by Logan Walker
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Alta Corbett Thomas had the kind of upbringing that many would envy; “Early on my life consisted of horses... (and parents who) believed there was more to life than horses,” she would later recall. Alta’s father had raised his five daughters to “stand on their own feet” rather than enter into hasty marriage, like so many of the Corbett girls’ peers. When she was unoccupied in the stables, Alta passed time reading books, especially those written by author, poet, and aviator Antoine St-Exupery. His Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars were piloting themed novels that captivated Alta with tales of the immenseness and beauty of the sky and the adventurers who glided through it, and the former would prove to be a kind of holy book throughout the future aviatrix’s life. Moved by Saint-Exupery’s heartfelt words, Alta would later point to the novel as her first entry point to the world of flight.
The first steps toward Alta's career happened just after her graduation from Smith College with a degree in history and a resolution to get her pilot’s license. Fortunately, her father was understanding once he overcame his initial surprise. “When I said I would like to be a pilot…it wasn’t what he had in mind. And he thought that would be sort of like investing in a ski bum….(but) he said, well you’ll just have to get your flying time on your own. But you can live at home, and so you don’t have to pay for room and board while you’re learning this. And that’s what I did. I went to Swan Island to try to get a job down there and be paid in flying time.”
Having succeeded in obtaining her personal and commercial pilot’s licenses, Alta went about searching for flying jobs, but even against the backdrop of the war, positions for women in the field were negligible. Help came in the form of Alta’s old alma mater, Smith College. The College's vocational office notified her that the War Department was looking for employees with a college degree and pilot’s license. She applied and was given a position in the Pentagon, working as a research analyst, compiling information on the military capabilities of countries like Russia and Norway. It was a hefty position and one that allowed her to take an active role in the war effort, but Alta’s passion was in the sky beyond her desk job and when she became aware of the WASP program and the possibilities it offered for young female pilots, she jumped at her chance to join.
Leaving her position with the War Department proved to be harder than Alta had expected. Her boss threatened to blackball her if she left her “frozen” position, but thanks to the intervention of another superior in the office, she soon found herself enrolled in the WASP class 43-4 in the early months of 1943. “It took me awhile. I struggled to get in. I really clawed my way in,” said Alta of her desperate efforts to fly military planes. But further efforts lay on the horizon.
Reporting for her pre-training military health exam at Torren Field in Texas, Alta was dismayed to find the Army doctor was concerned that a slight defect in one of her eyes could hinder her ability to fly. Recalling her medical test, she noted, “I flunked it the first time. And I said, I just can't because this is, it just seemed like I was meant to do it. And he, I had to go back. To Tarrant Field and finally he said, do you really think you can fly military ships? And I said, without a doubt. And he said, go for it. So I went. Even if it was a little not quite 20/20 in one eye.”
Alta joined her class at their original training base in Houston, Texas, where she and her classmates were shuttled to training in a cattle truck and engaged in exercises like marching to build group morale. The girls were, in Alta's words, “…a scraggly bunch, and that pulled us together, and I think in Houston we probably had PT too…It seemed like we were just getting used to what it was like to be in the military at Houston.” Soon the girls received news that their base would be changed to Avenger Field in Sweetwater. “Everything was, I felt it was quite militarized," she said. "We marched to classes and we had a scheduled ground school in the afternoon. We were the flight line in the morning and at night when we were listed in operations that we had night fly. And we lived in barracks all of us, six in a barracks and then they had the big showers and a bathroom in between and another in our bays. They were divided into bays and it was very ordered.” Alta remembers that flight training occurred in mainly Fairchild and BT-13 aircraft, and was fraught with a very real sense of danger underneath the exhilaration of soaring. Accidents were known to happen, as in the case of one WASP who took Alta’s place in a night flying exercise and “…crashed, didn't come back. They had an accident. It's easy at night, if you take your eyes off the instruments, you can get awfully disoriented.”
Upon graduation, Alta was assigned to the Tow Target Squadrons at Camp Davis, North Carolina and Liberty Field in Georgia. It was a dangerous job that put her in the regular vicinity of gunfire. Towing targets was a duty that was much disliked by male pilots for this very reason. Although the rope for target practice was 2,500 feet long, it wasn’t uncommon for WASP to return to the ground with bullet holes in the tales of their planes. “When I went down to Camp Davis, we thought it was a great adventure” Alta mused, “but apparently the morale was very low. They'd had two accidents, I guess, and, well, here we came in as I said.” A series of tragedies prompted a visit from WASP leader Jacqueline Cochran. “I thought she was worried about a couple of us wanting to leave the program. Yes, that's what I’d say I was very aware of by the time I'd been there for, that … they wanted to resign even. I remember one of them said, ‘I want to live to be a grandmother.’”
Alta and her peers flew a variety of planes during their tenure; After first arriving at Camp Davis “…we had these l5's. I think there was an engine, and we were over the camp and all over to have to go round and around and figure eights and circle. Certain places we were told to circle. It was just maneuvering to get us, I guess, used to what we would do towing. And what we did towing, we flew the A- 24, the Douglas Dauntless, And later on, the 825, the Curtis Helldiver.”
More often than not, the planes given to Alta and her peers weren’t fresh from the factory, rather they were considered the “dregs of the Army”. Plane tires were sometimes worn to nearly nothing and rumors circulated throughout camp that the gasoline that fueled the planes was watered down. Despite this, Alta’s attitude remained unflinchingly optimistic; “I never gave a thought to the gas and the to the water and the gas or running rough. I think there is a difference between being recruited and being asked to belong to something when you want it desperately. And it just never would have occurred to me to criticize it. Because I was very aware that, and this doesn't say that I'm holier than thou, but I was aware that the ones overseas deserved the good stuff.. But the E- 25 was in good shape when that came but Camp Davis was It was all right.” Throughout her career, Alta's favorites remained the reliable and powerful A-25 and the SB2C Helldiver.
When the WASP program came to a sudden end at the close of 1944, so would Alta's career as an active pilot. Nevertheless, she took a pragmatic view of the situation, remarking that, “Someone asked me were you disappointed when you found out about deactivation, disappointment wasn't the word because I'd felt we had a lot and was glad that the was winding down but it never occurred to me there wouldn't be a place that we would serve after all of this training and experience…But, the men were coming home and they really deserved the jobs, they had been overseas and they said that they weren't needed…”
In search of a new position, Alta sent inquiries to a number of aircraft companies but had little success in the wake of a sudden influx of pilots home from the war. Finally, she found a position with the CAA which was in the process of recruiting personnel for air, ground, and weather communications in Alaska. Reporting for training at Boeing Field in Seattle, Alta was pleasantly surprised to find that she was just one of several former WASP to apply for such a position. Describing the feeling of camaraderie that she felt with her former peers, Alta recalled a short passage from a WASP newsletter many years later; “…it spoke of a high school basketball coach. He'd led his team all through the quarter-finals, all through the semi-finals, and here they were at the championship and it was halftime. And he spoke to his men and he said, you go out and win this tonight and you will have shared a moment in time that touched and shaped you deeply. And no matter how many miles separate you, no matter how many years go by, you will walk together forever. And I thought, you know that's just kind of how it is with the WASP.”
During the 1950s, Alta lived a quiet life out of a cabin in Oregon’s Willamette National Forrest, where she wrote verse for fun and took care of her household pets. In the early sixties she married Ralph Thomas, a Dam worker, and despite her apprehensions ("Three. Meals. A day . . . I just didn't think I could.”), she settled into family life as a wife and mother of four---two stepsons, Ralph Lee and John, and two daughters Kelly and Debbie. They eventually moved to Sequim, Washington where they ran a fifteen-acre farm.
Alta's days of piloting planes ended on the day she resigned her WASP uniform in 1944, and her experience as an aircraft passenger speaks to her somewhat conflicted stance toward women in the modern world of aviation. Recounting the last minute flight complications during a return trip from Seattle with her daughter, she says, “…it was terrible weather, and they weren't going to let us take off for a while, and then it got just enough of a break that we did, and this girl got into the pilot seat. And I said to Kelly, ‘You think she's gonna know what to do?’ And Kelly looked at me and said, ‘mother being a woman yourself, flying, would you doubt her?’ And I don't know why I did. I'm just not driven to causes. I just feel things happen when they're ready to…And yet, I don't see why they shouldn't, unless it's hard to cope with both men and women.”
Alta is now 99 years old and still lives in Sequim. Her children praise her as a role model and trailblazer for women. She taught her daughters they could be anyone they wanted to be and to never accept "You can't". Alta feels privileged to have had the opportunity to fly and no words express her love for flying quite like those of John Gillespie Magee's poem, High Flight, which she is known to recite with a wave of emotion.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.