-6, A-20, P-38, P-51
Assigned bases: New Castle Army Air Base (Wilmington, Del.) and Long Beach Army Air Base (Calif.)
Barbara Jane Erickson, known as B.J. to the other Originals and the WASP under her command in the squadron at Long Beach, was born July 1, 1920 in Seattle, Washington. She learned to fly floatplanes through the CPT program at the University of Washington where she was a student in 1939. She soloed in a Taylorcraft Seaplane at Lake Union, Seattle, that year and earned her private pilot’s license in 1940.
I wangled my way into all four CPT classes. Yes, I was pushy. I was excited and energetic, and I wanted it. Flying came easily to me. I was good at it. I made friends easily and I had a lot of mentors. One gentleman knew how badly I wanted to go on. A few girls were being allowed to advance, so he encouraged me to apply. I did, and went on through secondary training and cross country and got my commercial and instrument ratings. I still correspond with him to this day and he is now ninety-seven.
After acquiring her private, commercial and instrument ratings, as well as her flight instructor’s certificate, Barbara returned to Lake Union as an instructor for the University of Washington flight school. There, in the same program from which she graduated, she taught other young students how to fly.
“I instructed during my junior and the first half of my senior year, went to school one day a week and flew the other six. The dean of women at the University of Washington bent the rules for me. She allowed me to take all my lectures on Monday so that I could teach flying the other six days of the week.” Her major was Home Economics, one of the fields open to women prior to World War II. But, with news of the war coming from overseas, Barbara remembers that school seemed “kind of incidental at that point.”
Her job on Boeing’s line began after Pearl Harbor. The government shut down all civilian flying within fifty miles of the U.S. coastline and Barbara was out of a flight-instructing job. Working at Boeing through May 1942 helped her finance the last few months of her education.
“I had been working since I was 16–first at the Five and Dime for 37 cents an hour and later at Marshall Fields.” Her father was the West Coast representative for Macmillan Publishing, so the family was comfortable. However, her parents had three children in college at one time and all three were expected to contribute financially to their educations.
Barbara’s leadership potential was obvious from the beginning. The dean of women had seen it and Buren Reeder, her supervisor at Boeing, now recognized it as well. He supported her dreams and ambitions, and the two remained lifelong friends.
Early in 1942, Barbara received a telegram from famous aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran, asking her to consider going to England to ferry airplanes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, but she opted to finish school instead. In May 1942, following graduation, Barbara took a job at the Martin School of Flying in Walla Walla, Washington, far enough inland to remain in operation. The Martin school was, also, training men to be Army flight instructors.
All the boys were experienced pilots and had hundreds of hours. At first, they didn’t like the idea of a girl instructing them. Here I was twenty-two-years-old, just out of college, attractive, dedicated. But we were all in the same boat, up at 4 in the morning in order to fly at 5. We all wanted to succeed and I showed them I could do it too. I always had a smile on my face. I enjoyed what I was doing. Basically, I get along with people and I gained rapport with them. They finally were resigned to their fate and accepted me.
On September 6, 1942, Barbara received a telegram from another veteran woman flyer, Nancy Love, inviting her to come to Wilmington, Delaware, and apply for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), a group of civilian women pilots attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces. “I requested leave from my job. Fortunately, I was working for a flight school operator who would let me go. Others weren’t so lucky.”
Barbara–who acquired the nickname B.J. in Wilmington because there were four Barbara’s among the original 28 WAFS–was the 14th woman to join Nancy Love’s elite squadron of women ferry pilots. Their original assignment was to ferry trainer airplanes from the factories to the training fields in the South. Later, they flew bigger, faster aircraft–but always within the 48 states and Canada.
A friend, Eleanor Dressen, who was working at the flight school with Barbara, accompanied her to Wilmington. Not long after they arrived, Nancy Love’s secretary left and Eleanor got that job.
In the fall of 1942, Jacqueline Cochran–with the Army’s backing–established a flight school in Texas to train women pilots. These women, once they won their wings, were destined to ferry airplanes as part of Nancy Love’s squadron.
In January 1943, Nancy divided her original WAFS squadron into four smaller squadrons to be stationed at ferrying bases around the country. She placed B.J. in command of the women’s squadron attached to the 6th Ferrying Group in Long Beach, California. B.J. was only 22 years old. Several of the WAFS were older and more experienced. Some were jealous. But Nancy felt she was the one to handle the job and told her, “B.J., I’m going to forget Long Beach. You can take care of it.”
This made young Barbara Jane Erickson privy to all the Army’s Ferrying Division and Air Transport Command discussions, planning, and decisions concerning the women pilots from then until the deactivation of the group in December 1944. It may have been one of the most intuitive moves WAFS commander Nancy Love ever made. Super-organized B.J. became her friend, her confidante, her able leader on the West Coast.
“Nancy even sent Eleanor Dressen out here to work with me.”
Nancy had been reassigned to Cincinnati to work directly with Ferrying Division commander Colonel William H. Tunner. Rather than take Eleanor to Cincinnati, Nancy sent her to Long Beach to lend her skills and support to her friend.
Beginning in May 1943, the number of women pilots grew by approximately fifty each month through the addition of the graduates from the Army flight training school in Texas. They were divided among the four women’s ferrying squadrons operating at Long Beach, Wilmington, Dallas, Texas, and Romulus, Michigan. In July, Cochran was named Director of Women Pilots and Love was named Executive for the women flying for the Ferrying Division. In August 1943, the name of the women pilots attached to the Army Air Forces was changed to Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP.
By then, the women were transitioning into bigger, faster aircraft.
Nancy Love was the first woman to fly the B-17. She was the first to fly most of the airplanes including the P-51, P-38, C-47 and C-54. Both she and the Wilmington women’s squadron commander, Betty Gillies, checked out in a B-17 in August 1943. B.J. was the third woman to fly a B-17 making two orientation flights on October 8 and 9, 1943. But it was April 9, 1944, before the girl who stood on the catwalk at Boeing and dreamed of flying the B-17 officially checked out as a pilot on the four-engine bomber. On April 11, she and a male first pilot delivered Flying Fortress #42-97932 to Denver.
B.J. delivered her first B-17 as pilot-in-command on October 31, 1944. She and WASP copilot, Virginia Hill, took the aircraft from Long Beach to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
B.J. was one of only five women pilots in the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, to hold the rare “5p” classification, which meant she was qualified to fly as pilot-in-command on heavy four-engine aircraft like the B-17 as well as the swift, powerful single- and twin-engine pursuits.
B.J. recalls the infamous trip of October 16, 1944, when she and Nancy Love were assigned to pick up a war weary B-17 named “Genevieve” at Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, and ferry the battered Flying Fortress to Amarillo, Texas.
A large area of grease and oil stained the concrete under each engine. The ship was very dirty and much patched, but–they soon discovered–she had a proud heritage. On the instrument panel, Nancy and B.J. found a plastic plate with the following inscription:
“Genevieve”–First Airplane Repaired
By Rome Air Depot. Please Advise of Her
Escapades, Rome, N.Y., U.S.A.
Nancy and B.J. decided to take special care of this tired old lady of the air. But when they fired up the four engines, they realized that would be harder than they had hoped–#1 lost 300 revolutions on the right magneto; #2 was OK; on #3, the oil pressure was 20 pounds low; and #4 poured oil on the already saturated concrete ramp. They decided to request repairs before trying to take off.
Finally, the ship was ready. They filed clearance for Scott Field near St. Louis with a true airspeed of 150 mph. A large red sign on the instrument panel warned NOT to try to retract the landing gear!
En route, they did their best to ignore the aircraft that flew by them signaling “in a superior manner” that they’d forgotten to pull the landing gear up. When a squadron of P-47s whizzed by, the pilots laughing and gesturing from inside their bubble cockpits, “we strongly suspected that the epithet ‘women drivers’ was being directed at us along with the hand signals.
“We became very fond of Genevieve. We felt a certain spiritual kinship with her, since we share a common and ignominious fate, we being bound for our ‘figurative’ grave on 20 December 1944, when the WASPs were to be deactivated.”
On November 9, 1944, Nancy wrote to the commanding officer of the Rome Air Depot: “We hope that this account of the final escapade of ‘Genevieve’ will be of interest. Her saga in combat was an honorable one, as discovered in her battered form #1 A.”
“I wrote to my mother and father every week I was in the service. I wrote to them after Nancy and I flew to Cornelia Fort’s funeral in Nashville. I tried to tell them not to worry. Then again after Evelyn Sharp died, I tried again to reassure them. Evelyn was my best friend.”
B.J. lost six of her squadron members to accidents–Cornelia and Evelyn who were fellow original WAFS plus four others. She had only one close call herself–September 19, 1944.
One of the advantages of being in Long Beach was we had all these factories close by and all these planes that we could fly. One night I got a call from Operations. “We’ve got some P-38s down here. Do any of you girls want to check out in one at night?” So down I went. I had flown the P-38 in daylight. No problem. I took one up and flew around for an hour. But when it came time to land, I couldn’t get the gear down.
Well, I called the tower and they called Jack.
Capt. Jack London was head of flight transition for the entire base at Long Beach. He and B.J. had been dating.
They told him, “We’ve got one of your girls in trouble down here.”
He drove over to the tower, got on the radio, and gave me instructions out of the manual. I had to pump the gear down. I had no hydraulics. So, I went out over the ocean and flew around for an hour and pumped. Then I flew by the tower for them to see if the gear was down.
I was cleared to land, but because I had no hydraulics, I also had no flaps and no brakes. I was going to have to/and without brakes. So, they told me to land on the longest runway, which is 25 Right. Long Beach had five runways and there were one hundred airplanes parked in the area in the center and those airplanes were guarded by armed sentries with dogs.
Jack got in his Jeep and came racing out to the runway to meet me. I landed and rolled all the way to the end of the runway. Then I had to find a place to park it.
The guard, with his dog, sees this airplane coming down the runway from one direction and a Jeep racing in from the other. He didn’t know what was going on and raised his gun. I was watching all this from the cockpit and I just knew he was going to shoot Jack. But Jack stopped the Jeep, hollered to the guard, threw his ID on the ground, and got out with his hands in the air. Fortunately, the guard didn’t shoot him, but I know for a minute there, he thought he had nabbed a saboteur red handed.
After Jack convinced the guard that we weren’t there to blow up airplanes, he helped me park the airplane and drove me back to Operations.
Like I said, that was my only close call in all my time in the WAFS. Those Rosie the Riveters built good airplanes!
You know, if any of the women had the best job in the Ferrying Division, it was me. I was one of the youngest girls, and yet I was the squadron commander. I had the airplanes. Everything was built in the LA Basin. The girls back east fought to get a P-47 to bring out here so they could get checked out in the other airplanes. Weather-wise, we flew every day while they sat on the ground back east. I was the luckiest of all and I’m the first one to admit it.
It was a fantastic time in our lives. We were lucky to be alive then and equipped to do the job. It all depends on where you are and when. Timing is everything.
B.J.’s contribution to the WASPs during the twenty-eight months of the group’s existence is incalculable. She commanded some 80 women ferry pilots stationed at Long Beach. Like Nancy, B.J. was goal-oriented, operated by the book, and led by example with firmness and reason. That was why both women got along so well. “No Nonsense” might well be B.J.’s middle name.
But she did try her commanding officer Nancy Love’s patience once.
She and three other original WAFS went to Washington, unofficially, in early January 1944, to see what they could do about securing militarization for the women ferry pilots who were still civilians. B.J. decided to apply for a commission in the Army and a service pilot rating.
Word of what they were doing got around Washington. Someone notified Nancy Love in Cincinnati. “Very gently, but very firmly, she ordered us back to our bases,” B.J. confirms.
Most of the original WAFS didn’t want to be militarized. Several were married and some had children and the WACs didn’t allow that. Others were over the WAC’s age limit. But if we were militarized, we wanted to do it as individuals. I was young and single, so I applied for a commission to become a Service Pilot. I had the qualifications. Using my initials, B.J., they wouldn’t know if I was male or female. But nothing came of it.
The Air Transport Command awarded Barbara the coveted Air Medal following a remarkable series of cross-country deliveries in an inordinately short amount of time. The award was supposed to represent what ALL the WASPs attached to the Ferrying Division were doing, but it served to embarrass B.J. who did not like being singled out for what she felt all the women ferry pilots did daily–their job.
Today, B.J. is one of seven surviving original WAFS. She is their heart, soul and conscience. She knows their history better than anyone alive–because she lived it, because she led, because she stayed the course through to deactivation, and because she believes in what they did.
But she will tell you, “We did our jobs. We didn’t do anything special. We delivered airplanes for the U.S. Army. That’s what we were hired to do.” Characteristically, she casts a bit of a jaundiced eye at being called a heroine and at some of the hoopla raised today over what she considers their patriotic duty and something they also loved doing.
B.J. and Jack London were married April 9, 1945. After the war, he received a major’s commission in the AF Reserve and, when the new Air Force offered non-flying Reserve commissions to the WASPs in 1948, B.J. was commissioned a major as well. They served as reservists together and retired 20 years later. By then Jack was a full colonel.
The Air Force tried to take away B.J.’s commission when, in the early 1950s, they found out she had two children. She told them “I had a child when you offered it to me, I’m not giving it up now.” Most of the WASPs affected by this edict–including Nancy Love–gave in and resigned their commissions. B.J. and fellow WASP Lauretta Foy fought it and won.
Technically B.J. could not log airtime in AF airplanes, but Jack could. He would reserve an A-26 or twin Beech and they would go flying. Jack ferried the first operational jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, after the war and he saw to it that his pursuit pilot wife got to ride in it.
The Londons and Bud and Betty Gillies went in business together after the war when they purchased Acme Industrial Supply, an aviation supply company in Long Beach. Betty and B.J. had established a lasting friendship when both were stationed under Nancy’s command in Wilmington in the fall of 1942.
In 1966, B.J. went to work for the Piper dealer in Southern California. In 1970, she and her business partner, Barney Frazier, founded Barney Frazier Aircraft at Long Beach Airport. Jack died in 1973; Barney, in 1983. B.J. continued to run the company after Barney’s death and brought her daughter, Kristy London Ardizzone, in to work with her. Though she has sold the company now, B.J. still brokers airplanes.
In 1949, Betty Gillies recruited B.J. to work with her on the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR)–nicknamed the Powder Puff Derby and sponsored by the Ninety-Nines, the international women pilots’ organization. The nickname was a holdover from the first women’s air race held in August 1929. (8) The Ninety-Nines organized their first race in 1947. By 1949, the event was growing in reputation and numbers. Betty served as the chairman of the race for ten years–from 1951 to 1961–and B.J. was executive secretary for fourteen (1951-1965). “That means the one who types and cranks out the copies on a mimeograph machine.
“I ran the office. The typewriter and mimeograph machine sat on my dining room table that was cleared only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had young children, so we always met at my house. Betty drove up from San Diego and I’d cook dinner for the board members. Jack put up with it.” B.J.’s daughters were born in 1947 and 1949.
At B.J.’s dining room table, the board planned each annual race, determining the start and the terminus, as well as the interim stops, and seeking support from the aviation and business community in each. The event was patterned after the experiences the WASP had encountered as ferry pilots during the war. Times from point to point, fuel economy, and care of the airplane were emphasized. Between 1950 and 1967, B.J. competed in five races (1952, 1954, 1962, 1966 and 1967) and worked the remainder as an AWTAR board member.
A Life Member of the Ninety-Nines, B.J. also served three terms, a total of nine years, on the organization’s executive board. She is a charter member of the Long Beach Chapter, in which she is still active.
B.J. has passed the torch of flight to younger generations. Both of her daughters fly. Terry London Rinehart was the first woman pilot hired by Western Airlines in 1976 and retired from Delta Airlines as a Captain in 2005. Kristy, a fully rated pilot, is an executive with JetBlue Airlines. B.J.’s grandson, Justin Rinehart, has his instructor’s rating. Her twin granddaughters, Kelly and Lauren Rinehart, have their private pilot’s licenses.
Barbara is a fixture at the Long Beach International Airport. The Airport Area Business Council of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce honored B.J. during the centennial of flight in 2003, noting her more than fifty years of volunteer community service to the Long Beach Airport and business community. On March 24, 2005, the Long Beach City Council named the street in front of the airport terminal building Barbara London Drive.
“I was sent to Long Beach in February 1943 and I never left.”
When asked, she speaks to groups–both adults and young people–about the WAFS and WASP and about aviation in general. She flew until she reached her 80th birthday. At that point she said, “The busy airspace of the LA Basin didn’t need another 80-year-old woman pilot up there flying around.”
In October 2004, B.J. was honored by the Flight Path Learning Center, for her contributions to Southern California’s aviation heritage. The Center and Museum are located on the south side of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A bronze plaque with her name has been embedded on Sepulveda Boulevard, the main route to LAX. B.J. joins 44 other aviation pioneers “whose body of work has helped ensure Southern California’s world leadership in aviation/aerospace.” The Flight Path Learning Center of Southern California is dedicated, through public awareness, to recognizing and preserving Southern California’s aeronautical heritage as well as for guiding individuals and young people along their education paths toward careers in science and technology with emphasis on aviation/aerospace.”
Her latest, and possibly biggest, honor yet: On March 12, 2005, Barbara Erickson London was inducted into the Women in Aviation, International (WAI) Pioneer Hall of Fame. The ceremony was part of the WAI 16th annual conference held in Dallas. Fellow original WAFS Florene Miller Watson was inducted at the same time.
And Barbara was invited back “home” in 2003 for the Women Fly! Women in Aviation and Aerospace Conference, held at Seattle’s Boeing Museum of Flight, to speak on her life and role in aviation.
Barbara Jane Erickson, the twenty-one-year-old who worked for five months as part of the B-17 wing assembly team at Boeing in 1942, was the only WASP in World War II who both flew and built the B-17.
WAFS pilots Barbara London (in cockpit) and Evelyn Sharp, 1942-1944
Sarah Byrn Rickman
Texas Women’s University, Denton, Texas. WASP collection