Harriet Urban White

HORRIET URBRN WHITE Saturday, May 22, 1993, Sweetwater, Texas:

I came out and tried to apply to some of the airlines that I knew needed pilots. Finally one of them wrote back, no, we’re not going to use a woman pilot. That happened to be form KLM, which was a good line. And I didn’t want to fly for a line that was too commercially minded, and cost involved. I wanted safety, and performance to be what counted. Because I was highly idealistic, I also had a fantasy about being in the air.

When I was in the second grade, skywriting and advertising by banners and so forth was very popular, and we went to the airport to see these things put up and flown across the sky. And I went home, and went to school, telling how we were going to go flying, and my father was obliged to clear through British Governors through the State department to do this very dangerous thing flying over Niagara Falls, in a Ford Tri-motor, which we did. I was in the second grade, and that was the last bill of goods I was able to sell my father in my entire life.

(when did you learn to fly?)

I did not learn to fly until just before Pearl Harbor; the summer before Pearl Harbor. I had been racing sail boats through February, and I had a lot of sail repairs, and I had to go down the Sound towards, New London, and there was a railroad bridge. The railroad bridge was sometimes turned and you had to wait. That railroad bridge that summer was out 17 times a week.


I had driven by a little airport that had suddenly grown up. It was around Stonington. I could see it across our house. So, I went over and soloed over there, and had the most wonderful time. But, I spent the half of my high school life, watching the airplanes takeoff from the Municipal field from our school. In

Buffalo, New York. But that’s the way flying was for me. Dreams, fantasies, all of my life. I had been trying to get enough flying time to be eligible for the WASPS for Nancy Love’s program. But, I was flying in Buffalo, New York, and the weather had been so bad I could not pile up enough time fast enough. So, I went to Mitchell Field, and had a physical. I got a telegram, and it might have been signed Jackie Cochran, but I knew she had no idea who I was, but it said such and such a day to appear, and boy, I appeared.

I paid for my solo, and things worked out to where I did not go back to college. They said (her parents) if you stay here is Buffalo, we’ll let you learn to fly. Then, my father went out to the field and said: “she shouldn’t do this sort of thing, and you make it real rough on her and if she can’t pass everything that you want her to do, then wash her out.”


(Why did he do that?)

He did it for two reasons. His daughter was doing something that was socially unacceptable. That was not lady like. He also was extremely frightened of women who had abilities and power and he thought any such woman had to be a lesbian. And it was a violent phobia on his part. So that’s the way it was.

He was in the military in Germany in World War 1. A whole bunch of those men were. They made quite a reputation for themselves.

My uncle, my mother’s only sibling, ended up in as a Republican Congressman from a labor district, in Western New York, on the basis of his war time skills, in the trenches, in France.

My father was injured in his arm, and I guess to the day he died, he would wake up in the middle of the night, hollering: “momma, momma, momma!” He went back in World War 11, he couldn’t stand to have a war and not be out there being a man. A man in a man’s world. A man’s basic formula, a warrior. So he managed to get himself bought back in, and was assigned to the military police,

which is part of the story of him. He left three teenage kids at home, with a mother who was absolutely socially inept and that’s not very interesting. So those things came together when World War II broke out, and allowed me to escape from Buffalo, and from the destiny that they had ironed out for me. To be a proper lady.


(Where did you grow up?)

I grew up in Buffalo, New York. To a family that was considered to be one of the elite families of the city. I had a sister and a brother both younger. In terms of what developed in my life, typically, father and mother wanted a boy first, typically they got a girl, and then unfortunately they got another girl. As a result, I figured I needed to do things that made me competent in the eyes of men. Ordinarily, a background like is not important, but looking back at it from this vantage point I realize it was highly important. Because I spent my time becoming an excellent swimmer, an excellent sailor, sailboats, competitor, competitions. Competitive races, up and down the Atlantic coast. I became a competitive skier.


(Where did you ski?)

Mt. Washington. Tuckerman’s Ravine. What a challenge. I was never particularly strong. I just kept strong. But not in particularly good shape. I would be so winded at the top, that I really thought I was perhaps, having heart trouble. Incredibly, there was no evidence of it. That was the kind of attitude that I carried. Father wanted me to become a golfer, but he did not show me any interest on his part, toward my life, my activities, my interests, except to be critical. So, I was very relieved when I had so much allergy problems that I couldn’t go out on the golf course. But I still had to excel in male world for some reason to try win his esteem. My brother came along, and he also is not an aggressive, macho type. So that made me feel even more responsible to try and do what my father admired. Excellence in physical things.


(What did your father do for work?)

That’s part of the problem. He was kicked out of the family milling company during the depression, and it was largely his wife’s income inheritance, that supported the family, which is one reason why he was not really approachable by his children. He didn’t feet pleased about himself. He was in real estate and insurance, but there was never any conversation at the dinner table about what that entailed, or what was involved, or -what accomplishments or lack of, it didn’t figure. He came in, sat down to dinner, and that was that. The soup was served, the other plates were cleared, and we ate dinner period. There was no conversation. In fact, when I was ten, I realized that hey, anything that you do, you’re going to have do it on your own, by yourself, and for yourself. In fact, dinner was very difficult when I had a real good day, because, oh: what did you do? Who did you do it with? What else happened?


(You did some sailing off the coast?)

I sailed, on a woman’s team up and down the east coast, every year, for four years in a row.


(What period was this?)

That was when I was fourteen to eighteen. And then I took up flying. I had my first solo in Watch hill, Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Stonington, Connecticut was where the base was.


(What did you solo in?)

A Taylor Craft. No, a Piper Cub. My first flight taking off, I was sitting behind the instructor, and I was just so gleeful. Here was came out of the water that I had been racing on all summer. You could see the shoals; you could see all the movement of the currents. It was exotic. I sat back there and screamed with delight and terrified my instructor. And they were so pleased with what was happening, and said come back next summer and we’ll give you a job. But World War II broke out at the end of it.

I did go back home, and did enroll. My parents said you’re having a hard time being a student in college in New York. If you’ll stay home, where they thought they could guide me and protect me. If you’ll stay home, we’ll let you take flying. But, he knew a number of people, the manager of the field. Who had been overseas in World War I with him, other brothers, uncles and cousins. He took me out to the field and introduced me to Matt Duffy, and said now took, she thinks she wants to be a pilot. You make it as hard on her as you can. And if she can make it, well, we’ll deal with it. If she can’t make it, send her home. Well, I knew long before this, that I had to do anything that I was going to do, very well, or I was in trouble anyway. If I did it well, I was still in trouble. So I really felt kind of pleased it was a challenge, and I thought, I’ll show you. So that’s how the flying began. I got all of my ratings in Buffalo, New York, and went into the WASPS from Buffalo. I knew about it (the WASPS), but I had wanted to get 500 hours. I only had 200 because of the weather in Buffalo.

I don’t remember the telegram. I knew when the class met; I was going to be there. I hope I had a telegram. Apparently I did. But I didn’t figure it was from Jackie. I knew she had a whole battery of people who were doing her work. If my name was on the list, that’s fine, I’d be there. I went to La Guardia, Mitchell Field, for the physical. And I could not release my urinary tract. I was there from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, before they could get a urine sample. There were no women. I felt

intimated. I went back home. I had been instructing the afternoon before, and I had to take the plane back up so I could instruct the next day again. I was a flight instructor. I had a Russian engineer for a student, and mechanics for students. And of course that impressed my father, because I would come home a relaxed gal.

I had brief correspondence with Amelia Earhart. I wanted her to come to Rhode Island enroute from somewhere. She was on a trip to Maine, and I hoped that she could stop off. Fortunately, she couldn’t come because my mother and father couldn’t have handled it.


(Did you know Louise Thaden?) (*note: Louise Thaden won the 1936 Bendix Air Race, first woman who won this race.)

No. Now remember, I came from an elite background, so I avoided all of that kind of thing. As long as I created a cool, and strict profession, they would kind of go along. Because he had tried to set it up that I would flunk out.


(What year were you born?)

1921. August 19. And I have to acknowledge at this point, you’re asking about birthday and all, I have to admit to having been to India, and enjoying some very unique circumstance, coincidences. I have to say, there got to be something to signs and colors that we don’t know how to respond. They call it Karma in India. And so, I have to say that being a Leo must have something to do with me. Look at the colors I wear. Regardless.


(Do you remember Sweetwater?)

Yes. I had swallowed about two ounces of paregoric to quiet my stomach on the train trip. I was alone the whole way, which should not have been a big deal, but it affected my anxiety. I thought, what are you getting into here? And I had no contacts, no where. Hired a taxi, and went to Sweetwater, and got off. And went in, and they said: “What’s your name, and how come you’re here?” And that was the auspicious beginning.


(What was it like for you to be a flight instructor, and now being ……

That’s an important question, for the simple reason that I was used to making decisions, to coaching instructions, to get certain reactions. But, I had never flown out of a military field; I had no idea on how military procedures went. I didn’t know how to do the maneuvers they would ask for. And I knew the guy that was my primary instructor had exactly the same number of hours as 1. I felt a little sorry for him, because I knew I came from the east, and he came from Arkansas. I knew I was intimidating to him.

It was all right. No problems. A couple of the instructors here at Sweetwater reminded me of a couple of students that I had had, that I had washed out. For the simple reason they were not considerate, or disclose the needs of a particular situation. They wanted everything to be go, full throttle, when they didn’t need it and that kind of thing. And I had felt that it was imprudent for an instructor to, the behavior of an instructor with students who may not be capable of aggressive performance. So these were like that, and I had a couple of check rides that were very unpleasant, because I suspect they had found that I had had experience, and 66 -who did she think she is, we’ll show her!” But I had very little actual contact with that. I knew it existed, and I knew the potential was there. But my mother had told me: “do not ever let anybody know that you have some background”. “Don’t ever let anybody know that you know Uncle Ham.” I had an uncle who was head of the military affairs committee in Washington, at the time.

I refused to do a spot landing demonstration for a General that was to come in. I refused totally, because my mother had said: ‘Don’t ever let anybody know you have connections”. So, I didn’t. I knew I would have messed up the flight because of that.

He was a Congressman as a Republican for eighteen years, from the Western New York Democratic district. Tooey Spatz was a friend of his. (*note: Tooey Spatz was commanding General of the Army Air Forces during World War 11.) And, another lesson I learned from her was you must be honest. So that if you had excelled, you had to excel better than Amelia Earhart before you got a compliment.

Some of the airplanes, I felt so happy, I felt free. I had no one looking over my shoulder. I had no one telling me about honesty, morality, responsibility, integrity. It was me, and the Lord, and the airplane. And that was such a fantastic feeling. It was the same feeling that I used get with sailboat when it was beautifully trimmed. And all of this coming out of the water.


(Did you sail by yourself?)

Yes. In fact, I learned to sail by myself. In a little tiny boat, in a little tiny cove, with lots of rocks and shoals, I had to learn my way around them. Being alone, and its me and the elements, and me and the situation, and nobody else can interfere.


(After Sweetwater, then what happened to you?)

I ended up in the Ferry Command, ATC, when I was stationed in Romulus, Detroit, Michigan. I figured thats where I wanted to be, because that was the closest to the most of the manufacturing centers. It ended up that most of the pursuit orders were written out of California. Out of Long Beach, and some out of Dallas.

I did quite a bit of ferrying, mostly the small aircraft for a while, such as Taylor Craft, Piper Cubs. Some, I don’t even remember right now, because I was disgusted, I wasn’t getting. I saw real quick, that it wasn’t going to be pursuit. I did get two pursuit training, I did get checked out.


(author’s note: part of the transcript for this life interview has been lost. From memory, this is what happened to Harriet.)


Harriet was checking out in an advanced airplane. She was unhappy flying the Taylor Crafts and Piper Cubs. Her skin problem, eczema, was acting up, so, to honorably leave the WASP program, she washed out on this check ride. From the WASPS. Harriet went to Texas to work in a company that manufactured airplane parts. During this period of time, she applied to several airlines for a job as a pilot. The airlines had a shortage of pilots, but because Harriet was a woman, the airlines refused to hire her. KLM stated that no woman would ever fly for them. This devastated Harriet, for Harriet’s real passion in life was flying.

Eventually Harriet, married, and moved to New Mexico. Her husband was a 1 2 contractor, and basically bankrupted her. They divorced. Faced with raising children of her own, Harriet, turned her big house into a boarding house. Harriet went back to school, and obtained both a Bachelor degree, and a Master degree.

We had a delightful time, a very unprepossing, intelligent fellow, one of the Chinese people who could play the piano. The Virginia Waltz, all kinds of things, such as our children might have learned when they were learning piano. My grandchildren thought he was a very sweet person. They didn’t care what he said, or how he said it. And they would go sit on his lap. Now, that doesn’t happen very often. In other words, there was a potential for a very good friendship this way. However, as it became more serious, then things were not quite fitting. How, and what and where and when. He came to the see us again. I had been to New York, and things, I couldn’t quite get my hands on things. While my concept is, if I was going to marry him, I was going to live in a Chinese section of town. I was going to do a study, remember, I was interested in linguist, I was going to do a study of the acquisition of English, American English, by Chinese women. I had it lined out. I was justifying everything. Finally, he came back again, one of the borders at the house, who was a bright guy, who was now in computer engineering, computer graphics, and design of hardware and software, who had gotten his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, while he was at my house, who had since gotten a MBA in theater design for Italian Operas, at Northwestern. I wanted him to drawn him out to see if we could get more concrete things, and let him know something about how we are.


I never heard the pronoun ‘Ve”, in English or in Chinese, and my instructors take went on, and I thought hmmm, no. I had a real pretty pearl, and emerald ring, set in gold, and I had to send it back. But, you can imagine how steeped I was in becoming a part of a Chinese-American community, or in going on and already been applying to teach in China. But they got wind of the fact that I had been with the Air Force, and of the age, and I didn’t get hired. So, I called India, one of the first borders that we had, who had been tutoring two of my boys, and I said hey, how about I come to see you? Oh good, I’ve got two weeks, and he said, “Oh no, two weeks is too much of a shock, there’s too much. Make it six, and we’ll travel together. We haven’t taken our kids to some things that they should see.” So, I went to India, and then a whole another set of opportunities unfolded. I had been telling her, that when I went to New Mexico, there was one village, one Indian Village, that felt very special. And I became over a period of time, a part of this village. And I have to behave as if in that village, at anytime I’m there, as if I was a member of one of two families. I have to acknowledge these or those, sometimes both and another. It’s been very involved. I’ve ground corn in the old style with the medicine man, and the food on the middle of the floor, and you all dip into the baskets and eat on the floor. I’ve done things that Indian Women today have not done. Out of this whole thing, I felt as if I belonged there. They felt, certain ones of them at least, felt as if I belonged there. This was in Pueblo, New Mexico.


This is where I was saying I get the sensation of belonging in places, to the extent that I did in this Indian Village. It’s not a very Christian feeling. It’s not a very Anglo feeling. It’s another world feeling. And I just, felt home. And they viewed me in that in this Indian Village, where I got to India. They hauled me everywhere, told me what to do, where to eat, what to eat, and so forth. Finally they said, ok, you can not go back to America, without going to the Tija’s. I also had been to a big Christian wedding. Anyways, I had traveled to this wedding, and had to get myself back. By myself. Buying a ticket on the public system is not easy in another country. In fact, I’ve been told by people: “My God, you did that by yourself?” Even they wouldn’t do it.

This feeling of belonging is what I have been searching for all of my life. I couldn’t find it with my family, in Buffalo, New York. I felt out, all of my life with them. To the extent that I had this violent eczema, so when I was in water, I was happy, I belonged. When I was on the water, the same thing. When I was in an airplane, I belonged. Its me and the Lord, and the craft. And in Pueblo, I got the same sensation, but it was reciprocated there. And that’s phenomenal to me. Who was raised as an elitist, American East Coast. On the (train) platform in India, I was so elated, I had such a sense of belongingness. I had met all of these obstacles successfully, and I thought ok, I have a five hour train ride, I want to share it with somebody interesting. So, I looked around and I found this one little gal. This one little gal turns out to be a classic in her own right, in her own world. And not a strict product of thou shalt, and you should and you must. In fact, she was as much of a rebel as I. And the two of us had the best time. I can’t believe the conversation we had with four other women in this cubicle, on bench seats, going five hours.

The next trip I made, I found out something of her own status. She’s a daughter of a Brahmin family, highly elite, highly well educated, well position, but, totally against the caste system. For instance, when you eat in India, you eat with people of your own caste. Of your own status. You do not let your children eat with anybody but your own. Not this girl. She grew up eating with anybody and everybody. And her life has been such, that she doesn’t realize how strong caste is in India. She got furious with me when I asked her another question later about caste. “Oh, you Americans, you’ve heard about caste and you think it still works. Don’t you know that.” Well, she had been raised as third generation, fighting caste in every level, in every way, such that she didn’t really realize that caste is still important.

Anyways, on my next trip, I went as a Fulbright Scholar, member of a Fulbright Scholars group and we were conducted to at of the important sights in all of these cities, and introduced to the people who were running the welfare programs. The rehabilitation programs. The homes for women, the orphanages and so forth. And I found out where she fitted, and I couldn’t believe it. And there’s this business, this sense of belonging. That -was felt. So, I decided to ask her about doing this research on women in India, in non traditional occupations. In India, her father is one of the people that supports women’s work. So was it with the other women I knew. We don’t have men fighting for women’s rights in this country, do we? I don’t know of many. No. That’s what I mean. I’m not aware of many. In fact, I’m aware many of them intuitively pull back; “oh yes, they can do that, sure they can do that”, but the body language is not supportive. In fact those (India) women, some of whom have been educated in the States, at different levels of the University life, all say: “hey, we have it better than you do!” So, that’s when I decided to do this pilot study and look into the experiences Indian woman have because as soon as you’re in male work, everything is exactly the same. The journalist was given the lousy trips, the lousy assignments, the nurses the night duty, everything. Absolutely the same. Ok, now this knocks me up to another level that I am not comfortable with yet. And that is, women across the world have got to unite. We are all in the same boat, we are all fighting the same biases, the same social attitudes. Every single one of us, everywhere in the globe. If we are going to achieve some success, it must not be on equality. It must be on performance, and attitudes, or the attributes of a person. For the job, in relation to the job. And we have house husbands in this country. Why should that man be punished any more than us, who want to fly airplanes?

Thank you very much, I enjoyed the talk.

So, you see, I’m at a big crossroad right now.

(just so I’ve got this in chronological order, when did you leave India?)

I made three trips to India, Christmas 87, 88, one in May-June of 88. Then, I went back to do the pilot study in December-January of 91.


(And you are working o your PH.D. now?)

I’m accepted in a Ph.D. program, but I do not have a committee yet. I do not have the direction worked out, and I think one reason is, I’ve been avoiding this business of women everywhere encounter the same thing, and we’ve all got to took at not as women, but as a person qualified to do this job or to do that. A woman, same as a man. Not on equal rights, beyond equal pay. Equal pay should be assumed. But, as I can do this, therefore, I am entitled to do this. A man who is good with children, he shouldn’t be criticized by his society any more than we. And as soon as I talk like that in India, “oh, come on in.’ And I don’t care of what level of work, if it was neurosurgeon, if it was scheduled airline captain, if it was a professor, as soon as I said hey, we need to took how I’m interested in how you’re coping with qualities of you’re work, the attitudes in your community, and your environment, how are you dealing with it? And they’ve got incredible conditions to deal with. Although there are men, who support this, a lot of them don’t. Women who are the head of the public relations and scheduling for of big rail systems. You can get in, but when you get here, we’re going to give you the paperwork at the last minute, so that you have to perform under duress. We’re not going to cooperate with you, we’re not inviting you to our meetings, this is what occurs.