LUTZ, Fla. — Dora Dougherty approached the Ladybird with awe.
Parked on the runway at Eglin Army Air Base in the Panhandle, the B-29 was the biggest, fastest propeller plane of World War II. It would soon fly a terrible mission, dropping the nuclear bombs that would hasten the end of the war.
"I looked in wonder down her sleek flush-riveted sides, and back, way back, to the graceful curve of the high, vertical fin rudder, 27 feet high, the high tail distinctive among Boeing-built bombers," Dougherty recalled.
"I looked from wing tip to wing tip, 141 feet. This was longer than the Wright Brothers' entire first flight, which was only 120 feet."
It was 1944, and Dougherty knew how to fly – four decades before the first woman would be selected by the Air Force for test pilot school. She was assigned to a top secret mission – to prove the value of the plane called the Superfortress.
Today, Dora Dougherty Strother McKeown is 91 and lives at the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Lutz, a place close to her family. Sitting at a dining room table at the home, decorated for the holidays, she recently recalled her little known role in the events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
Dougherty was just 23 that day at Eglin when she first climbed into the cockpit of the B-29.
Rushed into production, the bombers had a bad reputation among male pilots because their four, 2,200-horsepower engines often caught fire. But with a war to fight, Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets, who piloted the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, needed to prove they were safe.
He picked Dougherty and another woman, members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, to show the men there was nothing to fear.
"I wondered if I would be strong enough to fly her," Dougherty said, reading from an unpublished memoir she wrote about her life. "Would my hand be big enough to maneuver the four throttles?"
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On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, in Garden City, N.Y., for the first solo flight across the Atlantic, captivating the world.
It was around this time that Dougherty, a young girl living a short distance from the airport, took her first flight from the same airstrip.
"I grew up making model airplanes, flying model airplanes," Dougherty said.
On Sundays, the family would drive out to the airport and watch the planes take off and land. One day, her father, Jonathan Maynard Dougherty, who worked at an advertising agency, surprised his family by paying for the passenger flight.
"Oh, I was so excited," Dougherty said. "I wasn't scared. I had a big smile on my face."
Already hooked on flying, Dougherty grew up wanting to be a pilot. But the road to flight was limited for women like her, of modest means.
"The war news was circulating," said Dougherty. "I wanted to fly, but daddy said we can't afford anyone taking flying lessons."
Strong believers in education, Dougherty's parents shipped her off to Cottey College, a two-year women's school in Missouri. It wasn't long before flying took precedence over her college education.
The town's former mailman had bought a small plane, quit his job and moved into a hangar, where he gave flying lessons. Dougherty became one of his students.
"I couldn't afford much, maybe a half-hour a month," she said.
When America entered the war, a shortage of military pilots led to the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, or WASP. The program was designed to provide a pool of pilots who could fly domestic military missions – like ferrying aircraft and towing antiaircraft targets – so men could fly combat.
Even the people running the program realized society was in transition.
"Since that fateful day at Pearl Harbor, the women of our land have been training themselves in every conceivable line of war work in order to put an additional shoulder to the wheels of war," a speaker said at the first WASP graduation.
Dougherty joined and graduated in 1943, a member of the program's third class.
"Oh, you had no idea how the whole population wanted to be in the Army," she said. "We wanted to fight the Germans and the Japanese."
WASP attracted a diverse group of women. Dougherty said her class of 68 women included an actress, a reporter and a woman who worked in a casino.
After graduation, Dougherty ferried airplanes before she was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina, where she was among the first women to fly over the water. She towed targets for the antiaircraft crews to shoot.
"I don't remember being scared," she said. "I was more scared of snakes. We heard stories about snakes getting into the aircraft and crawling out of the controls."
Though women were a new phenomenon on military bases, Dougherty said she never experienced problems.
"I was never maltreated nor did I know of any girls who were," she said. "The guys were like our brothers."
Dougherty later moved to Eglin Army Air Base in Florida, where she flew T-6 Texans and A-20 Havocs. It was there that a decorated combat pilot, charged with getting a troubled new bomber to the front, spotted her and fellow WASP Didi Morman.
"They needed the B-29 badly," Dougherty said. "Planes were being lost all over the place and we needed to do something to bomb the Japanese. Col. Tibbets was in charge of getting that going."
Tibbets, she recalled, was a calm leader who easily won respect.
"Tibbets was a quiet man. I never heard him cuss, never heard him raise his voice. At the controls he was a master pilot. If he was landing an airplane, you hardly felt it land."
He had "the total confidence of his crew," she said. "Didi and I felt particularly blessed that we were part of that crew. He had confidence in us, so they did, too."
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Sometime in the summer of 1944, Dougherty climbed into the cockpit of the Ladybird and settled into the pilot seat for the first time.
"It was enormous," she said. "The pilot and co-pilot were a good distance from each other and the flight engineer was behind you. He would have all the gauges and if you wanted to find out what the RPM was, you had to turn around and find it from him."
Dougherty taxied the big plane onto the runway. Getting clearance from the Eglin tower, she guided the Ladybird down the runway, pulled back on the wheel and lifted her off the ground.
"It was an easy plane to fly," she said. "Everything went perfectly smoothly, just like driving down a freeway."
The mission, though, was anything but simple. Even the tower operator was confused. When Dougherty radioed in, he said he couldn't talk "because I have an unidentified B-29."
"That was me," she said.
Dougherty later flew the plane to Alamogordo, N.M., which would later be the home of the first atomic bomb test the following summer. At least one of the men on her crew, flight engineer Staff Sgt. Wyatt Duzenbury, would be on the Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
It was piloted by Tibbets.
Dougherty and Morman, the only two women checked out to fly the B-29, played a key role in the war effort, said Jeremy Kinney, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
"When a strategic bottleneck appeared in the form of getting B-29 crews ready for combat as quickly as possible, Dougherty and Morman learned to fly America's most advanced bomber and showed Army Air Forces personnel that it could be done safely and efficiently," he said.
Kinney likens the WASP program to the better known female pioneers of baseball. "'A League of Their Own' with airplanes," he said.
"Back then, people believed that if a woman could do it, a man could," Kinney said. "The issue was showing the male pilots that they would not put a woman in if it wasn't OK. That is definitely what happened with the flight of the Ladybird."
Dougherty said she was aware, as a woman pilot, of the importance of her mission.
"At stake was the ability of that aircraft to deliver the bomb it was built to fly," she said. "It made me want to do a perfect job."
Dougherty's time on the B-29 ended after Tibbets' command found out and shut down the program after about two months, fearing backlash from the male pilots and criticism should any of the women get hurt or killed.
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With the war winding down, the WASP program was disbanded in December 1944. By that time, though, Dougherty had been checked out as a pilot-in-command of 23 different planes.
But because she was considered a civilian, the benefits of the GI bill were not available to her and she had to put herself through college, receiving a Ph.D. in aviation education from New York University in 1955.
Three years later, she was hired by Bell Helicopter, becoming one of the first women to fly helicopters. Along the way she set female flight records for highest and longest chopper flights. She was promoted to a group chief at Bell, retiring in 1986.
As she continued her pioneering ways, she also fought for recognition, testifying before Congress in the late '70s to get the WASPs status as veterans. The campaign eventually succeeded.
Dougherty first married when she was 45, to Lester Strother. They were married for 27 years until he died. Dougherty's past resurfaced when a man who had watched her fly the B-29 reached out to her.
On Aug. 2, 1995, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel named Harry McKeown wrote her a letter.
"Before you throw this letter into the trash-basket, let me introduce myself," read the letter, obtained by PBS, which featured Dougherty in its documentary "Fly Girls."
He told her they had crossed paths in New Mexico when she was there demonstrating that the Superfortress was safe.
"From that day on we never had a pilot who didn't want to fly the B-29," McKeown wrote.
The two married in 2003 and lived in Texas until McKeown died in 2010.
Dougherty moved to Tampa to be closer to her brother Ward's daughter, Diane Trimis, and her children.
At her home in Brighton Gardens, Dougherty doesn't often volunteer her remarkable life story.
But she's happy to talk about it when asked.
"How much time have you got?"