McChord honors WASP on 100th birthday

By Joan Brown on July 15, 2016

As a little girl growing up on a farm in Woodburn, Oregon, Dorothy Kocher Olsen read a book about the Red Baron, the famous German World War I ace, and instantly decided she, too, wanted to fly.  Several years later, a teacher asked the class what they each wanted to do when they grew up. As Olsen quickly replied, "I want to fly," he smirked and her classmates laughed. "I'll show you," she thought to herself.

"I knew what I wanted and I went after it." That's how this WWII Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) describes how she accomplished what women in her day were never expected to achieve.

Olsen worked hard to earn the money necessary to enable her to take flying lessons and eventually get her private license. The only woman in the Woodburn Aero Club, along with five men who flew the club's 40-HP Taylor Craft as crop dusters or for pleasure, Olsen decided one day to take a friend along and follow I-5 north. She ended up landing on a taxi strip but got into no trouble over it, she said, "because I was a woman." Sometimes that gave her an advantage.

On Sunday, July 10, Olsen celebrated her 100th birthday at McChord, surrounded by family, friends, former WASPs and their "heirs," active-duty female AF pilots. The event began with static tours of the C-141 and C-17 aircraft, followed by a birthday party at the Heritage Hill Pavilion. As a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, Olsen says she feels very fortunate to be recognized. "I did well because I loved it. I don't think you can be good at what you don't like."

Joining in the birthday celebration were former WASP Alta (Teta) Thomas of Sequim, a bay mate of Olsen's as they went through training in the class of 43-W-4; Betty Dybbro of Lacey; and Mary Jean Sturdevant of Spanaway, three of the many who paved the way for today's female military pilots. They were joined by Lt. Col. Liz Scott, commander of the 4th Airlift Squadron; her daughter Allison; Maj. Kate Benson, also a 4th Airlift Squadron pilot; and retired C-17 pilot Lt. Col. Kimberly Scott, who now flies Boeing 737s for Alaska Airlines. To cap the celebration, Carter Teeters of Heritage Flight flew in Olsen's favorite airplane, the P-51 Mustang, and landed it next to the C-17 at McChord. He also saluted Olsen with several fly-bys before returning to Paine Field.

Of the 1,100 WASPs who flew every plane the Army had, the five-foot-tall Olsen was one of the few trained to fly pursuit in the P-51 Mustang, as well as the twin-engine P-38, both fast, small planes she much prefers to larger aircraft. She also earned the instrument rating necessary to allow her to take off at night.

But there was very little room in the cockpit of the P-51 - just enough to tuck a little shoe bag with dancing shoes underneath her seat. "So every night," her daughter Julie Stranburg explained, "she'd have a date with a different guy and go dancing." Perhaps she was only keeping up proficiency in her dancing ability because teaching ballet and tap had helped her early on to earn enough money to get herself into the sky in the first place.

Asked if she was ever afraid when she got into dangerous situations, Olsen said "Never - because I was so confident in my own ability and in the airplanes themselves." Even when the engine on one plane that she was flying developed a cracked block and began splashing oil all over the windshield, totally obscuring vision, she landed by looking out to the side. Did she have any trouble bringing it down? "No, I was a very good pilot."

After the WASPs were disbanded in December 1944, Olsen took on one more flying job, ferrying war-weary BT-13 airplanes, along with two other pilots, to a new owner in Troutdale, Oregon. Along the way, they became lost in a snowstorm in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and ran low on gas. The other two pilots wanted to turn back, but Olsen refused. Instead, they were guided in by the townspeople shining their car headlights on the airport that sat obscured by the storm on a raised plateau.

In June 1945, several months after the WASPs were unceremoniously disbanded, she and Harold Olsen, a Washington State Patrolman, were married and moved to Adams Street in Tacoma. Asked if she found it difficult to give up flying, she said, "I had enough catching up to do about being a housewife. I was married to a man I loved dearly - and then I had children." In addition to Julie, Olsen's family includes her son Kim, grandson Robert George, his wife Chanly and great grandson Cody.

By the time Olsen's children were in grade school and the family had built a 2,000-square-foot home in University Place with little or nothing with which to furnish it, Olsen "took off" again, this time with both feet on the ground. She started going to garage sales to find furniture which she'd clean up and restore.

Eventually, as pieces began to accumulate beyond the family's own needs, Olsen had to start having her own garage sales. Finally, with only the first month's rent and limited knowledge, Olsen decided to open Olsen's Antiques, which for 40 years occupied the entire corner of Steilacoom Blvd. and Bridgeport Way in what is now Lakewood.

When she developed an abscessed tooth, the massive doses of streptomycin the dentist prescribed killed the nerve and made her extremely ill. In one week she became totally deaf for the next 37 years. But she swiftly learned to read lips and at 80, she was finally able to have a cochlear implant, making her probably the oldest implantee at the University of Washington at the time. At the same age, Olsen also got her first speeding ticket, as she was leaving Long Beach, Washington, driving a Mustang, but a Ford this time instead of a P-51.

At age 100, Olsen neither looks nor acts her age. She remains small, fast and still flying high.

As fellow WASP Betty Dybbro laughingly chastised her, "You don't look a hundred. You don't act a hundred. When are you going to grow up?"