Methuen resident Sara Hayden was the last class to graduate from the WASP program, which was abandoned just a few weeks later., VALLEY DISPATCH/BOB WHITAKER

BY DAVID PERRY, valley dispatch staff

Growing up in tiny Granite Falls, N.C., Sara Hayden never imagined becoming a pilot.

Then, in 1943, a newsreel at a local moviehouse changed all that. It showed a report about the women who ferried planes from base to base, towed targets for bombers and played a supporting role for the male pilots who flew missions.

“And I knew then,” she said, “that’s what I wanted to do. Of course, I didn’t know a wheel from a prop.”

Hayden was working as a bookkeeper for a local roofing, heating and sheetmetal company. She borrowed $200 from her boss to get her private pilot’s license. She didn’t have a car, but her boss let her use the company’s flatbed truck to drive to the airport. It was still loaded with barrels of roofing pitch.

In 1944, she entered the program.

At age 24, she was a WASP, which stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots. The program was started in December 1942 with a class of 28 women who ferried planes from factories to air bases in the continental United States.

“When the war began, here weren’t enough airplanes, or pilots to fly what they did have,” Hayden said.

Her father “was a true child of the Depression,” said Hayden, now 86 and a Methuen resident for 52 years. “He said, ‘you mean you’re leaving a good job? By the time the war’s over, it won’t be waiting for you.’

“We weren’t supposed to be doing that kind of work. We were supposed to stay in the kitchen.”

She graduated on Dec. 7, 1944, with the last class to graduate into the WASP. Hayden was sent to Randolph Air Force Base to be a test engineer for AT-6 aircraft.

The program was disbanded on Dec. 20, 1944.

Last week, 60 years after the end of World War II, Hayden and a dozen other WASP were honored with a dinner and receptions at Hanscom Air Force Base.

Her duty, however brief, involved testing recently repaired planes before male pilots took them back into the skies.

“Somebody had to go fly the suckers and see if they’d fall apart,” Hayden said. “And it wasn’t going to be the cadets who screwed them up in the first place.”

During World War II, the Army Air Corps gave women a chance to fly. Not the same chance as male pilots, though their training was the same. They did not fly planes outside the continental United States, but did ferry aircraft from base to base, freeing up male pilots to fly combat missions.

More than 25,000 women volunteered for WASP duty, and only 1,830 were accepted into training. Just 1,074 earned their wings. Thirty-eight died in the line of duty.

And when they did, their families had to pay for their bodies to be shipped home.

Only 369 WASP are alive today.

And 13 days into her job, the program was discontinued.

“There were 900 active WASP,” said Hayden. “And we were paid by civil service so they said, you’re not military. You’re done. So we were scattered all over the country and it ended with no ceremony, no anything. It was just, go home, and get there on your own. You can catch a military plane if one is going your way, just as long as you’re out of here by midnight.”

Hayden went on to get her flight instructor’s license and commercial rating. She taught flying and flew light aircraft back in North Carolina, taking parachutists and photographers up.

She was commissioned into the Air Force Reserve in 1949, and called to active duty two years later as a recruiting officer.

It allowed her to fly planes on weekends.

She really never thought she’d done anything special.

“You know, I never thought that I wasn’t the same as anyone else. We didn’t know at the time anyone was paying attention to us. When I was recruiting in 1951, I rarely brought it up.”

Hayden married in 1953 and moved north. Had two children, plus the three her husband brought to the marriage. She did some bookkeeping and continued to fly when she could on weekends, though she was paying to rent planes.

The last time she flew was shortly before Sept. 11, 2001.

“I had to get a new hip, and never really got back into an airplane.”

She has remained active in WASP affairs, as a historian and veterans affairs officer.

She still can’t describe what it was that she loved so much about flying.

“Just…flying. I don’t know how to describe what it is about it, but I can tell you it’s the only thing I’ve done I truly loved.”

David Perry’s e-mail address is dperry@lowellsun.com.