Women’s History Month: Honoring the Legacy of Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu
March is Women’s History Month, when we recognize and celebrate the lives, contributions and achievements of women who made their marks in history and modern-day society.
In observance of this celebration, Vaughn College is honored to spotlight Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, an extraordinary aviation pioneer who paved the way for women pilots and gender equality. Haydu turned 100 years old last December but sadly passed away in January. Read on to learn more about some of the events in her amazing life—from being among the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in World War II to being awarded with an honorary doctorate degree by Vaughn as we highlight her exemplary career and service for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8.
Earning her wings
Born in Montclair, New Jersey on December 15, 1920, Haydu was the younger of two children raised during the Great Depression. Due to financial hardship, Haydu’s parents could not afford to send both children to college. Haydu therefore stayed behind and worked as a secretary while her brother, Lloyd, went on to further his education and later enlisted in the Army Air Force. After realizing that she, too, had a passion for flying, Haydu enrolled at the Newark College of Engineering where she took aviation classes on the weekends. In 1944, she attended the WASP training program in Sweetwater, Texas, where she trained for seven months and logged 210 flight hours flying aircraft that included the Boeing PT-17 Stearman, Vultee BT-13 Valiant, North American AT-6 Texan and the Cessna AT-17 Bobcat. In 1944, Haydu graduated from WASP Class 44-W-7 and served at Pecos Army Airfield as an engineering test pilot as well as utility pilot for the remainder of the WASP program.
History in the making
Haydu’s career as a woman pilot during World War II was nothing short of groundbreaking. As one of the first women to fly military planes, she—along with other women pilots in the WASP program —entered and excelled in a predominantly male field. During that time, the Army needed additional pilots. With 3,000 trained male pilots already on board, the Army began recruiting and training women through the WASP program. These women received the same training as their male counterparts; however, because the program was considered experimental and categorized as a “civil service,” the women could not serve overseas. Instead, Haydu’s job was to “break in” the engines of overhauled planes by flying them a particular way for a specified amount of time. It is believed she earned her nickname, “Bee,” from the way she flew the planes—similar to that of a bumblebee. An interesting side note: On Sundays, she flew chaplains to various fields so they could present their sermons.
Making her mark
The cancelling of the WASP program in 1944 wasn’t the end of Haydu’s career—it was the beginning. After the war, finding work was difficult. Haydu regrouped, however, and in a big way. She earned her Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating so she could continue to fly. Her various jobs included flying in a comedy show’s airshow act, opening a Cessna dealership and starting a flight school with other veterans. In 1951, she married Joe Haydu, a fellow aviator with whom she had three children.
Through it all, Haydu remained committed to the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization and her fellow women veterans. From 1975-1978, she served as president of the WASP organization, where she led the fight in Congress to recognize women pilots as veterans—more than 30 years after the end of the war. Her efforts—along with those of her fellow WASPs—came to light when President Jimmy Carter signed the G.I Bill Improvement Act of 1977 into law, which not only recognized the members of WASP as veterans but also allowed the WASP access to Veterans Administration benefits.
Recognizing an aviation pioneer
From a young girl who was born and raised in New Jersey to becoming an aviation pioneer, Haydu has left a trailblazing legacy for women in the aviation industry. She and the WASP organization have paved the way for women to soar to new heights. In 2009, Haydu was one of only three surviving WASPs who were present in the Oval Office when President Barack Obama awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Some of her other awards and recognitions include:
- A plaque commemorating her work at the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey at Teterboro Airport
- Induction into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000
- Induction into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2012
- Receiving the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award
- Silver Service Medallion from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans—2018
- Her original uniform on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Vaughn honors Haydu with an honorary doctorate degree
Vaughn awarded Haydu with an honorary doctorate degree during a commencement ceremony in 2015. Sharon B. DeVivo, president of Vaughn College, stated:
“Bernice Falk Haydu is an outstanding patriot and it is our pleasure to award her with an honorary doctor of science degree and recognize her service to this country. She also spent her life devoted to aviation and blazed a path for women in this industry, and we are thrilled to salute all of her achievements. WASPs have assured that women pilots everywhere are recognized for their achievements and receive the acknowledgement they deserve.”
Haydu’s later years
Haydu’s husband Joe passed away in 2001. She spent her later years in South Florida and published a memoir in 2003, “Letters Home 1944-1945: Women Airforce Service Pilots, World War II,” which includes letters she wrote home to her mother and brother while serving with WASP during the war years. Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu’s extraordinary service has earned her a spot of recognition during Women’s History Month.
In her own words
“Bee” may be gone, but her legacy will remain a constant reminder of her commitment to women who hold prominent roles in the military and aviation. Here are some parting words to remember her by:
“Follow your dreams. There may be pitfalls along the way but just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and continue on your way.”
—Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu
Photo credit: United States Department of Defense