Bernice “Bee” Haydu got her nickname more than seven decades ago, when she was learning to fly planes during World War II.
The 94-year-old seasonal Singer Island resident was one of about 1,100 Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs. They served in the U.S. and Canada to relieve men for active duty overseas.
“When I was learning how to fly, they said, ‘She flies like a bumble bee.’ It just kind of stuck,” Haydu said.
She took it as a compliment.
Haydu said she was working as a secretary, feeling sorry for herself for not having a college education while her older brother studied at Rutgers University on a scholarship. She quickly put a stop to that by enrolling in an aviation class at Newark College of Engineering.
At the end of the course, the teacher had a flight school in which she could enroll, but it was 1943. There was no private flying — only military — in that part of New Jersey. So he moved the school to Pennsylvania, where Haydu and several others took lessons.
“The first time I went up…I was hooked on flying,” Haydu said.
One day, the aspiring pilots read in the newspaper that a WASP recruiter was coming to interview candidates. The recruiter reviewed the women’s credentials and accepted them, contingent on passing physical, written and character tests, Haydu said.
The pilots were civil service employees and paid $150 a month during training. Their pay increased to $250 once they graduated. The aviators paid for their own room and board, uniforms and incidental expenses. If they didn’t make it through training, they had to pay their own way home.
Thirty-eight WASPs were killed in training or duty. Their colleagues chipped in to get their bodies home, and they weren’t allowed to have military funerals, Haydu said.
One of Haydu’s most memorable flights was a solo, cross-country trip. As she approached the field where she was landing, she saw smoke coming out of the exhaust.
She considered she might have to jump — they always wore parachutes — but decided she’d rather avoid the inquiry. Plus, she wanted to avoid being “washed out” of the program.
She called the tower and an emergency was declared. After a safe landing, they discovered a malfunction with the engine.
“That was a little on the scary side,” she said.
After she completed training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Haydu served at Pecos Army Air Field. She tested aircraft after the engines were overhauled to make sure they were ready to be used again and worked as a utility pilot, flying people wherever they needed to go.
WASP was disbanded Dec. 20, 1944. It wasn’t until more than thirty years later the aviators, with support from then-senator and former ferry pilot Barry Goldwater, were recognized with military status by the U.S. government. In July 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs.
Director Matia Karrell is working on “FlyGirls,” a dramatic television miniseries about the WASPs. Her team is raising money to hire A-list writers for a two-hour pilot script for the series, which would draw from the aviators’ personal stories and friendships.
As for Haydu, she continued with a career in aviation and then raised three children she had with her husband, Joseph, himself a World War II pilot. They continued flying until they were in their late 70s.
She had a “forward-looking” family that was very supportive of her, she said.
“If you want to do something, don’t have anyone tell you that’s a man’s job,” Haydu said. “You stick to it.”
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