Kathy Royer is the Bomb at Flying FIFI
June 2022 Issue
Story and Photography by Kelly Hunter
The skies over Brunswick were filled with iconic World War II aircraft recently, with the arrival of the Airpower History Tour of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF).
The Tour brings the sights, sounds and stories of World War II aviation to airports across North America each year. In addition to both training and fighter planes, the main attraction of the event at Brunswick Golden Isles Airport was the awesome sight and distinctive engine rumble of two of the rarest WWII bombers, the B-29 Superfortress “FIFI” and the B-24 Liberator “Diamond Lil”.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the largest and most technically advanced aircraft of its time, was first flown in 1942. It began active service in the US Army Air Corp in 1944 and is best known as the aircraft whose missions over Japan helped bring an end to World War II. The B-29 was also used in the Korean War in the early 1950s and was a staple of the U.S. Air Force until 1960. “FIFI”, one of only two B-29s in the world still flying, was acquired by the CAF in 1971. She began touring in 1974 and has been entertaining air show audiences across the country ever since.
I was able to tour “FIFI” with her co-pilot, Kathy Royer, the only woman currently rated to fly a B-29. In fact, only a handful of women have ever flown the Superfortress, most of them WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) who flew them during training for service in WWII. WASPs were, in fact, some of the first to fly B-29s, as male pilots were hesitant to trust the planes, which had some serious hiccups during development. During WWII, 1,100 WASPs flew noncombat missions in all sorts of planes; 38 of them lost their lives. Nonetheless, WASPs were only granted veteran status in 1977, 33 years after they were disbanded.
Kathy flies with the Commemorative Air Force to honor all those who flew in WWII, but she especially welcomes the chance to educate the public about those brave women who did what they could for the war effort. Kathy came to flying later than most pilots, having begun a first career as a music teacher. She had a college friend who had gotten her private pilot’s license and offered Kathy a ride home to Harrisburg, PA, from Washington, DC, where they were going to school. “That was so much fun,” Kathy delighted, and a seed was planted.
After she’d been teaching for a few years and gotten her Master’s degree in school counseling, Kathy decided she wanted to try something new. In November of 1974, “I took my first lesson, and I was hooked.” For several years, Kathy continued teaching while flying in her spare time, but eventually the sky got her full attention, and she made a living as a flight instructor and charter pilot. At first, she didn’t think she’d have a chance to get in with the airlines, because she wears glasses and was older than most applicants. Luckily, the passage of the American with Disabilities Act combined with other factors to open the door. Kathy began her airline career with PanAm in the late 80s.
I asked Kathy if she faced any discrimination, as a petite woman in an industry dominated by men. She shrugged off that challenge as she had so many others, “All through my career, there would always be that startled reaction.” When it came down to it, it didn’t matter that she didn’t fit their picture of a pilot, it mattered that she could fly. The failure of PanAm in the early 1990s briefly knocked Kathy out of the sky. “When PanAm folded, the airlines just weren’t hiring a lot,” she said, “I actually went back to my old school district.” She substitute taught and flew private charters to get by until she could get back in with an airline.
Thankfully, about a year after the end of PanAm, Kathy was hired by United Airlines, where she stayed for almost 22 years, eventually becoming a captain on an Airbus. Upon retirement, she moved to Florida and taught part-time on flight simulators. Kathy said, “I live in a big flying community—Spruce Creek—just outside Daytona.” She owns an RV-8 experimental aircraft, so she can take to the sky whenever she wants, but she didn’t hesitate to volunteer with the Commemorative Air Force.
Through more than six decades of collecting and flying World War II aircraft, the CAF has become the world’s largest flying museum. Their fleet of over 170 World War II airplanes are assigned to unit locations across the U.S. and are supported by 12,000 volunteer members. Nearly all the aircraft are kept in flying condition, enabling people to experience firsthand the sights and sounds of vintage military aircraft in flight. The CAF is dedicated to honoring American military aviation through flight, exhibition, education and remembrance.
Kathy is a member of both the B-29/B-24 Squadron and the WASP Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force, although she only flies the B-29 now. “So many men and women book the flight because their father or grandfather flew in them during the war,” she said. The connection these planes are able to make with the sacrifices of the past has kept Kathy coming back to the tour. “It’s really amazing what these guys endured.”
To learn more about the
Commemorative Air Force, please visit www.commemorativeairforce.org.