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Dorothy Olsen (1916–2019), one of WWII’s last surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots

by Linnea Crowther

Dorothy Olsen was one of the last surviving WASPs, women pilots who flew non-combat missions for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. The WASPs—Women Airforce Service Pilots—were stationed across the U.S., ferrying planes from factories to airbases, test-flying new and recently repaired planes, and training new pilots in order to free up male Army Air Forces members to fly combat missions. Olsen had earned her private pilot’s license after a childhood dreaming of flight, and she joined the WASPs in 1943, the year they were first established. She was one of just 1,074 women to complete the WASP training program. Though they were of vital importance to the war effort, the WASPs weren’t officially military, and their contributions went largely unrecognized for decades. It wasn’t until 1977 that they received veterans’ benefits, and in 2010 they were collectively presented the Congressional Gold Medal.

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Died: July 23, 2019 (Who else died on July 23?)


Details of death: Died at home in University Place, Washington at the age of 103.

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The joy of flight: Olsen discovered her urge to fly early, after reading the book “The Red Knight of Germany” as a girl. It detailed the adventures of World War I flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Olsen described scrimping and saving as a young woman to afford flying lessons, and when the opportunity arose to lend her skills to the war effort, she dove in. She was known for daring stunts like flying her plane upside-down and swooping down close to the airbase for a thrill. “It was the closest to heaven I have ever been,” she later told the Chinook Observer.

Notable quote: “I was just doing what I loved. And I was lucky. I loved it. Every minute.” —From a 2015 interview with KOMO News

What people said about her: “She was like nobody I’ve ever known. So determined to do whatever she wanted to do.” —Debbie Jennings, developer of a WASP exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of Flight

“Dorothy Olsen’s spirit of adventure led her to fly WWII fighter planes across the US during the war, and it took her all the way to the age of 103, before she was laid to rest this week in Tacoma. Thank you, Dorothy. Your story lives on.” —U.S. Representative Denny Heck

“Earlier this week, we lost Airman Dorothy Olsen — a part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII. As one of the first women to fly military aircraft for the U.S. Airforce, Olsen refused to accept limits, and showed us how to “AimHigh #BreakingBarriers.” —U.S. Air Force Recruiting

Full obituary: The News Tribune

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