Betty was called “Buzz Betty” when she made two generals and three colonels hit the dirt once when she misjudged her altitude.
— Obituary of Betty J. Clark, The Citizen Telegram, Rifle, Colorado, September 1, 1999
When the wheels of the barnstormer’s plane lifted from the ground, a young girl named Betty Clark felt a rush of adrenalin. As the plane gained altitude and its powerful engines propelled the plane through Colorado’s rarefied air and across the canvas of blue sky, she saw from the passenger’s seat not only the landscape below, but also her future. Clark was destined to become a pilot.
Clark was born just after the end of the World War I, on Sept. 2, 1919. Growing up in Rifle, Colorado, her father, dentist Lawrence B. Clark, possessed a fascination with flight. Betty’s father owned a glider, and by working with him on its many and often needed repairs, she was introduced to the wonders of aviation. Her first motorized flight with the barnstormer solidified her desire to fly.
After high school graduation, Clark attended Denver University and the University of Colorado. She worked as an X-ray technician, while, at the same time, she was learning to fly. Her first solo flight was at Stapleton Field on Nov. 26, 1942. With the United States fully involved in World War II and the military acknowledging the need for women pilots, she enlisted on May 23, 1943, in an experimental Army Air Corps Program which would become known as WASP.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was a merging on Aug. 5, 1943, of the Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squad founded by pilot Nancy Harkness Love and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment founded by pilot Jackie Cochran. Thousands of women with flying experience applied to the programs with only a fraction accepted. Clark’s class in the 318th Women’s Flying Training Detachment at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, began with 101 women pilots. After rigorous hours of classroom instruction and flying, she graduated from WASP class 43-W-7 on Nov. 13, 1943, in a class reduced to 59 flight-ready women.
Betty flew the P-17 Stearman, the B-25 Mitchell, the Martin B-26, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra, and the North American P-51 Mustang. Her service during the war included towing targets for the military. After the WASP program was deactivated on Dec. 20, 1944, she worked at Los Angeles’s Monrovia Airport painting or disassembling planes while working on her instructors’ ratings. She returned to Colorado, flying with the Civil Air Patrol, and selling aircraft at the Sky Ranch Airport.
Cran Rader Jr., who owned Rader Flying Services in Glenwood Springs, had acquired the Rifle Airport, and hired Clark to manage the airport operation in 1950. In 1953 she subleased the Rifle Airport and began operations there as Mile Hi Aviation and Mile Hi Aerial Spray.
In 1957 Clark formed a longtime business relationship with former WASP classmate Patricia “Pat” Seares Sullivan. Sullivan was born in 1919 and was raised in San Francisco. Prior to becoming a WASP, she had been a program director for KYA radio in San Francisco and worked for the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. As a WASP she towed targets and flew tracking missions for gunnery training. She also transported high ranking generals in a customized B-25 which, because there was no room for a co-pilot, forced her to be pilot, navigator and radio operator.
Sullivan attended primarily to the business portion of Mile Hi Aviation and Mile Hi Aerial Spray, while Clark did much of the flying. Clark’s meticulous preparation left little to chance, and her crop dusting skills awed those who watched her. Charter flights and sight seeing, game counting, search and rescue, and ambulance services were provided by Clark and Sullivan. The purchase of a Hiller helicopter allowed them to bring construction equipment into inaccessible places. Over time they built additional hangers, employed mechanics for aircraft maintenance, and added pilots to fly the helicopter and an expanding fleet of planes. Clark and Sullivan sponsored high school field trips to the airport, seeking to interest future generations in an aviation career.
On Aug. 15, 1979, Clark and Sullivan sold their operations at the Rifle Municipal Airport to Garfield County and retired to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Clark died on Aug. 29, 1999, and Sullivan on March 7, 2000.
Clark and Sullivan dedicated a lifetime to advancing the field of aviation and to perpetuating the legacy of the women who served the county as a WASP. They built a community, and in passing forward their passion for flight, inspire future generations to take to the skies.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.