An Antelope Valley native and renowned pilot, Irma Story was born in Burbank, California on October 14, 1921. About a year later, her parents relocated to Lancaster where Irma would spend her childhood and teen years. As little girls, she and her sister were good friends with Frances Gumm, known later as Judy Garland.
Carrying the same name as her mother, Irma soon acquired the nickname “Baby Irma” amongst her family. Eventually shortened to “Babe”, it became a nickname that stuck throughout her life. As a young girl, Irma discovered airplanes through her older brother, Tom, who had a collection of glider models and rubber band propelled toy planes. While playing and sharing her interests, it was not uncommon for Irma to proclaim that she would one day become a pilot that would fly real planes. As she got older she engaged with aircraft in any way she could, often by running errands for local mechanics and pilots, washing planes, and “gunking” engine parts (among other dirty jobs) in the hopes that she would be taken to the air as a reward.
Irma's dream of flying was finally realized in 1941 when she became a participant in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at Antelope Valley College in collaboration with the Antelope Valley Flying Service, owned by Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes. To complete her certification, Pancho helped Irma falsify her application by passing her off as a man named B. Story. When the certifying pilot showed up, he was shocked and displeased by the deception but passed Irma anyway due to her undeniable skill. At age 19, she received her private pilot's certificate. Soon after earning her certificate, "Babe" went to Lockheed’s Vega Aircraft in Burbank to apply for jobs building airplanes so she could build up flying hours.
In September 1942 the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was organized, and two months later Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran persuaded the Army Air Forces to activate the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). The two programs operated separately until August 1943 when they were merged as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Cochran taking the role as director. Shortly after the formation of WASP, Irma was accepted into the program for Class 43-W-6 at Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied to serve in WASP, although fewer than 10 percent of that number were accepted. These women flew a variety of aircraft, supported the historical preservation of women pilots, and aided in the relief of male pilots from combat overseas during WWII, tasking some 1,100 civilian women with non-combat military flight duties. WASP were the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft, and the women in this organization later received the Congressional Gold Medal for their dedicated service to the United States.
The women of WASP logged more than 60 million miles in the air and flew every type of aircraft in the Airforce. In addition to ferrying aircraft, WASP towed targets for aerial and ground-to-air gunnery practice, made test and demonstration flights, and served as flight instructors. Unlike the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) or the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the WASP were considered part of the civil service and were not militarized as an official auxiliary force. As victory in Europe seemed imminent and more male pilots were becoming available, the WASP program was quietly disbanded in December 1944.
With WASP disbanded, Irma continued flying as an instructor in both Pennsylvania and Lancaster, California after WWII flight restrictions were lifted. She worked in programs set up for returning GIs for approximately five years. Afterward, "Babe" continued flying charter flights and instructing as well as managing the local Lancaster airport for a crop dusting company. In 1959 Irma hung up her goggles and crash helmet for an "indoor" job which consisted of flying for a corporation, her ultimate goal. She flew for an electrical contractor with offices in Lancaster and New Orleans as well as other jobs all over the United States, logging many hours in the Cessna 310B.
Three decades would pass before women were once again allowed to pilot U.S. military aircraft, and it would be nearly half a century before women would return to the cockpits of U.S. fighter planes. WASP was finally militarized in 1977, an act that made official the veteran status of those who had served. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill conferring the Congressional Gold Medal upon the WASP. The following year, more than 200 surviving WASP members attended a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol to receive their decorations.
Irma passed away on September 1, 2017, at the age of 95 years old. Like many of her colleagues and mentors, Irma played a monumental role in setting the stage for women in the Airforce. She was among over 200 surviving WASPs honored with Congressional Gold Medals in 2009. Irma “Babe” Story was the last surviving WASP member in the Antelope Valley.