In the 1940s, Curtiss-Wright employed 918 brave and bright young women who were trained during World War II to design airplanes and assist with their construction. They were known as the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes.
Betty Henson was one such Cadette. She applied to the program while attending college in North Carolina. She was accepted and sent to Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering for 10 months.
The graduates were dispatched to one of four Curtiss-Wright plants. Betty was sent to Columbus, Ohio, to work on the Helldiver, a naval folding-wing dive bomber. Cadettes arrived at the Columbus plant starting in late December 1943 and early 1944 after a week off for the holidays.
Betty’s time at Curtiss-Wright lasted until the end of the war. She worked as an inspector at the end of the production line, then in the drafting department, and finally she wrote revisions to the Pilot’s Handbook.
At the end of the war, most of the Cadettes lost their jobs and ironically several remember finding that out via the radio! After the war, Betty married and her name became Betty Masket. She raised two daughters while working for the government.
To me, at a young age, she was simply my great-aunt who lived outside of Washington D.C., and who I enjoyed visiting. My Aunt Betty had an amazing collection of clocks that I found fascinating. She always had interesting stories to share, but I didn’t learn of her service to our country until I was much older.
For several years now, I have given my aunt books, technical manuals, and artwork dedicated to the Helldiver. One such book was loaned to Jean-Vi Lenthe, daughter of one of the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes on her visit to see my aunt.
That visit, and the details found in the book, helped to spark much research by Jean-Vi on her mother’s involvement with Cadettes and the program as a whole, which she ultimately turned into a 208-page book entitled Flying Into Yesterday.
Over the July 4 weekend, I had the opportunity to visit my Aunt Betty, who is now 91 years young, with an important mission in mind. I wanted to visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located in Chantilly, Virginia, and see its newly restored Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver on display!
All of the stories I’ve read and the photographs I’ve seen could not prepare me for the experience of seeing the Big Tailed Beast in person with my aunt 70 years after she worked in the factory where it was constructed. It was one of a handful of moments that I will treasure forever!
On the way out, we stopped at the museum store and found an autographed copy of Flying Into Yesterday for sale. My girlfriend promptly purchased it to remember our special day and I didn’t spoil it by telling her I already had a copy!