by Logan Walker
The announcement of America’s involvement in World War II would mean many things to many people, but to a young dance instructor from Portland it would signal the chance to realize a lifelong dream in service to her country. Born in Woodburn, Oregon in 1916, Dorothy Olsen was interested in flying from a young age, often devouring books on aircraft and the pilots that flew them. Her future career in flight became a foregone conclusion the day she set foot on the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem. It was there, amongst eager crowds and usual fairground attractions, that she spotted a biplane with an open seat. Olsen spent all the pocket money she had saved picking hops on a ride in the aircraft, and experienced for the first time what she would remember as the unparalleled feeling of soaring high above the sky. By the time her feet touched the ground again she was hooked.
For a while afterward Olsen split her time between teaching dance and earning her private pilot’s license, taking lessons in a Piper Cub on her own dime. By the time America joined WWII, she was a licensed pilot, and she leaped at the chance to join the WASP. After completing training, Olsen assumed flight duties in 1943, transporting Army aircraft from one base to another. In the words of her son Kim, “She would pick up a P-51 in Long Beach where they were built, fly it across the country to Newark, where they would ship them to Europe… (She was) qualified on everything the Army flew, plus some Navy planes.” Noting that her favorites to fly were P-51 and P-38 Flyers, he added “She felt bombers were like driving buses.”
As a pilot, Olsen's adventurous and fun-loving personality was on full display and she took every opportunity to push the limits of her profession. She took on nocturnal assignments and reveled in flying at high speeds and ground-skimming altitudes. Speaking many years later, she characteristically noted, “Who pays attention to rules when you’re a fighter pilot?”.
A particular favorite story of Olsen's took place during a night flight over Coolidge, Arizona, in which Olsen ended up buzzing a field with her plane and woke the entire town up with the ensuing noise. On another occasion during a take-off in Cherry Point, North Carolina, she decided to hold off ascending her P-51 for as long as she could, staying on the runway until the airfield ended. “I wondered what it would feel like” Olsen remembered, adding “I pushed it hard, and then I pulled the stick back and climbed fast.” Soon, she noticed the control tower dispatcher’s voice come through her radio, but rather than delivering the reprimand she feared it simply told her “Come back soon.” On occasion, Olsen’s daredevil antics caused physical damage, as was the case when a 7-inch piece of front-wheel cowling fell off of a plane as she landed it. “I suppose I had been hanging upside down at the time,” the former aviatrix offered by way of explanation for the mishap, which was covered by the ground crew who knew the trouble she would be in if the plane was discovered to be damaged and helpfully returned the metal part to her. Upwards of fifty years later it still sits in her footlocker, where she hid it that day.
Being a woman in the traditionally male world of military aviation was a fact that Dorothy Olsen was never allowed to forget, but neither did she let it limit or compromise her job as a pilot; recalling her time as a WASP she states that “You were reminded quite often about being a female and doing a man’s job. I flew every chance I got. I never turned down a flight, cause’ I loved it.” But there were advantages to being a female pilot amongst men too, as she discovered on one occasion when she landed an A-24 plane and descended from the cockpit to see a cluster of admiring male pilots awaiting on the ground. “They gathered around the plane and around me, and boy I felt like Queen Elizabeth,” she glowingly commented.
During her 22 months as a WASP, Olsen delivered an estimated 61 planes across the country, but when the organization deactivated in 1944 she was permanently grounded. While her career as a pilot would never resume, she moved back to the Pacific Northwest, married a Washington State Patrol Officer and started a family. Although the years following her stint as a WASP have been lived firmly on the ground, she still maintains her enthusiasm for planes and remembers her time as an aviatrix fondly.
On her 99th birthday in 2015, Olsen was acknowledged with a public event held at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, where a series of vintage planes flew across the sky all morning, followed by a formal presentation in her honor. The next year, on her 100th birthday, Olsen and several of her fellow WASP toured an airplane hangar at Washington’s Paine Field where she was excited to be reunited with her beloved P-51 plane after so many years, exclaiming “There’s my baby!” at the sight of the aircraft.
Of the accolades she has received for her work as a WASP, Olsen remains humble, stating “It’s nice to be honored, but I don’t feel that I’m due, really. I was just doing what I loved.” Looking back at her time as a pilot, she retains a similar attitude, insisting “I was lucky. I loved it. Every minute.” Dorothy’s tenure as a pilot may be behind her, but evidence of the mark she made in history follows her into the present. At a recent event, Olsen shook hands with a currently active female pilot, one of several she has met through events in recent years; “You’re my new hero,” the young woman told her.
FlyGirls the Series salutes Dorothy Olsen for she is definitely our hero!