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Alumni Profile

Flying high

Mary Burch Nirmaier

Mary Burch Nirmaier was a 1944 graduate of the Women Airforce Service Pilot program and was one of the first women to fly for the U.S. Army Air Forces. Of being a woman in a man’s world, she says, “There were some who weren’t very sympathetic to women flying, but I just ignored it.”

In 1944, Mary Burch Nirmaier graduated from the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) program in Sweetwater, Texas, and became one of the first female pilots to fly for the U.S. Army Air Forces. Nirmaier, BJ ’55, MA ’71, and the more than 1,100 other women who joined the WASP program helped free male pilots for combat service during World War II.

As civilian volunteers, they flew almost every type of military aircraft for transport from factories to military bases and for testing equipment, transporting cargo and towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery training. “I was a B-25 pilot,” says Nirmaier, 89, of Columbia. “And it was a wonderful life.”

She served 14 months of active duty in Douglas, Ariz., before the Air Forces deactivated the program. After the war, she was press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Breckinridge of Kentucky and also worked for United Press International and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. On March 10, 2010, approximately 200 of the 300 WASPs who are still alive traveled to Washington, D.C. — Nirmaier among them — to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by U.S. Congress.

 “I miss flying,” Nirmaier says. “I miss the freedom of it. It’s real hard to explain what it’s like to be up in the air. It must be something like falling in love.” — Sarah Garber