How a Saint Paul-born ‘fly girl’ changed history

(Family of Dora Dougherty Strother McKeown)

Dora Dougherty Strother McKeown has died. The Saint Paul native was the first woman to fly a B-29 Superfortress during World War II because the men were afraid to.

At the time, men didn’t want to fly it.

It had unreliable engines, caught fire regularly, and didn’t undergo the kind of testing other airplanes of the day did.

Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets, who would later pilot the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, recruited Ms. McKeown and another woman — both members of the Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASP) — to fly the plane, even though she’d never flown a four-engine plane before.

She and Didi Moorman flew the B-29 to airbases and when men saw women emerging, they decided they might be able to fly it, too.

“At stake was the ability of that aircraft to deliver the bomb it was built to fly,” she said. “It made me want to do a perfect job.”

She didn’t have the job long, however. Col. Tibbets’ superiors found out he was letting women fly the B-29 and shut the program down.

But it was too late, she had already made a difference.

In 1995, a retired Air Force pilot sent her this letter:

Dear Dr. Strother:

Before you throw this letter into the trash-basket, let me introduce myself. In 1944 I met you with Col. Tibbets and Didi Moorman when you brought a B-29 to Clovis AFB, Clovis, N.M. I was the Director of Maintenance & Supply and Base Test Pilot at the time. You came to show us that the B-29 plane was not one to be feared. You were the pilot that day and demonstrated your excellent flying skills and convinced us the B-29 was the plane that any pilot could be proud to fly. From that day on we never had a pilot who didn’t want to fly the B-29.

It has been many years but I have never forgotten that day at Clovis and never will. I recently read about you in the Confederate Air Force “Dispatch” dated July/Aug. 1985, that a friend of mine had given me. I have asked the CAF to send this letter on to you and hope that you will receive it. I realize that it was a long time ago, but I still want to thank you for your helping me that day at Clovis. I will admit that I was scared, even though I had just returned from flying B-24s in North Africa. You made the difference in my flying from then on. I wasn’t the only pilot that felt this way, and I am sure that they would thank you too if they knew where you were.

The article didn’t mention Didi Moorman so I assume that she has passed on. She was the Co-pilot that day.

Thank you again and with kindest regards, I remain,

Harry McKeown Lt. Col. USAF (Ret)
Sumter, S.C. 29150

She married Lt. Col. McKeown.

Women weren’t allowed to be combat pilots in the war, but they were plenty capable, the military thought, to ferry aircraft to combat locations. They also flew aircraft towing targets for men on the ground to learn to shoot at enemy aircraft.

“I was never maltreated nor did I know of any girls who were,” she said. “The guys were like our brothers,” she told the Tampa Tribune in an interview last December.

For more than 30 years, however, they were denied any military veteran status until Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law extending veterans benefits to WASPs. It was partly on the strength of testimony from Ms. McKeown.

She went on to have a career with Bell Helicopters, setting an altitude record at one point, but she never again flew in a B-29, until a year ago when she was given a ride on the only remaining flying B-29.

She will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

(h/t: Fareed Guyot)