From the International Women's Air and Space Museum/IWASM Quarterly
Vol. XXV, Issue 4, 2011
A rite of passage for most of us comes when we realize that our parents were young once and had a life before we were born. To a degree, that life remains obscure; but many of us make an effort to explore biographical information about our parents through direct dialogue with them, if possible, or by other means if they are distant or deceased.
In her book "Flying Into Yesterday," author Jean-Vi Lenthe recounts her efforts to solve a mystery about her mother's young adulthood: Why did her mother tell her family little or nothing about her participation in an endeavor that was both amazing and historically significant?
When her mother Ricki died unexpectedly, Jean-Vi was left wishing she'd had answers to seemingly contradictory things about her mom's life. Although Ricki had referred to being a member of the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Engineering Cadettes during World War II, she shared precious few details about the experience with her children. As a child, Jean-Vi had felt an affinity for Ricki's love of the arts, especially literature and drama. That her mother had been involved in engineering, so opposite to her primary interests, seemed inscrutable to her daughter.
The drive to discover her mother's past led Jean-Vi to some of America's most revered historical sites, including universities, museums, military areas, private homes and, most important, the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company. Her search yielded many new friends, including several of the women who had been in the Cadette program either at the same school or in the same factory with her mother.
There had been 918 college-age women recruited from the eastern half of the country for 10 months of instruction at seven prestigious engineering schools. They then went on to fill the shoes of Curtiss-Wright's male engineers who had gone into the war. Almost half of the women who graduated worked on the famous SB2C Helldiver airplane. After searching through countless books and documents hidden in dusty archives and libraries, Jean-Vi realized that the Cadettes had made a huge contribution to the war and had been left in obscurity afterward, much like what happened to the WASP.
Her book makes it clear that gender prejudices were a huge part of why the Cadettes' story was lost: practices at the Curtiss-Wright factories were often ignoble at best and diabolical at worst. How many other wartime companies operated with the same unofficial policies negating women's efforts?
"Flying Into Yesterday" should have broad appeal for a wide audience -- something for anyone interested in aviation, history, and even psychology. With a narrative that reads like a good mystery, the author has lifted yet another curtain about the World War II era.
Editor, American Aviation Historical Society Journal
This book is primarily about the author’s personal search for information about what her mother did during WWII, which led to the discovery of a little known program run by Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company, under government sponsorship, to employ college-trained women as aeronautical engineers. These women became known as the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Cadettes, and unfortunately almost all records of their services have been lost and forgotten.
This well-written book presents what is known about the Cadette Program, amply illustrated with personal interviews of some of the surviving Cadettes. It’s also an excellent illustration of what an aviation historian must endure to ferret out a story. The author has done an excellent job of describing her efforts to uncover as much information as possible, as well as her attempts to help promote an unsung chapter in American aviation history.
She describes the trials and tribulations of trying to find information within the National Archives and other prime repositories of historical records; the luck of finding archivists willing and interested in helping; the frustration of dealing with corporate minions who brushed aside requests with false claims that their organization NEVER had such a program; the difficulty of dealing with misinformation about what may or may not have happened to records. All of these are typical for any historical researcher attempting to seek out information on topics associated with WWII and before. Reading between the lines, the author provides some good insight and tips on achieving success in your project.
About the Cadette Program itself — 918 women were recruited and were put through an intensive 44-week educational program covering aerodynamics and aircraft design. Of these, 766 graduated and reported for work at Curtiss-Wright facilities in Columbus, OH, St. Louis, MO, Buffalo, NY, and Caldwell, NJ. The educational programs were run by Purdue University, the University of Texas at Austin, Penn State, Cornell, the University of Minnesota, Iowa State, and Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, NY. A special curriculum was developed through the cooperation of Curtiss-Wright and the universities. These women stepped in and more than adequately filled engineering positions held by men who were needed for the war effort. Working six days a week, these young women helped Curtiss-Wright save projects that were in trouble, like the SB2C Helldiver. Though they had originally been promised, during the recruiting process, an opportunity to become “graduate engineers” after the war, most were terminated on very short notice. To add insult to injury, a few were asked to return to train their male replacements. On top of this is what appears to have been a purposeful attempt to erase any record of the contribution these women made to the war effort.
This book is recommended for its insight into aviation history research and for presenting a little-known aspect of women’s contribution to our success in achieving victory in WWII.