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Gloria Heath (1943)

Gloria Heath: An Aviation Pioneer

Gloria Heath ‘43 is one of Smith College’s most extraordinary alumnae. While at Smith she majored in education, as well as, as she puts it, “majoring in extra-curricular activities.” (1) One of these extra-curriculars was the founding of the Smith College Flying Club, an activity that set her on a course she pursued throughout her life. During World War Two, she flew with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and after the war work, and became an expert, in the field of Search and Rescue.

Ms. Heath participated in many activities while at Smith College, from lacrosse to working on the college newspaper. (2) The most notable, however, was her role in the Smith College Flying Club. Heath had become interested in flying over the course of her Spring vacation in 1941. (3) Prior to that time, there had been no flying activity at Smith. When she returned from vacation, she recruited fourteen other students and they bought a plane for a one hundred dollar share each. As she recalls, they were a very enthusiastic group, and in due course the plane was painted black with highlights of each of the four class colors (red, yellow, green and blue) and christened “the Bird of Paradise.” (4) In addition to the initial cost of buying the plane, the students paid for gas and oil, as well as lessons—three dollars per hour. (5) They flew out of the local airport, La Fleur Field, and with help from the owner the cost of flying lessons was greatly reduced for the Smith women. (6)

This accomplishment was even more remarkable because, as Heath mentions, only students at men’s colleges had flying clubs and considered flying “really, a sport”. In contrast, the Smith women, as Heath recalls, were all very serious about their desire to learn to fly. (7)

Indeed, this desire required effort and dedication by the women, as all learning was extracurricular. Ground instruction (learning the subjects necessary to flying such as meteorology, weather, and navigation) were all done from manuals obtained from the national government. (8) Heath fondly recalls the willingness of Smith faculty to help her pursue her interest. In one instance, she asked an astronomy professor to include a course on celestial navigation. The professor told her that “he didn’t know how to do celestial navigation, but if I wanted to learn, he’d stay two weeks ahead of me.” (9) Gloria Heath’s enthusiasm for learning attaining higher credentials is summed up by her statement that she looked to the new subjects as “another mountain to climb.” (10)

During this time, World War Two had been gathering momentum. However, Heath recalls that “war was not a major factor in [the Flying Club’s] minds.” (11) Her lessons at Smith earned Heath her private pilot’s license, and with the coming of the war, “It became clear how civilians could aid the war effort.” (12) The Women Airforce Service Pilots, the “WASPs,” were one way that women could help by freeing male pilots for the war. The WASPs were a corps of women pilots intended to free male pilots by acting as substitute fliers in non-combat situations (such as flight instruction and ferrying planes). Her brother had already volunteered for the Army Air Force, and Heath was notified that she might be qualified for the WASPs and was asked to apply. She was one of 25,000 women who applied, and one of the 1,830 eventually accepted for training. (13)

When asked about how her family felt about her joining, Heath notes that all of America was involved in helping the war effort. Her mother and father, she recollects, were involved in the war effort “in the ways civilians could offer help” and she adds that “it wouldn’t have been a surprise if their children decided to help, too.” (14)

During her time in the WASPs, Gloria Heath worked towing targets from a plane for gunnery practice for pilots in training. When asked whether the job was hazardous, Gloria recalled that “One didn’t think you’d get in trouble.” Target towing didn’t have to be dangerous, she notes, and there were very few situations where over-eagerness on the part of those shooting at the targets she towed was a problem. She points out that pilots were well taught, and fondly remembers her instruction: “My goodness, what wonderful flight training we had!” (15)

After the conclusion of the war, Gloria Heath became professionally involved in flight safety. Initially she worked in the insurance field, and in 1947 with the creation of the Flight Safety Foundation, Heath became the head of its Engineering for Safety Group. (16) In 1965 she became the assistant director to the Cornell-Guggenheim Safety Center and in 1968 she founded a Search and Rescue consulting company, which advanced the effectiveness of locating distress sites on land, at sea, or in aircraft operations. (17) During this time Heath led many advances in Search and Rescue technology.

Heath was also named an expert consultant to NASA in the field of Search and Rescue. As her pioneering efforts had attracted much interest internationally in the realm of space activities she was asked to chair and guide the Studies Committee on Space Safety and Rescue of the International Academy of Astronautics. (18) While doing so, she says that she tried to make her work pertinent to future problems, to fill future voids in knowledge. Her work on this committee looking at aiding downed space craft led her to work on world-wide response to less developed nations vulnerable to disasters on earth. This ultimately led to the United Nations declaration of an International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. (19) This is hardly a comprehensive list of her many accomplishments, and more information can be found in the Smith College Archives.

An oral history that Gloria Heath had done with Smith College in the 1970s was discussed in the course of research. At the time of her oral history, Gloria had stated

Probably knowledge and fear are natural enemies. This was emphasized in the context of our future when we shall be confronted with some profoundly difficult questions in order to select wisely the course of our national life. The questions will increasingly involve scientific and technical implications—understandings few of us have at present and which our present education may not be preparing us for sufficiently—neither legislators nor the general public. Both need to have the benefit of these understandings. (20)

When asked about her current views on the issue she brought up in the oral history, Gloria Heath felt that the quote was still valid, that knowledge was “fundamental to formulation of effective legislation.” (21) When asked about her views about the integration of liberal arts curricula into technical educations, particularly at Smith College, Gloria Heath was adamant. “Clear expression is requisite. Scientific or technical terminology may not be understandable to lay persons. It is important to communicate in readily understood words to make clear the significance of scientific or technological advances.” (22)

Gloria Heath was a pioneer in many ways. From her creation of the Smith College Flying Club, to her efforts during the Second World War, to her leadership in the creation of the Search and Rescue fields, she is without question one of the most remarkable Smith Alumnae.

1. Heath, Gloria. Transcript of Personal Interview by Jacqueline Van Voris. 17 Apr 1972.; Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 2. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 3. Heath, Gloria. Transcript of Personal Interview by Jacqueline Van Voris. 17 Apr 1972. 4. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 5. Briggs, John. “A Singular Woman.” Greenwich, July/August 1999, 126-138. Page 128. 6. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 7. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. 11. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 12. Ibid. 13. Richman, Joe. “The WASPs: Women Pilots of WWII.” http://www.radiodiaries.org/wasps.html (accessed 12/3/09). 14. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interivew by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 15. Ibid. 16. Briggs, John. “A Singular Woman.” Greenwich, July/August 1999, 126-138. Page 130. 17. Briggs, John. “A Singular Woman.” Greenwich, July/August 1999, 126-138. Page 131. 18. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 12 Nov 2009. 19. Ibid. 20. Heath, Gloria. Transcript of Personal Interview by Jacqueline Van Voris. 17 Apr 1972. 21. Heath, Gloria. Telephone Interview by Kaitlin Hovanes. 24 Nov 2009. 22. Heath, Gloria. Letter to Kaitlin Hovanes. 31 Dec 2009. Correspondence.

Related Material:

A recent biographical article on Gloria Heath was published in the Summer 2010 edition of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

See: Gover, Tzivia. “Higher Purpose,” Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2010 pp.34-39.


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