Pioneering woman pilot lived the dream
Laura Kelly stands next to the B-25 bomber, Panchito, at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville.
When Laura Kelly entered the Army in 1988, she thought she would hang around for a couple of years. As it often happens, the couple of years turned into many — in Kelly’s case, 21.
Kelly was a rare bird at the time she enlisted in Army flight school.
“The concept of women attending military flight training was still in the pioneering stage,” said Kelly, who was the only woman in her flight school class.
Not only was she one of the few women in aviation at the time, but her choice of flying machines — and one of the reasons she entered military aviation — also was unusual.
“I was already a fixed wing pilot and I wanted to fly helicopters, but it was very expensive in the civilian world,” Kelly explained.
Although she did not originate from a military family, she had a deep sense of patriotism and wanted to experience military life.
“I had traveled quite a bit with my family overseas and I knew how lucky we were to be Americans and I wanted to be part of the force that protected this country,” she said.
During her time in the service, she flew the legendary Huey, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, among others. Her work took her from search and rescue missions in the Colorado Rockies to a counter-drug mission in Washington, D.C., and VIP missions in Europe.
In addition to helicopters, she has piloted everything from a Stearman biplane to seaplanes and bush planes in Alaska.
While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, Kelly encountered a World War II P-38 pilot who had survived 17 months in a German POW camp. He had no family to record his story, and Kelly did not want his sacrifices to be forgotten.
“I knew instinctively I needed to capture his account of his military career for future generations to know and understand what our veterans went through, particularly during World War II,” she said.
She went to the PX, purchased an audio recorder and began taping his story.
“The more he talked, the more he remembered, and what started out as a possible magazine article eventually turned into a book,” Kelly said.
The experience encouraged Kelly to record other vets’ stories, which evolved into a second career writing magazine articles and speaking about military history.
Now retired, Kelly now volunteers for military organizations such as the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville and the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation.
Kelly’s book about WWII pilot James Grifffis, “On the Wings of a Dream,” is available through amazon.com.