Rising Above

Photo: Thomas Sanders, '15 MFA Photography

Photo: Thomas Sanders, ’15 MFA Photography

“Never say you can’t do something because you’re a female.”

—As told to Allison Sanders

Ada Lou Reed Duacsek learned to pilot a plane before she could drive a car. A small town girl from Clearlake, Calif., Duacsek, ’49 Operational Aviation, could “out hunt, out shoot and out fish any boy in town.” She never hesitated to pursue her passions—and gender equality—first in aviation, then in the U.S. military. Duacsek shares her story and the source of her success: her positive attitude.

I was hooked on aviation from the age of 14. My best friend’s dad had a hunting partner who had his own Piper plane and a pilot who flew him up to hunt. I would sit on the edge of the runway, drooling. One day the pilot asked me, “Do you want to go up?” I loved the freedom of it. It was truly my above and beyond.

Only two schools in California offered courses in aviation: SJSU and USC. My dad wanted me to be a nurse and my mom wanted me to be a teacher. I didn’t believe in paying for anything you don’t believe in, so I put myself through school. I couldn’t afford USC, even in those days, but I could afford SJSU.

I was the only girl in the program. When all of the men in the program were transferred to Army or Navy flight schools in support of World War II, the aviation department closed—just six months after I started. So I worked for two and a half years as a flight instrument technician at the Naval Air Station in Alameda until I returned to San Jose State.

Some of the boys in the program would mess with me, but I got even with them. I could wield a welding torch like a sewing needle—none of them came near me! By the time I was a senior they were like brothers. They teased me a lot, but really looked out for me.

After graduating, if I used my first name on an inquiry letter for a job in operational aviation, I never heard back. I wised up and started using my initials. I’d get an appointment for an interview, but when I arrived and they saw I was a woman, their jaw would drop and they’d say, “We really don’t have anything for you.” Finally, a friend of my dad’s told me the Navy was looking for officers.

At the military entrance exams, I was one of three girls among about 450 men. After all the tests, the recruiting officer said, “When they start assigning duty, they’re going to have a real problem: the top 10 should be either gunnery officers or navigators, except one of them is a girl!” And that was me. Women couldn’t hold those positions then, nor could I be a pilot. But I reported for duty on Jan. 1, 1950—and I got the same pay as the guys. Later the Navy sent me to post-graduate school in Monterey for aerology. I thought, “Well, if I can’t fly, at least I can stay in naval aviation this way.”

I told all three of my daughters growing up, “Never say you can’t do something because you’re a female.” Women can do everything men can do and then one more—have babies! I’m far from being a genius, but I’ve always had a positive attitude. I’m powered by the goal of making the world a little bit better by my passing through it. San José State really nurtured that. I’ll be a Spartan for life.


Allison Arbuthnot Sanders

Allison is a staff writer in San Jose State's marketing and communications department. A former food writer, she enjoys telling the stories of the people and places that power SJSU.

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