P39 – AIRACOBRA
P63 – KINGCOBRA
By Betty Bishop
I graduated from Tidioute, PA, high school in 1943. After waiting a couple of months until I was 18, I hopped a bus for Niagara Falls where my high school buddy, Anne McKown, was already employed by Bell Aircraft. I immediately applied and was accepted after a couple of weeks of orientation.
I was assigned to Dept. 53 where the P39 Airacobra was assembled. I was given the job of fitting “belly cowls” to the under section. That was done by filing, shaping, fitting and attaching. I soon leaned – and so did they – that I wasn’t meant to be a “body man” (though I married one a few years later) – and wasted more material than I used!
I remained in Dept. 53 long enough to ignore a rule – that was to use a chuck key to remove a bit from the drill. It was easier to bump it on the catwalk – so I thought – and drove a splinter half way up my finger under the nail. First time I ever passed out!
I was transferred to Dept. 63 where I worked on the P63 KingCobra. I was the only girl on the “Landing Gear Gang”, with 21 men. But they needed me as my hand was the only one small enough to shim the struts through the small hole in the wing! Another job of mine was to bleed and secure the brakes. One hundred pound tanks of oxygen were used in this process. One tank slid from the dolly to my toe – and I still carry the reminder on that toe!
I remained in Dept. 63 when the war began to wind down and sale of planes (to Russia) came to a halt. I was transferred to pre-flight where we fit armor to the entire P39, to be used as target planes.
Knowing that lay-off wasn’t too far off - and that my sister, whose husband was overseas and later killed, was expecting as baby – I took a leave of absence and came to Florida to be with her. And have been here off and on ever since – mostly on! I received my severance pay and vacation pay from Bell a few weeks after arrival in Florida.
I had acquired the nickname Bunny – I have always hopped from one thing to another – and continued to do so in pre-flight where the plane was on the ground and had to dodge. When going under same, I didn’t quite dodge an aileron and have a slight souvenir on my nose from that.
I wear my scars well and proudly – a reminder of a young and great life.
I was 18, but always looked a bit younger. I worked swing shift at Bell, so was catching a bus about 3 a.m. for a weekend trip home to Tidioute. White waiting, a policeman came and questioned me about “running away”. I told him I was running “to” home. Took a bit of convincing and had to produce something from my work to prove it. Once convinced, he told me to tell my mom that he would be watching out for me!
One time, Anne – my buddy, and I caught a ride home with a worker who lived beyond Tidioute. On the way back to Bell, the roads were icy and that area was plenty hilly. As we approached the peek of one hill, we didn’t see – in time – a truck putting ashes on the road. She hit the brakes and we flipped – winding up on the drivers side. I could barely reach the passenger door, even by standing on the others. I finally got out and pulled the others out through the passenger door. The driver, Shirley, stayed to give the info. Anne and I hitchhiked and got a ride all the way to Bell entrance in time for work.
Movie stars and Big Bands would stop by to “encourage” us from time to time. I remember Kay Kyser and his band, The Kollege Of Musical Knowledge came. There were several stars that I don’t recall at the moment.
I met so many who became good friends and still have one friend from that era that is very special to me – have shared marriages, babies, grandbabies and now great grandbabies: A wonderful experience!