Betty Greene: Wings to Serve

Chapter 1
Target Practice

The twin-engine Lockheed B-34 bomber stood illuminated in pools of white floodlight on a corner of the tarmac. Betty Greene strolled toward it, her parachute strapped securely to her back and her fur-lined flying jacket buttoned tight against the crisp fall air. Her heart beat wildly as she approached the airplane. She climbed into the cockpit and pulled the safety belt snug around her. Already sitting in the copilot’s seat beside her was the officer in charge. This was Betty’s first flight in a Lockheed B-34, and he was going along to check Betty out in the aircraft.

“I’ll watch while you put her through the motions,” grunted the officer in a disinterested, almost disrespectful way.

Betty methodically began working through her preflight procedures. She checked the fuel level in each of the plane’s tanks. “Tank one full. Tank two at the three-quarter mark,” she called. Next she adjusted her seat, moving it to the farthest back position. Someone much shorter than she had obviously flown the plane last. Next she pulled her earphones on and checked the radio switches.

With the first stage of preparations over, she turned her attention to the cockpit controls. As she adjusted the rudder, unlocked the controls, and made sure the parking brake was on, the officer beside her said, “You seem to know what you’re doing. Any questions?”

“No, sir,” Betty replied. “So far, so good.”

“Well, in that case, wake me if you need me,” the officer replied.

Betty glanced over at the officer, thinking he was joking. But to her surprise—and her dismay—he had slid his seat back as far as it would go and had already settled down for a nap.

Despite the officer’s lax attitude, Betty continued with her preflight check. Looking out the cockpit window, she made sure the flaps were working, and then she set them for takeoff. Next she checked the throttle control and primed the engines. “Clear,” she called twice, leaning out the cockpit window, and then flicked a switch to start the engines. First one and then the other burst to life.

Once the engines were both purring smoothly, Betty released the brake and pushed the throttle forward to rev the engines. The B-34 rolled forward. Betty talked to the control tower on the radio as she started to taxi the plane across the tarmac. A controller instructed her to proceed to the end of the runway and hold position. Once she had brought the airplane to a halt, three men hauling a cable scurried to the back of the plane, where they attached the cable to a metal eyelet at the back of the tail. As the men scurried back, one of them ran to the front, where Betty could see him from the cockpit, and gave her a thumbs-up. Betty radioed the control tower for permission to take off. Soon the Lockheed was barreling down the runway before lifting into the cool, dark, moonless night. The cable at the back of the plane was taut as it dragged a large canvas square with an enormous bull’s-eye painted on it behind the plane.

“Head to two thousand feet,” mumbled the officer, without opening his eyes.

Betty adjusted the flaps, keeping the throttle on full. She eased the joystick forward a little and then banked to the left in a wide circle as she gained altitude. There was little to see below except the lights in the distance of one or possibly two small boats bobbing about in the Atlantic Ocean. Once she reached two thousand feet, Betty leveled off the plane and proceeded to make a pass over the range where the antiaircraft gunners were practicing.

All at once, an enormous burst of light exploded about twenty yards off the right side of the aircraft. Betty’s eyes widened as she realized how close the live shells from the antiaircraft guns were to the plane. She glanced over at the commanding officer, who was curled up and snoring in his seat. Betty’s mind raced. It was her first time pulling targets for gunnery practice. Was this normal? Should she wake the officer and ask him whether shells ought to be exploding so close to the airplane? The officer, like most of the men stationed at Camp Davis, North Carolina, was not very enthusiastic about having women pilots serving there, and Betty worried that he might reprimand her for being a nervous woman if she woke him.

Another burst of gunfire exploded beside them. This time it was close enough to light up the entire cockpit with an eerie glow. Betty decided that no matter what the commanding officer said, she was going to wake him. Just then, another burst of gunfire whizzed past the plane. As it did so, the officer sat bolt upright. “What was that?” he yelled.

“Shells are exploding all around us. Is that normal?” Betty asked.

“Normal, normal!” the officer spluttered. “Some fool down there is aiming right at us and not the target! What are they trying to do, shoot us down?”

Frantically the officer reached for the radio. He barked some orders into the microphone, and within two minutes, the shells had stopped exploding around the Lockheed B-34. Betty breathed a sigh of relief and noticed the officer seemed to have suddenly lost interest in sleeping.

Betty made several more passes over the antiaircraft gunnery range. This time the gunner’s sights were aimed on the target being towed behind and not on the B-34 itself. As she flew, Betty marveled at how she was fulfilling her childhood dream to one day fly. She was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. She flew military aircraft in logistical and support roles, and her accomplishments in the air were helping America’s war effort. Yet she also had a higher purpose for her flying. Being a part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots was just a stepping-stone on the path to achieving her real goal: combining her love of God with her love of flying to serve others. But that night it all seemed to her a long way from the life she had known growing up in Seattle on the shores of Lake Washington.

Chapter 2
A Great Aviator

Eight-year-old Betty Greene pushed a strand of long brown hair out of her eyes and peered upward for a glimpse of the Spirit of St. Louis. She had read everything she could about Charles Lindbergh and his amazing flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris. She had to pinch herself to remind herself she really was in the stadium at the University of Washington waiting with thousands of other excited people for her hero to fly overhead.

Betty wiggled a little closer to her oldest brother, Joe. Even though Joe was sixteen years old, Betty felt they were buddies. After all, the two of them shared a love for airplanes. Joe already had a pilot’s license, having flown solo at fourteen, and Betty could hardly wait to follow in his footsteps.

An eerie hush fell over the crowd. Then Betty heard it: the buzz of an airplane engine in the distance. The sound grew steadily louder. Betty squinted into the sun until she finally saw the plane come into view. The tiny single-engine monoplane glistened in the sunlight. On each side of its nose, the words Spirit of St. Louis were painted in blue script lettering, and the call letters N-X-211 were emblazoned on the underside of the right wing. Betty gazed in amazement as the plane circled the stadium three times. Her imagination ran wild. She was actually looking at the first airplane ever to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. She had followed the attempts of other pilots to be the first to make the 3,600-mile nonstop flight. Commander David had crashed his plane in a trial flight, killing himself and his copilot. Captain Nuingesser, a French pilot, had taken off from Paris in a biplane and was never seen again. But now, right overhead, were the airplane and the pilot who had made the thirty-three-and-one-half-hour flight on May 22, 1927. After a final tip of its wings, the airplane climbed and headed southwest.

“Where’s it going?” Betty asked Joe.

“To Sand Point Naval Air Station,” he replied. “Lindbergh is going to land there, and then a motorcade will bring him back to the stadium. See that stand down there?” He pointed to a large wooden platform decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons. “That’s where he will give a speech and receive his medal from the City of Seattle.”

Betty turned to her twin brother Bill and relayed the thrilling news to him. Bill nodded, though Betty was sure he would be thinking more about the car Lindbergh arrived in than the airplane he’d flown across the Atlantic. Despite being born only eight minutes apart, Bill did not share Betty’s interest in airplanes, though they enjoyed and did almost everything else together. They gathered wild blackberries from the bushes at the edge of Lake Washington, which formed the western boundary of the Greene family’s property. They were in the same class at Hunts Point School. And being the youngest, they were both fed and bathed by Josephine, the family maid, who tucked them safely into bed each night before their father arrived home from the office at 6 P.M. One thing the Greene twins did not lack was plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep.

At last Betty heard the honking of horns. All those around her rose to their feet, chanting “Lindbergh, Lindbergh” and waving souvenir flags with the famous aviator’s face on them. Some people wore hats with shiny commemorative buttons on them or carried tiny dolls dressed in pilot’s leathers.

Betty stood on her tiptoes. Squeezed between Joe and her other brother, twelve-year-old Albert, she tried to peer through the sea of hats that blocked her view. She couldn’t see a thing. Finally she looked up at Joe with tears stinging her brown eyes. With an understanding look, Joe scooped her up and held her above the crowd so that she could see.

Suddenly there he was! The greatest aviator of the time—Charles Lindbergh—had arrived. He looked like an overgrown, gangly schoolboy. Betty was surprised, as she had expected someone who looked older and wiser, like her father. “Lucky” Lindbergh, as he had been nicknamed, sat in the backseat of a big open car, grinning from ear to ear. As he drove past, no more than fifteen feet from her, Betty could make out the Distinguished Flying Cross pinned to the left side of his jacket that President Coolidge had presented to him.

The cheering and applause of the crowd finally died down, and the speeches began. Betty couldn’t follow all that was said; it was a blur of information about the Ryan plane Lindbergh had flown, how safe it was, and how flying was the future for America. Charles Lindbergh also said something about America having an airport in every city and town someday. It all sounded far-fetched to Betty, but she hoped it was true. There was nothing she wanted to do more than fly.

In the following years, other, more important concerns occupied Betty’s mind. In May of 1928, the Greene family suffered through a disaster. The twins, Betty and Bill, were at a birthday party for one of their second-grade classmates. As Betty’s mother, Gertrude Greene, was helping to serve the cake, the telephone rang. Mrs. Greene answered it, and Betty watched as her mother’s face fell. She knew something was wrong. “Yes, yes, thank you. I understand,” she heard her mother say just before she put the phone down and ran outside. The entire birthday party followed her. They all rushed to the side of the road, where about a quarter of a mile away they could see flames shooting high into the air.

“A fire,” yelled one of the children in delight.

Betty did not share the boy’s excitement. Her stomach was tied in knots. It was her house that was engulfed in flames.

Later that night, when the embers had cooled, the Greene family inspected what had once been their spacious home, now a pile of blackened wood. Grotesque twisted skeletons of their furniture lay scattered among the ruins. Betty could make out the bedsprings where her bed had been and a broken piece of her favorite doll china tea set. Nothing was left except two lawn chairs that had been on the back porch. Someone had dashed up and rescued them. Evergreen Point’s only firefighting equipment, a hose pushcart, had been no match for the fire that engulfed the tinder-dry solid cedar home.