A Heroine for All Women – Ann Baumgartner Carl

[This is the story of my heroine, Ann B. Carl, the first American woman to fly a jet in 1944. My memoir, “Flying Alone” will be officially announced on October 14, 2019, the anniversary of Ann Carl’s test flight of a jet fighter aircraft, making her the first woman to fly a jet.]

Today I would like to introduce you to one of my heroes, or rather, heroines, Ann Baumgartner Carl, an extraordinary woman–and aviatrix–for her time and for all time. She was the first American woman to fly a jet! But let’s go back to the beginnings…

Imagine you are a young girl in grade school around 1930, and one day a woman named Amelia Earhart comes to your school to talk about her career. You are awed and inspired and, on that day, decide you too will become a pilot. That was the young Ann Baumgartner.

Over the next few years, Ann and her father would go to Newark Airport to watch the mail planes taking off and landing, finding excitement in the new mode of transportation. Ten years later, after graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts as a pre-med major, Ann followed through on her decision and learned to fly at a small local airport in New Jersey. It was about that same time when a friend encouraged her to consider joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and, in early 1943, Ann applied and was accepted. She was eventually assigned to Wright Field in Ohio (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) where she became a test pilot for fighter aircraft and even bombers.

As a bomber test pilot, Ann flew the big ones — the B-17, B-24, and B-29, even a captured German Junkers Ju-88. But it was as a fighter aircraft test pilot that Ann would fly the new , a twin-engine jet fighter, and became the first American woman to fly a jet.

At Wright Field , Ann occasionally had the opportunity to converse with Orville Wright. She recounts a day in early 1944 when she stood outside the Fighter Flight Test Hangar talking with Orville about the advent of jets and the Bell YP-59A Airacomet, an early experimental jet no one on the field had seen yet.

Ann recalls him saying to her, “I’m fascinated by the jet. What a simple means of propulsion. How [Wilbur and I] 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!… You must fly that jet. I’ll be rooting for you… But what kind of a girl would want to fly an experimental jet?”

This is just a tiny snippet of Ann’s remarkable life. She went on to become a flight instructor, author, science journalist, mother and more. Later in life, she wrote her autobiography, A Wasp Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II (Smithsonian Books, 1999), an important piece of World War II literature.

Bell_P-59B_Airacomet_flying
Bell P-59B Airacomet

My own modest experience flying jets began in 1988, when I was hired to fly the newly introduced Cessna 208 Caravan, a single-engine turboprop workhorse of a plane. Federal Express had purchased a large fleet of these Caravans for their feeder routes between smaller destinations and the larger hubs. For me, it was another night freight gig, but this time, I was flying a turbine fresh off the assembly line — i.e., everything worked.

Of course, when I was hired by TWA, I made the step to a big old jet airliner when I took my interview test ride in a Boeing 707 simulator and was hired for the Boeing 727. And, yes, everything worked.

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