Cover image for A WASP among Eagles : a woman military test pilot in World War II
A WASP among Eagles : a woman military test pilot in World War II
Carl, Ann.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
x, 132 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D790 .C272 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The first-person story of how Ann Baumgartner Carl learned to fly, trained as a WASP, and became one of the earliest jet-age pioneers. She details her own experience test flying jets, which was unique among WASPs, as well as a watershed era in the history of aviation.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

A jet-age pioneer, Carl was the only American woman to test-fly experimental planes during WWII and the first woman to fly a jet. She was one of about a thousand WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), women military flyers on the home front, whoÄwith zero publicity and very low statusÄferried planes to bases, served as flight instructors and test-piloted repaired aircraft. This extraordinary memoir is a spirited, timely story about staying aloft in a male-dominated profession. The WASPs learned that they had to look out for themselves, checking the planes for defects, befriending mechanics and passing the hat to pay for the funerals of the 38 women aviators who lost their lives. (Congress would not pass legislation making female military pilots full-fledged members of the Air Force until 1977.) The author, who married astronautical engineer Major William Carl just after V-E Day, test-piloted planes like the B-29 Superfortress bomber. In 1944, she made history evaluating the Bell YP-59A jet fighter at the Wright-Patterson test center in Dayton, Ohio, where soft-spoken Orville Wright was a frequent guest, ushering in the age of jet propulsion. The writing is a bit pedestrian, and this autobiography may lack the romantic flair of other aviatrix' memoirs, but when Carl gets down to reliving hazardous assignments or describing the sheer magic of flying, her narrative is bracing and enthralling. Her resilience and energy are evident in her postwar activities as a journalist, environmental activist, homemaker and sailor whose two-year journey from Bermuda to Turkey and back was described in her 1985 book, The Small World of Long-Distance Sailors. Photos. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Roots "You have aids to help you now that we, of course, never had. You have strain gauges and barographs and wind tunnel tests, for example, to tell you what the forces are on various parts of the aircraft in different maneuvers. We made calculations and built our gliders and just tried them out. Sometimes it was very discouraging. As you know, we wrecked some of them before we learned what made them fly and especially what made them turn. And then we had to create an engine and try it."     It was Orville Wright speaking.     We were standing in front of the Fighter Flight Test hangar at the edge of the north-south runway of Wright Field Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It was early 1944, during the period when our developing aircraft companies were trying to sell to the Air Force their faster fighter planes and longer range bombers for the pilots flying combat in World War II. Wright Air Force Base, where these new planes would be tested, incorporated Huffman Prairie, where the Wright brothers did much of their early testing. (Later it was to include neighboring Patterson Air Force Base to become the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.)     "Test pilots today are really scientists," Wright continued. "Many are aeronautical engineers."     "It is still a hazardous career, though," I ventured. "They are pioneering into unknowns, the sound barrier, compressibility and other barriers. It's as dangerous for the neophyte test pilot, with lots to learn, as for the experts who are asked to push on beyond known boundaries. Don't you think so?"     "Yes, pioneering will always be dangerous."     Orville often came down, in his overcoat and hat, to our hangar to talk "aviation." And I felt honored to be included in these conversations. We stood in awe of this soft-spoken, pleasant man. Think of the barriers to flight he and Wilbur broke through! And yet here he was, still probing the new problems and developments of flight. He especially wanted to talk about jet propulsion with Fighter Test chiefs Maj. Fred Borsodi and Maj. Gus Lundquist. So far, we had not seen the secret jet fighter, the Bell XP-59A, but there were rumors that one of these experimental jets was coming to Wright Field for evaluation.     We watched a P-51 land on the runway and taxi back to the hangar, its engine popping and spitting. The pilot was Major Borsodi, returning from compressibility dive tests on the plane. Orville had been waiting for him.     "I'm fascinated by the jet. What a simple means of propulsion. How we worked and reworked our first little pusher engine. Aviation will soar ahead, though its progress between our 1903 flight and today still takes my breath away. Women even fly military planes now!"     The P-51 came to a stop, its propeller slowly stopped turning, and the engine gave a final backfire. Borsodi pushed back the cockpit canopy and climbed out on the wing. Orville turned back to me for a moment.     "You must fly that jet. I'll be rooting for you. And how I'd love to fly it, too. But I'm close to 80 years old, you know." (Though Wilbur, four years the elder, had died in 1912, at the age of 45, Orville would live until 1948 and age 77.)     "I certainly hope I can," I said.     "But what kind of a girl would want to fly an experimental jet? A pioneer like me, maybe!"     "Not quite like you. You started it all. You were the first men to create and fly a vehicle that was truly an air-craft."     Yet this kindly man had taken a moment to encourage an eager young flyer. But could I, even to myself, answer his question? Indeed, what kind of a "girl" was I?     Looking back 50 years to the exciting and well-remembered days of WASP flying during World War II is easy compared to the test which Orville Wright put to me--to start way back at the beginning to explain what sort of individual I had become by the time of that flying.     To define a person--any person--is a daunting task. It goes so far beyond the outer shell--of how a person looks, walks, dresses, talks, gestures. Inside the person is a self that encompasses more than the world he lives in. It is nearly impossible to guess correctly what profession a person is in, with no helpful hints.     And knowing the profession is only the starting point. Of course one needs to know why that profession was chosen, what problems he or she had to solve, what disappointments met, what victories won. All that, too, is mere curriculum vitae material. What about the deeper, more elusive world? What are the person's dreams? And what sets them off--music, pictures, conversations, books, scents, wine?     And the moods--one day buoyant, the next uncertain. The Chaos scientists say one butterfly in the air above California affects the whole nation's weather. Just so, unsuspected influences mysteriously affect people and remain in the psyche, things like a disappointing vacation, a day the rain spoiled a dress, an exhilarating mountain view, a thrilling symphony concert.     As important, of course, are the outside influences of the very era in which the person lives, his historical milieu. But must we know a person's medical history, ancestry, and genetic makeup? We know no two selves are the same-- though sometimes two may seem endearingly similar. Some selves stretch as far as interstellar space, even venture into unknowns, while others simply stagnate and venture nowhere.     In any case, catching the whole person, the real self, is to reach for the ephemeral.     When the self to be described is your own self, the telling becomes a combination of true confession and police report. One must stand outside and look, unflinchingly, inside.     I was a war baby, born in August 1918 in an army hospital in Augusta, Georgia, while my father was fighting in the Amiens region of France. And I went from the hospital where I had been carried about by the nurses to smile and gurgle to entertain the wounded soldiers, to my father's parents' house on the New Jersey coast to await his return. There I annoyed my new grandparents with my crying.     "In all my four boys, I never had a baby who cried like that one," my poor mother was told. She used to sit on the stairs at night, she told me, to try to rock me to sleep. (I don't know that I ever made up for that.)     But after the Armistice in France, and my father's return, we moved to a small shingled bungalow in Plainfield, New Jersey, where we would be within commuting distance of New York City.     My parents were married shortly after my father was taken into the U.S. Army. They had met in New York City where my father was a beginning lawyer in Kenyon and Kenyon, a patent law firm in New York and Washington, D.C. My mother was studying art at the Parsons School of Art and Design and doing small design jobs. They were living in the same boarding house on the Upper West Side. When my father left for his first training camp, my mother followed and caught up with him in Davenport, Iowa, where they were married. They had only a short overnight visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a honeymoon.     The bungalow was their first home together. It stood between a tall, forbidding Victorian house and a rather rundown house that was nearly hidden by large trees. But I remember my mother's garden, where the flowers were as tall as I was and where interesting buzzing insects and butterflies lived.     A horse and wagon delivered milk each day, and sometimes I was boosted up aboard the horse for a short ride. Most every day my mother took me along on visits to her friends' art studios. While they talked about benefit art exhibits, I wandered about, noting the sunbeams in the shafts of light from the windows and playing with the resident cats. One day out of boredom, I guess, I followed a group of jolly older children walking by and was later returned home via the police. Though my father took an early train to New York and a late one home at night, on weekends he spent time with me and showed me how all the mechanical things worked. When I was covered with chicken pox, he got down on the floor and played games with me, like rolling toy trucks back and forth.     When I was 4, my brother Tom was born. We moved to a larger house so Tom could have a room of his own, and the next year I started school. I liked helping my mother take care of small Tommy, and later got good marks for pulling him back from the middle of the road where he had pushed his kiddie car. But, more often, I was called down for being selfish, for not considering other people, for chattering too much about myself. This reprimand carried over to later life, where I thought twice before "chattering on about myself." (Still do.)     We lived right across the street from the square, brick Evergreen Public School. My mother usually walked with me to school and stopped to chat with the class teacher. There were about 20 students in each class. They came from the immediate neighborhood as well as outlying areas. Certain students still stand out, as well as the tall windows in the room, the smell of chalk, and the sound of it on the blackboard.     I remember Bergen Van Arsdale, whose father ran a large men's clothing store, and Herbert Stine, a whiz at arithmetic. Always in the back row was Thomas Day, a quiet black boy (called "colored" then), who produced beautiful drawings. Then there was another Ann, a girl who, people said, lived in the woods. Her clothes were dirty, her hair unkempt, and she even smelled. She would never talk to us, and always seemed frightened. We were too young to imagine what her home life must have been like. Another girl, Josephine Viviano, had a brother who was a famous football star at Notre Dame.     All in all, Evergreen School was enjoyable. I liked learning new things and trying out new skills like reading, writing, and drawing. Herbert Stine and I skipped the second grade, and I won a citywide school poster contest on "keeping your city clean." (I always suspected that I'd won because my mother knew the teachers so well.)     My mother was quite active in our Episcopal church. She took me with her on Sundays, and I began to learn hymns and prayers and the idea of God. I also "helped" her take care of the altar before and after services, when the church was quiet and shadowy and, I thought, felt like a "house of God."     For my six-year-old Christmas, my parents made me a wonderful big doll-house, with electric lights, antique furniture, and a front panel that came off for play. I enjoyed it when friends came to play, but when I played with it by myself I had the strange thought that some unseen beings might be playing with me, just as I was playing with the dolls in the dollhouse. (Now, a grandchild is enjoying it, as far as I know, with no such thoughts.)     Things changed after we got to know our neighbors well and their two children played with us. The children went to private schools, so I was entered in Miss Hartridge's School for Girls, and Marion, the neighbor girl, and I walked to school each day. I was embarrassed to walk past my old schoolmates (and they razzed me, too). Transferring to Hartridge, I skipped another grade to be in Marion's grade, the sixth grade. On top of that, I won an essay contest, and teachers began to treat me somewhat specially.     All this ostracized me from the sixth-grade clique of girls. I began to associate good school performance with the loss of friends. My response was to be defiant--one day, for instance, I simply stepped out the open low window in history class, and, of course, later had to discuss this and other uncooperative acts with Miss Hartridge, a large and formidable lady.     Another thing that aroused my classmates' derision was my Scottish attire, kilts, high socks, white blouse, and Scottish wool sweater. "Well, you have a perfect right to wear the Stuart kilt," my mother would say.     Out would come her family tree, and there the line could be followed (somewhat circuitously) back to Mary Queen of Scots, and from there to Margaret Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce. Among less remote (1800 rather than 1500) forebears there was Sir Thomas Dundas, who is alleged to have rescued the parents of Queen Victoria from France so that Victoria would be born in England and thus become queen. He was made an earl thereby, but actually all he did was pay their debts--no thrilling midnight escape in a small boat and rough passage across the English Channel--yet it did make a difference in the history of the British throne. More recently (1900 and on), there were generals and admirals. One, Lord Zetland, was Viceroy to India. Another, Sir Vernon Kell, started the "spy" agency MI-5. Another, Saury Gilpin, was a famous "sporting" artist.     The most recent "cousin," however, is Sir Hugh Dundas, RAF fighter Ace in World War II. And, interestingly enough, he, like me, turned to newspaper work after the war. We have corresponded, but not met.     They were a colorful, active lot, yet now, after two world wars, the family is decimated by the loss of its men.     The British, my mother impressed upon me, are reticent about themselves, do not discuss "money" and worth, but do value culture--art, music, books--and cherish their land and gardens, their countryside, pageantry, and history.     The family lived near the Scottish border, in Yorkshire. There is still a family castle in Skelton, dating from 1100, where we have often stayed. The story goes that on the eve of a death, a coach and four can be heard rattling across the bridge over the moat but never seen. Although I feel close to these forebears and my values are akin to theirs, who can say whether this is because of common genes or simply exposure.     My mother was actually just half-British, through her father, Charles Gilpin-Brown. Her mother, Helen Graham Poland, was a Bostonian. My grandparents met in Colorado in the late 1800s, when Helen's father moved his large family to Colorado because doctors said he needed the high altitude and clear air. He knew nothing about ranching. He ran the Poland Spring-Water Company and sailed a large sloop out of Nahant. But he planned to homestead in the lands west of Fort Collins.     These wild lands of mesquite and prairie grass in the foothills of the Rockies were just opening to homesteading. There was nothing to soften the harshness and dangers to anyone unused to the wilderness. The Polands might well have succumbed to this rigorous life had they not met two brothers establishing a ranch on neighboring land. They, too, were homesteading.     From Yorkshire, England, the Gilpin-Brown brothers were the youngest of several brothers and thus, following British custom, were not in line to inherit family land or become naval or army officers, or even churchmen. But they had always lived on the land in England, and kindly assisted the Poland family in establishing their ranch and purchasing their cattle and horses. Later, my grandmother married one of the brothers, Charles Gilpin-Brown. They then established their own ranch and had two daughters, Margaret (my mother) and Frances.     My father, viewing my mother's grandiose British genealogical picture with some skepticism, liked to say that his important Swiss ancestor was the fellow called Baumgartner who rowed the patriot William Tell across Lake Lucerne, where he had been sentenced to shoot an apple off his son's head during the Swiss struggle for freedom. It must have been because of that, my father said, that he had always liked to row a boat! He rowed on the college rowing team at Lehigh University, where he was an engineering student, and rowed on the Potomac River when he was studying law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.     (Incidentally, Baumgartner is a very common name in Switzerland, but it was the source of humor for my schoolmates who liked to call me "Bum garter" or "Rotten elastic." Later, flying schedules posted on the bulletin board listed me as "Baum+." At Wright Field, I was simply Ann to all.)     My father's family had been in the United States for five generations, living in Trenton, New Jersey, across from another engineer, John Roebling, the great bridge designer. Besides his parents, my father had three brothers, all of whom became engineers, though one would have studied medicine if his father had not forbidden it. But the Swiss must be more reticent than the Brits because their only told and retold family story was about a murder at their house while the family was in church. A boyfriend shot the cook dead in the dining room. Darkened newspaper clippings, with gory pictures, still survive.     Plainfield, in the years between the world wars and before the Great Depression during the 1930s, like most American towns then, was a peaceful, safe place to live. The shocking news of the day was only about embezzlements at banks or the rare midnight robbery of a pharmacy, or stories of the odd town drunk. Movies were fit for the most naive child, policemen were considered honorable, conscientious men. It was a time of patriotism, of consideration of others--a truly Norman Rockwell era.     Though our mothers, in telling us about marriage and sex, included warnings of "white slavery" operations, it was still safe for small girls to explore the woods and city streets. My friends and I, on our bikes, even visited falling-down abandoned houses and tried to figure out why the people had left. Young boys and girls stayed just boys and girls until well into the teens.     While my brother learned how to tie nautical knots in the Cub Scouts, I took ballet and piano lessons at Miss Ransome's School of the Dance. Oddly enough, this early dancing had an effect, later, on my flying. Instructors noticed that my coordination, especially from one maneuver to another, seemed smoother than most students'. Ballet had apparently taught me balance and a sense of the whole aircraft around me. Another by-product of the ballet school was a supply of costumes which found second life in dressing neighbor children in small plays I wrote and charged neighbors 10 cents to watch.     I remember that the weather then was much colder than it has been of late. There was deep snow most of the winter. The town trucks plowed night and day. We took our Flexible Flyer sleds to slide down the golf course hills. The roads were so icy at night that people brought out ancient sleighs drawn by horses trimmed with bells. As we lay in bed, we could hear the bells, the trotting hooves, and the hum of the runners on the ice. How I wished I was out there, too.     We both had small radios, called crystal sets, that my father made for us. We listened with earphones to classical music "coming out of the air." My father explained how the radio worked to my brother, and I felt left out. I was no longer the recipient of this sort of information.     Tom was more easygoing and conciliatory than I, but not as eager a student. We were always good friends, however. Later, he invited me up to a Cornell weekend as a blind date for a friend (and not as a joke). Service in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944-45 interrupted his engineering studies, but he returned and earned his degree in engineering management. He also married a fellow student, Gabrielle Landt, an artist. He liked the Big Band sound and had many Glenn Miller records. His favorite was "Moonlight Serenade." I cannot hear it now without tears. Tom has since died of cancer.     We were a bit in awe of our father in our early years. Though he spent time with us and loved us, built us a big sandbox and a playhouse that had a front porch and windows on both sides, he could be very austere. Perhaps that is a good thing in a father, but he seemed very strict to us. My mother explained that his Presbyterian upbringing had been strict. He was strict with himself, leaning on such credos as "Only results count, merely trying is not enough." This, as my mother pointed out, was merely super-conscientiousness, after all. For example, if you were asked to weed the brick walk, you went ahead, even if the sun was hot and the others had gone for a swim, and you worked until the job was well done (tired, and dusty, and with skinned knuckles perhaps).     Yet, my mother, though she understood, was always careful to test the wind, so to speak. And I followed suit, when I had to relate some transgression or ask for a permission. In later years, I was still hesitant to put forth what I would like to do.     In 1928, when I was 10 and my brother 6, we spent a month on a cattle ranch in Colorado. The occasion was a reunion of the American members of the Poland and Gilpin-Brown families. For me it was a turning point. It was a time of maturation, of learning to take responsibility, of conquering fear. I learned I had to make decisions on my own. Certainly without realizing it, I was preparing the early groundwork necessary for future things like test flying. Copyright © 1999 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.