Betty Strofus, WW2 W.A.S.P. pilot

Update: Betty Wall Strohfus died on March 6, 2016. Her obituary can be found here.


Betty Wall Strohfus, B-17 and B-26 pilot in 1943-44 during WWII

One of the highlights of my experience has been meeting Betty Wall Strohfus, WWII W.A.S.P pilot, at the Global Girls in Aviation Day at St. Paul Downtown Airport last September.  We served on a panel of women aviation legends together (don’t ask me how I got included in this amazing group.) Betty regaled everyone with great stories of her days ferrying B-17s and B-26s; towing targets for artillery practice (yikes!) and instructing wet-behind-the-ears young men to fly AT-6s and BT-13s.


The Legends panel: Elizabeth Bierman, president of the Society of Women in Engineering; Elizabeth Strophus, WWII W.A.S.P.; Julie Clark, ret. NWA Captain and aerobatic performer; Dr. Sandra Magnus, Astronaut, Anne Kerr, Lady Skywriter; Barb Wiley, ret. RC/NWA Captain. ©2015 Larry Grace Photography.

Betty lives in Faribault MN and at 96 you can count on her to be involved in most classic aviation events coming down the pike.  She also lends her support to any endeavor promoting equal treatment for females in aviation.

A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article informs us that Betty’s latest work on the “female front lines” has her pitted against the Pentagon in Washington D.C.  She wonders why the less-than-100 WWII W.A.S.P.s still living are not allowed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  She has found an ally in Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who says she is “disgusted with this turn of events and will keep pushing on behalf of the surviving women.”

There were about 1,100 Women Airforce Service Pilots during the war, and it took them decades to be finally recognized as veterans in 1977. “We can’t change history and how they were treated for years, but we can change how they are honored,” Klobuchar said.

As for Betty, she is going to be buried with her family in a small cemetery near Faribault.  But she wants “the girls,” as she calls them, to be able to get into Arlington if they choose.


An astronaut, Dr. Sandra Magnus; A WWII W.A.S.P., Elizabeth Strophus; Scott Romuld, AT-6 Thunder pilot; pictured with the airplane Liz instructed young male pilots in 70 years ago and Scott now flies. ©2015 Larry Grace Photography.

If Amy and Betty can’t get “the girls” into Arlington, nobody can!

The Johnson Family loses its Matriarch

Merry Jo, fondly known as “Jo” Johnson died on February 12 in Cannon Falls, Minn. at the age of 90. Jo was born in Grand Rapids Minn. and was an entertainer, once performing with Red Skelton, before becoming a Northwest Airlines stewardess in 1949. A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Feb. 16 in Cannon Falls, Minn. See for details.


Merry “Jo” and Herb Johnson in Billings Montana

Jo flew them all – All ten NWA Boeing B-377 Stratocruisers, ships 701-710. She showed me her logbook. She flew married, too, when it was not allowed.  It helped that she married a Northwest pilot, Herb Johnson in 1951 and the airline had a critical need for more help at the time.


Jo, Scott, Herb and Erick Johnson, 2007

Their union produced a flying dynasty, including a pilot son and grandson and a daughter Linda, who has worked as a NWA/Delta customer service agent at MSP for many years.  Herb was a NWA pilot for 32 years, retiring in 1981. Son Scott has flown for Northwest/Delta for 29 years and his son Erik, Herb and Jo’s grandson, started with Mesaba (NWA) in 2007.

Lady Skywriter enjoyed meeting Jo and Herb at their home in Cannon Falls, Minn. in 2008 to interview them for a chapter in her book Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels, published in 2009.  You’ll enjoy reading about their exploits and how it happened that Jo was allowed to fly with Herb after they got married.  Herb died in 2013 and his passing is noted in the 2nd Edition “Flown West” section. A 2nd Edition of Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels, with 56 more pages and 83 more photographs was published in 2015 and is available for purchase on this website.

The “Art” of Skywriting


On May 14, 1915, aviator Lincoln Beachey, the official stunt flyer at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, died after crashing into the bay. “Art” Smith (who was racing his “Baby Cars” at the fair) was hired to take Beachey’s place and flew stunts in his own airplane for spectators for the duration of the exposition.


Art Smith at the controls of his bi-plane, San Francisco 1915.


Stunt pilot Art Smith was famous for his acrobatic flights and the use of flares attached to his airplane. After each performance he “wrote”  G O O D  N I G H T in the night sky. He created the display pictured above on the closing night of the International Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915.

Meanwhile across the pond, World War I was winding down and Major John Clifford “Mad Jack” Savage found himself soon to be unemployed.  Savage began his flying career as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Flying Service, advancing to become a major in the new Royal Air Force. He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu (blue bird), but chafed at his earth-bound position and itched to get back in the sky.

Shortly before the beginning of the “Great War,” an accidental discovery was made. If low viscosity oil accidentally found its way into a hot exhaust it would vaporize, creating a dense cloud of white smoke, which was sometimes used to make smoke signals to ground troops and confuse attackers.

By 1921 “Mad Jack” Savage remembered using aircraft “smoke” in wartime and hatched the idea of making shapes and letters in the sky. Savage needed to find an ideal aircraft to perfect his new science of “sky writing.” He discovered that over 2,000 S.E.5As were available for purchase at bargain prices. He bought 33 of these discarded wartime fighter aircraft plus parts and extra engines.


The Savage Wolsley SE5a sky-writer

He opened his new business at Hendon flying field north of London and advertised that “the S.E.5As were eight times stronger than was needed to endure the stresses of sky writing.”  Minor modifications were made to the airplanes to ready them for their new purpose. Camouflage colors gave way to a standard silver livery with proper civil registration.

His background in theater and his flair for promotion helped him bring skywriting to the attention of the fledgling advertising industry, when he sold an ad for a London newspaper and decorated the sky over the 1922 Epsom Derby with the words  DAILY MAIL. Virginia Woolfe, a famous novelist at the time, was seated in the V.I.P. section at Epsom Downs and wrote about the amazing skywriting event in the opening chapter of her novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” first published in 1925.

Flush with success, Savage crated up and shipped a few of his S.E.5As to New York.  Ex-RAF pilot Cyril Turner was in charge of the American contingent and wrote HELLO USA over the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the telephone number of the hotel where “Mad Jack” Savage was staying.  The “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue were astounded when they heard the hotel switchboard lit up with 47,000 calls fielded by 8 operators.

Savage was so encouraged he sent more S.E.5As to Europe where he found a ready audience and enjoyed more success.

Over the next two decades the skywriting industry grew exponentially.  Who doesn’t remember gazing skyward to see the letters P E P S I scrolling overhead, on some days getting snatched by an invisible breeze – or – L S M F T appearing in block letters, everyone knowing that meant “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” By 1939 the sounds of World War II were rumbling in Europe and “Mad Jack’s” skywriting airplanes were wearing out.  It had been a good ride.  By 1949 he had only one S.E.5A left, which he preserved for posterity by donating it to a very grateful Science Museum in Kensington, London.  We earthbound mortals still have the opportunity to gaze skyward to see an extremely rare and original Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5A – an actual combat veteran from the Great War, very carefully flown on very special occasions – the only original S.E.5A still operational is housed at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Airfield in Bedfordshire. This Collection of aircraft and cars was started by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a passionate racer and pilot. Based in the aerodrome, the Collection contains some of the last airworthy aircraft of their type remaining anywhere in the world.

Maj. J. C. “Mad Jack” Savage died September 17, 1945, but not before he also invented and built searchlights, using a revolutionary reflecting principal for projecting slogans on night clouds.  Although its use was banned in his native England he sold his invention abroad, and used its basic principals in developing military searchlights. Savage also pioneered crop spraying from aircraft and sponsored the Savage-Bramson anti-stall gear.

Lady Skywriter is grateful for the following resources:

The Scarf and Goggles Social Club

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum 

First Skywriting Ad over New York’s Times Square

Air Classics Magazine, February, 2016 issue     “Great War Veteran”  by Philip Makanna

It’s a bird . . . It’s a plane . . . It’s a Super Triple-Tail DC-4E!


The one and only Douglas DC-4E took to the skies June 7, 1938. Douglas test pilot and V.P of Sales Carl Cover said when he landed, “She flies herself, I just went along for the ride.”

This all started a week ago when my brother John Billingsley, my son Rick Kerr and I were engaged in a favorite pastime, discussing aviation history.  John asked me, “Did Northwest Airlines fly any triple-tailed DC-4s?”  I asked him to repeat the question, and when he did I admit I was quick to cast aspersions on his veracity.  He replied that he knew he had seen a photo of one recently and bet me $5 that he was right.  It seemed an easy bet that I was quick to shake on. Who ever heard of a triple-tailed DC-4?

Fast forward a week to Christmas Day.  John pulls out a copy of page 57 of the January, 2016 issue of Air Classics magazine. In a story about the 80th Anniversary of the Douglas DC-3 was a photo of a DC-3 in Northwest livery in the huge Douglas assembly facility at Clover Field in Santa Monica Calif. The note beneath the photo states “In this photograph, a nearly complete Northwest NC21711 frames the company’s mighty DC-4 four-engine triple-tail airliner.” So there you have the photo my brother saw. He had mistakenly remembered that the DC-4 had Northwest livery, so he kindly said the bet was off. I didn’t owe him $5.

I feel as though I really won anyway. What a thrill to be introduced to a one-of-a-kind airplane that never carried a passenger but foretold the future of passenger flight. The Douglas DC-4E; four engine, triple-tail airplane, the first with tricycle landing gear, was introduced in June, 1938. The following Spring Douglas turned it over to United, American, TWA, Eastern and Pan American airlines for flight evaluation tests.  In the end, United and American both ordered the new aircraft.


Don Douglas said to his chief engineer Art Raymond, “I knew we could design planes as big as this and even bigger,; but I frankly didn’t know how we would ever build them!”

Orville Wright, co-inventor of the first airplane in 1903, walked through the DC-4E during a stop-over demonstration at Dayton Ohio in 1939. Wright told a reporter, “This is more of a machine than it is an airplane, a giant complex machine of perfection. It is a thing of mechanical miracles. Man doesn’t fly anymore. The gadgets do all the work.”

Pilots liked it and praised it. Most of the improvements and innovations available to aircraft builders were incorporated in the first DC-4: auto pilots, de-icers, controllable-pitch propellers and navigational aids.

And the cabin comforts were exceptional. It was called “a Grand Hotel with wings!” She could accommodate 42 guests by day and 30 by night in her pressurized cabin. There was a Ladies Lounge, a Men’s Dressing Room, a private compartment up front called the “Bridal Suite.” Comfortable two-abreast seats could be made up into sleeping berths. Other features included air conditioning, hot and cold water, electrically operated galley. There were curling irons for the ladies and electric shavers for the men.

Alas no passengers ever enjoyed these exceptional accoutrements. World War 2 was looming.

In 1940 Great Britain was enduring the “Blitz” and France had fallen.  U.S. Army Air Force General “Hap” Arnold visited the Douglas plant and a few days later Douglas got a teletype directing him to stop work on the big transport planes. United and American were asked to cancel their orders.  But soon, in response to Germany invading the island of Crete with a huge aerial armada, another urgent teletype  came — “Top priority on the big transports.”  Overnight the Army air chiefs concluded that the DC-4 was exactly what they needed for troop transport. The DC-4E became the Douglas Skymaster. By now Douglas had solved the vertical stabilizer problem and the triple-tail disappeared. It was lighter, smaller and simpler. The wing was altered, the cabin unpressurized and Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasps were used.The Air Force called it the C-54.  The Navy the R-5D. A total of 1,245 were produced.


A C54A (cn7470 42-107451) was to become the personal transport for President Roosevelt (The first Air Force 1) and specially modified for this role (C54C). It was named “Sacred Cow”.  Later President Truman used it extensively and in 1961 it was retired to the Smithsonian Museum.

After the war C54s were converted into airliners known as DC-4s, then followed the DC-6, DC-6B, the DC-7, DC-7Cs and finally DC-8 jets.   But they all owe their heritage to the first of the big transports – the triple-tailed DC-4E.

The one lone DC-4E prototype was sold to Japan in 1939 and its fate is unclear, but it is supposed that it was bought to support the Japanese studies into developing a long-range bomber.

Many thanks to Doug Engells for his great article published in the December 1961 American Modeler Magazine Please use link for much more detailed information.

And check these out: Douglas DC-4 Skymaster – Historical background and The Sky Sovereign DC-4E

And check out the January 2016 issue of Air Classics, page 57, to find out what led to this discussion in the first place!


Thanks, John.  I’m so pleased to learn about the DC-4E Triple-Tail airliner!

Reunited with Old flying buddies at 2015 RNPA Holiday Lunch


L-R: Kathy Atkinson, Pat Allen Tennyson, Pat Elliott Olson, Anne Billingsley Kerr

I capitalized “old” because we all date back to the 1950s; worked on the B-377 Stratocruisers and had to resign when we got married. What fun to see Pat (Allen) Tennyson, NWA 1959-60; Pat Elliott Olson NWA 1956-59 and Kathy Atkinson (married to NWA pilot Neal Atkinson). Anne flew from 1956-60. We share another bond as well. Since we had to resign when we got married, but still wanted to hang out with each other, we founded an organization called NESA (Northwest Ex-Stewardess Association.) We met monthly, raised money for charitable organizations and kept going strong until the rules changed and there were no more “ex” stewardesses and then no more “stewardesses.” As you can see, we still endure and still enjoy each other’s company. There were 198 retired pilots and F/As with significant others at The Chart House for this gala event. And I learned that it pays to be the “eldest” at the table. I won the centerpiece!


Anne, Pat T., Pat O. at our table.

Pat Elliott Olson reminded me that she was working on my first training flight (DC-4 to MDW) in 1956 and she remembered that we went out to lunch with some mechanics at MDW. What a memory!

It is indeed a tribute to RNPA that nearly 200 people attended this wonderful get-together, thanks to their volunteers who chaired the event.  Food was delicious, decorations festive and the company couldn’t be improved upon.  Get a room jam-packed with “Red Tails” and look out!  Laughter was bouncing off the walls, dear old friends reuniting and catching up with one-another.

A wonderful beginning to the Holidays!

(So sorry I didn’t get a photo of Gail Diercks, Carol Hall and Linda Peck, who accompanied me to this fun event.  All former NWA F/As, we are all also volunteers at the NWA History Centre Museum and enjoyed the day and each other’s company.)



Just in time for the Holidays . . . inexpensive gifts for your NWA friends!

Now available:  Six note cards feature selected images from my book, Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels and the legendary NWA B-377 Stratocruiser during the “Golden Age” in the 1950s!


Top left, Laraine Tracy invites you down to the Fujiyama Room; Iconic NWA Stratocruiser; Legendary Bob Reardon and Bonnie Murray (Vork) in the Stratocruiser galley 1956; Anne Billingsley (Kerr) on air-to-ground phone in 1959; Cap’t. Caz Falenczykowski smiling from the “greenhouse,” nickname for Stratocruiser flight deck 1958; Anne Billingsley at the end of a flight 1956.

These vintage 1950s scenes are perfect for sharing airline memories with personal notes to friends.

All cards 6-1/4″ x 4-5/8,” semi-gloss outside with matte finish inside for ease in writing. Cards may be purchased individually or in sets of six. Individual protective sleeves. Silver ribbon packaging on set of 6 makes for great gift giving. Envelopes included.

To read the individual captions (printed on the back to give you more room for your note) please go to the home page of this website and click on Lady Skywriter Gift Shop.  Here you will also find pricing and S & H information.

If you act soon, you’ll have your gifts in plenty of time for holiday giving.

Lady Skywriter hopes these images trigger nostalgic memories for some of you, a peek at NWA history for others, and perhaps a smile for all.






Cards may be purchased individually or in sets of six.



Minnesota T-6 Thunder in Jan. 2016 Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine


Lady Skywriter with Scott Romuld, T-6 Thunder pilot at “Girls in Aviation” day at St. Paul downtown airport 9/26/15

Today I received the January, 2016 issue of Air & Space Smithsonian magazine.  The cover story is “The Best-Built Airplane That Ever Was: The worldwide cult of the T-6.” Read more:


Photo: Lyle Jansma, Air & Space Smithsonian magazine

What fun is is to read this story, AND to see a beautiful color shot of a couple of T-6 Thunder airplanes flying over Lake Minnetonka blazing with fall colors.

I actually have ridden in a T-6.  It was many years ago.  Yes, it was noisy.  And lots of fun!

There are more fascinating articles in this issue, as usual.  One is the personal account of Emmett “Cyclone” Davis, a fighter pilot at Pearl Harbor and another, the first 100 years of Boeing, manufacturer of my favorite airliner, the B-377 Stratocruiser.

Terrific Day at Minnesota Blogger Conference Nov. 14

Look who’s sitting at a table in the front row, second from left:


Twin Cities public relations operative Arik Hanson speaks to a jam-packed room at the Minnesota Bloggers Conference in St. Paul on Saturday, Nov. 14. Hanson spoke about seven new trends in blogging. (Pioneer Press: Julio Ojeda-Zapata)

Happy to share the 7 Trends we learned about:


The Minnesota Blogger Conference, now in its 6th year, is a full-day educational conference for professional and hobbyist bloggers. Keynote speakers, featured guests and panelists elevate the local blogging community by sharing industry news, best practices and networking opportunities.  With a capacity of only 300 participants, the 2015 conference was sold out weeks ago. Thankfully, a larger venue has been reserved for 2016 so more can be accommodated.  I missed out last year because I didn’t know about it in time.  So I placed myself on their email list and reserved my space for this year as soon as reservations opened up.


As promised, networking abounded. Enjoyed meeting and trading contact info with Pamela Kendall Court and many others.

Chicagoland Airline Collectible Show Nov. 7, 2015

It was a great day, today.  Met many folks who still keep Northwest Airlines in their hearts!



Anne is ready to go!                                                                              Photo by Chris Bidlack



Collector dressed in vintage PanAm uniform



Lots of Collectors – Lots of action – Good day



George Klooknee seems happy with his purchase!



With Ken Clark and Joan Lee



Chris Bidlack’s Jet Art


Had dinner with Diane and Jim O’Connor. Jim is a former NWA manager and Diane a retired F/A with Ozark. Diane attended Zell McConnell airline school in MSP. We laughed a lot!

These shows are becoming habit forming.  I’m seriously considering Michigan next April at historic Willow Run Airport!  Haven’t been back there for about 50 years.  Not to mention the possibility of seeing Detroit area airline friends at the show! And seeing Chris Bidlack’s poster (below) featuring my beloved NWA stratocruiser at Willow Run many many years ago was an effective teaser too.

Detroit Show 2016 Flyer 3.3??????









Chris Bidlack turns his attention to propellers for a change!

The MSP Airline Collectible Show and Sale was proud to host the launch of widely anticipated new airline and airport art by artist Chris Bidlack.  Self proclaimed “head honcho” of  Jet Age Art, he sells original Art Print posters celebrating the classic aircraft, airlines and airports of the 50s and 60s.  His new designs feature MSP Airport, the North Central Convair 580 and the Northwest Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser.

Lady Skywriter is the happy owner of three of the new posters, including her favorite NWA Stratocruiser in two designs, one with its history and route maps and one with the iconic 1950s stairs pushed up to the aircraft.  If you weren’t fortunate enough to be at the MSP Show and Sale, Chris assures me these new works will very soon be available for purchase at  Until then, feast your eyes on the following photographs:


Artist Chris Bidlack unveiled new airline/airport art at the MSP Airline Collectible Show and Sale Oct. 10 2015. Photo courtesy Chris Bidlack

IMG_4528-001 (Medium)

Chris Bidlack with his new Northwest Boeing Stratocruiser poster. Photo courtesy Robert DuBert


SW Capt. Don Falenczykowski with Anne (Lady Skywriter) Kerr. Don’s dad Caz was a NWA Stratocruiser captain and Anne was a Stratocruiser stewardess on her favorite airplane. Photo courtesy Chris Bidlack


David DeBace, NWAHC volunteer and retired NOR/REP/NWA. Dave’s dad was a North Central pilot who flew the North Central Convair 580. Photo courtesy Chris Bidlack