Virginia Sweet and Henry Allingham

Today, forty years ago, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  In the last few days two pioneering pilots, one from World War I and the other from World War II have died.


Virginia Sweet’s obituary as published in the Boston Globe is short so here it is in its entirty.

Inspired by a story she read as a young girl about Amelia Earhart’s trans-Atlantic flight, Virginia Sweet became a pioneering female aviator in her own right.

She was a pilot with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, ferrying every imaginable type of military aircraft from factories to air bases during World War II to free male pilots for combat overseas.

Sometimes Ms. Sweet was assigned to fly shot-up, barely functional aircraft in for repair. Thirty-eight of her fellow female fliers were killed during duty.

After the war, when these Rosie the Riveters of the skies no longer were needed, the nation essentially turned its back on Ms. Sweet and hundreds of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots like her.

The longtime Schenectady resident died July 12 at 88, two weeks after President Obama signed a law that offered recognition and Congressional Gold Medals, the highest award Congress can give to a civilian, to the WASP fliers.

Ms. Sweet prided herself on a five-decade flying record without an accident

Henry Allingham was one of the few veterans of World War I still alive when he died at aged 113.  The New York Times obituary tells his story.

An iconic figure to many in Britain, Mr. Allingham did wartime service including stints on land, in the air and at sea. In 1915, he flew as an observer and gunner in the Royal Naval Air Service, hunting zeppelins over the North Sea. He was aboard one of the Royal Navy ships that fought in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in which Britain lost 14 ships and 6,000 seamen.

Mr. Allingham was born in London in 1896. He lost his father to tuberculosis the next year. After his mother also died, he was raised by a grandmother. He became a trainee maker of surgical instruments before moving into the motor trade, training as a mechanic. After his wartime service, he worked until retirement for the Ford Motor Company. Judged to be too old to serve in combat in World War II, he was assigned to a project that sought to neutralize German magnetic mines.

The Associated Press  news account of Mr. Allingham’s death has this wonderful account

He spent the war’s first months refitting trucks for military use, but when his mother died in June 1915, he decided to join after seeing a plane circling a reservoir in Essex.

Only a dozen years after the Wright brothers first put up their plane, Allingham and other airmen set out from England on motorized kites made with wood, linen, and wire. They piled on clothes and smeared their faces in Vaseline, whale oil, or engine grease to block the cold.

“To be honest, all the planes were so flimsy and unpredictable – as well as incapable of carrying large fuel loads – at the start of the war that both British and German pilots would immediately turn back rather than face each other in the skies if they did not enjoy height supremacy,’’ Allingham would later write.

As a mechanic, Allingham’s job was to maintain the rickety craft. He also flew as an observer on a biplane. At first, his weaponry consisted of a standard issue Lee Enfield .303 rifle – sometimes two. Parachutes weren’t issued. He fought in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I. He served on the Western Front.

We owe Virginia Sweet and Henry Allingham not only for their service during war, but for their part in advancing aviation.  As anyone who plays Sid Meir’s Civilization knows:  you have to have flight before you can get rocketry.