GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Edith Upson Smith learned how to drive at 30, but she learned how to fly when she was just 18 years old.
She was one of just over two thousand women who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, also known as WASP, during World War II.
The WASP were the first women to fly America's military aircraft, according to the National WASP WWII Museum.
At Frederick Army Airfield in Oklahoma, Smith flew planes from the factory out to the field, transported officers across bases, did test-piloting and taught some of the men how to fly.
"Some of them liked like that, some of them didn't," says Smith's daughter, Keith Rubin. "This was back in the forties."
Despite serving in the armed forces, the women in the program weren't granted military status until 1977.
"It was sort of under the radar. Nobody knew about it, and nobody appreciated it," says Rubin. "It was a pretty amazing program. It freed up the men to go overseas and fly. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to."
In 2010, the WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Smith's daughter says, her mother's bravery is part of what makes her story so special.
"She did this after she became a widow. Her husband had been a bomber pilot and was killed, but she went on," says Rubin. "She was so passionate about flying, that she still went out and did this."
To honor Smith and celebrate her turning 99, a group of female pilots, known as The Ninety-Nines, did a flyover in Green Valley Sunday morning.
"This a chance to honor women who wanted to serve their country. Because of the WASP members, we now have women fighter pilots, astronauts, commercial airline pilots and instructors. These women paved the way for women pilots today," says Pamela Rudolph of The Rio Colorado 99's Chapter. "Edith is an aviation pioneer, and we want to honor her on her 99th birthday. These women are a national treasure. Edith is one of them, and we want to celebrate her by performing a flyover."
The pilots met in Tucson, before flying over I-19 to Green Valley where Smith lives.
Originally posted on KGUN9 August 21, 2020.
Aubrey Gelpieryn is a journalist currently in New York. She enjoys writing about music, politics and current events.