Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu is a veteran pilot of World War II. She earned her wings with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women to fly American military aircraft. Bee was born on December 15th, 1920 in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. She graduated high school in 1938 with a strong desire to continue her education and, a few years later, started taking aviation classes at night. The decision to study flight would change the course of Bee’s life. When the Army Air Forces launched an experimental training program for women pilots, she was ready. Her drive, dedication, and education came together in 1944, making her a perfect candidate for the WASP program. Over 25,000 women applied to be WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted. Bee was one of them.
She was assigned to WASP training class 44-7 and, at the age of twenty-three, attended the seven-month training program at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Training first in the Stearman PT-l7 and then in the AT-6 Advanced Trainer, she learned formation flying and aerobatics to the same standards as her male counterparts. Upon graduation, she was stationed at Pecos Army Airfield in Pecos, Texas, which was an advanced training field for the UC-78 and AT-17 aircraft. At Pecos, she contributed to the war effort as an engineering test pilot and utility pilot. Not long into her first assignment however, the WASP were disbanded. These highly trained pilots had flown every aircraft manufactured for WWII and over the course of the program, thirty-eight WASP lost their lives in service to the United States. Yet, when the program ended on December 20th, 1944, they were not recognized as veterans and their records were sealed or classified.
It took many years, but the WASP legacy was eventually restored and Bee was instrumental to making it happen. From 1975 to 1978, she was President of the official organization of the WASP and led the fight in Congress to recognize WASP as veterans. Working tirelessly with Senator Barry Goldwater, USAF Colonel Bruce Arnold, and countless others, success was finally achieved. On November 23rd, 1977, President Carter signed a law granting veteran status to the WASP, nearly thirty-three years after they were disbanded. While some of the traditional benefits were not afforded, WASP were given access to the Veterans Administration—a great help to many. In another great moment, Bee stood beside President Obama on July 1st, 2009 as he signed the bill awarding all WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.
Over the years, Bee has remained in the air. She was a flight instructor, had a ferrying business, a Cessna dealership and was part owner of a flight school. She married a WWII PT-17 pilot, Joseph Haydu, and together they owned twenty-eight different airplanes. Bee’s honors include induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2012. She has written of her WASP experience in “Letters Home 1944-1945,” based on letters her mother had saved.
“Bee” Haydu learned the basics of military flight at the controls of the Stearman PT-17. This stunning biplane is one of many variants of the Stearman Model 75, a plane considered to be the workhorse of WWII trainers.