June 22, 2013, just two days after her ninetieth birthday, WASP Betty Jo Streff Reed slipped away and took her final flight.
Betty Jo was born June 20, 1923 in Sherman, Texas to John Nicholas Streff and Nellie Ruth Dilworth Streff. Her father was a general contractor and supervisor for the Georgia Marble Company, where his work created opportunities for the young family to travel. After Betty Jo was born, the family moved from Texas to Oklahoma City and, eventually, settled outside Chicago, Illinois.
Betty Jo’s life-long love of flying began when her dad shared his own love of aviation by taking the family to airshows, sometimes in a farmer’s field, to watch the early barnstormers. She remembered the planes flying by upside down and watching the wing walkers and the parachutists.
She remembered sitting in her dad’s lap at age four, as he would read her news of Charles Lindbergh and his trip across the ocean. From then on, every time she would hear an airplane fly over the house, she would run outside and yell, “Hi, Lindbergh!”
When she was six, Betty Jo’s father paid $1 for her first flight in a Ford tri-motor at the Curtis-Reynolds Airport air show in Chicago. As she later recalled, it was ‘love at first flight:’ “I remember feeling free and happy and loving the whole experience. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to fly.”
A few years later, she skipped school to watch the airplanes. She took her bike and, instead of turning left to go to the junior high school, she turned right– and rode nine miles out to the airport. She spent the day standing near the runway, watching the planes take off and land. Even though she never did it again, the memory lasted a lifetime.
Thoughout her schooling, Betty Jo struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability. However, by the time she entered high school, she found a way to overcome every challenge with hard work, determination and a curiosity to know ‘why.‘ She became a pitcher on the girls baseball team– a team so good, they beat the boys team. In high school, she had a talent for art and soccer, showing up after school to play with the boys.
When America entered World War II, Betty Jo put her plans for attending the Chicago Art Institute on hold, because so many of the instructors had signed up for military service. She went to work for Marshal Fields and began taking flying lessons so that she could ‘do her part.’ It took half a week’s salary to pay for one hour of flight instruction with instructor Willie Clark. Her first lesson was in a J3 Cub– on skis.
In 1943, she was hired by Douglas Aircraft and went to work in the tooling department. Eventually, she was promoted to cockpit installation. While at Douglas, she saw a Life Magazine with a girl pilot on the cover. When she read the article about WASP training program, she was thrilled and ready to sign up.
Because Betty Jo’s job at Douglas was considered ‘essential’ for the war effort, she had to get special permission to even apply for the training program. After permission was granted, she was interviewed, passed all the required tests and was accepted for training as one of the ninety-eight women pilots in class 44-W-7.
She paid her way to Sweetwater, Texas and arrived during one of the coldest winters in West Texas history. Betty Jo described herself as “tall and skinny,” when she entered training. On that first awkward day at Avenger Field, one of her classmates affectionately gave her the nickname, ‘Birdlegs.’ That nickname and the instant, comfortable friendship with her classmates stayed with her throughout her life.
On September 8, 1944, after seven months of training, Betty Jo and fifty-eight of her classmates graduated and received their silver WASP wings. She received Army orders to report to the Eastern Training Command, Columbus Army Air Field, Columbus, Mississippi, where she flew Beechcraft AT-10’s and BT-13’s as an engineering test pilot, ferry pilot and administrative pilot.
On Dec. 20, 1944, when the WASP were disbanded, Betty Jo paid her way back home and returned to a job at the Douglas C-54 plant as a test pilot.
When an automobile accident temporarily grounded her, Betty Jo married Carl W. Reed. They were blessed with two boys and two girls.
In 1957, the young couple opened the first McDonald’s franchise in Colorado–which was the third McDonald’s restaurant in the U.S. A year after the birth of their fourth child, Betty Jo began flying again. She earned her rating to fly Lear Jets and the King Air. As their family business grew to ten McDonald’s, eventually, she became a corporate pilot.
Betty Jo competed in six Power Puff Derbies, winning a “Best in Class” from Flying Magazine. She was a member of The Ninety-Nines, Inc., The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, WMA (Women Military Aviators) and the Air Force Association. She served as President of the Phoenix Wing of the American Aviation Historical Society and was a docent at the Champlin Fighter Aircraft Museum in Mesa, Arizona.
In 1999, Betty Jo was inducted into the International Forest of Friendship and in 2010, she and her sister WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, for their pioneering military service during World War II.
We honor you, Betty Jo Reed.