By Bob Stiles
Ruth Kunkle disregarded stereotypes, ignored insults tossed her way and flew airplanes during World War II that sometimes were hit by friendly fire.
While other women toiled in factories to support the war effort, Kunkle, 93, of Penn Township took flight in training planes with a funnel-shaped sock trailing behind that soldiers used as target practice for anti-aircraft artillery to improve their skills.
“You flew a pattern, and the gunners were on the ground and shot at your target, which you were towing,” Kunkle said.
“It wasn't too safe. You'd come home with holes in the tail of the airplane,” she said.
Kunkle flew the “tow planes” mostly in Sweetwater, Texas, in 1944 while serving in the Women's Army Service Pilots, or WASP.
She said she didn't expect accolades and overlooked the insults, many uttered by men who “washed out” as pilots.
“The thing was, we wanted to do it, and we did it,” said Kunkle, still spunky and spry 70 years later.
“The guys didn't like it, not at all. We just ignored them. What the heck — you just did it,” she added.
In recognition of their efforts, Kunkle and more than 200 other WASP members received a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, in March 2010.
Besides towing targets, the women flew planes between bases and aircraft that were recently repaired. Thirty-eight women lost their lives in accidents while serving in the women's service program, which was formed in 1943, according to the 2010 congressional program.
Of more than 25,000 women who applied for the flying program, 1,800 went through basic training and 1,074 graduated, according to a commendation read by Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat.
“The contributions of these brave women to the success of the United States in WWII cannot be minimized,” Casey said.
Kunkle attended the ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, traveling by train with her niece, Taryn Kline.
“It took us long enough to get (the medal), but I like it,” Kunkle said.
“It was a real eye-opener,” she said of the ceremony. “A lot of families were there representing their mom or aunt who had passed.”
Kunkle said she doesn't talk to many people about what she did during the war.
“It was a secret, until now,” Kline said.
Kunkle volunteered in the male-dominated field of flying after she learned how to soar as a young pilot at Elmer Ashbaugh's former airport, not far from her home.
“I just wanted to do it,” said the 1937 Jeannette High School graduate. “It was something different.”
Kunkle used money she earned from working at Westinghouse to help make her dream of flying a reality.
“My mother was my first passenger. I had a commercial license. My dad wouldn't fly with me, but my mother was brave,” Kunkle said.
A woman needed at least 500 hours of flying time to be eligible to enter basic training, she explained.
“We were relieving the male pilots so they could go into combat,” she said. “Women couldn't go into combat then.
“My dad didn't think much of (her training as a pilot). My mother was a different story. He didn't think it was safe. (Mother thought) if I wanted to do it, I could do it. That's all,” Kunkle said.
Though a shot from the ground never hit near her cockpit, Kunkle always was aware that could happen and that she could crash.
“If it would happen, it would happen,” Kunkle said. “If it was supposed to be, that's when it would be. What the heck — what can you do?”
She got more nervous flying unproven or recently repaired planes as a test pilot than in serving as a target hauler, Kunkle said.
“You had to keep your eyes open for a good landing spot when you were flying,” she said. “You had to keep that in the back of your mind, in case something happened, so you could put it down.”
She said she never needed to make an emergency landing and was never shot down by mistake.
She and her late husband, Morris, of Export, were married in Texas. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II as a pilot and flight instructor.
“He was coming to visit me. ... We met in Houston or Galveston and got married,” Kunkle said.
After the war, her husband worked as an electrical engineer for Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh. She worked in a beauty shop for a while, then managed Egers jewelry stores in Jeannette and Irwin for about 40 years. They raised one son, the late Edward Kunkle.
Kunkle credits her longevity to staying active and accepting challenges.
She offered advice for any woman who wants to fly planes.
“If you've got the nerve, do it,” she said.
Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.