"I Did What I Did Best..."
Elizabeth “Betty” Haas Pfister was born in Great Neck, New York, on July 23, 1921 and raised in Scarsdale, along with her two siblings Priscilla (Pat) and Robert. She was the second child of of three, born to Merle and Robert Haas. She knew she wanted to fly from a very young age. Her father, Robert K. Haas, was an early partner at Random House Publishing. Her mother, Merle Haas, an unflagging philanthropist, devoted much of her time and energy to the nonprofit Rusk Institute in New York City.
“No, no, you can’t go up!” Betty Haas’s father insisted emphatically, that day in 1940 when the family went to an air show in Bennington, Vt. But when her parents left, Betty, then 19, snuck back to the airfield with a friend, paid a dollar and, as she liked to say, “squished into a seat” for a ride on a tiny plane. It was an old Waco biplane with an open cockpit, she recalled. “My friend and I were both put into the seat with only one seatbelt to hold us in.” It was just the first of thousands of flights she would make in her lifetime. She actually logged around 9,000 hours of flight time overall.
Perhaps a driving force in her desire to fly as she grew older was the fact that her brother Robert had been a Navy pilot. He was killed in action off the coast of Africa while she was taking flight lessons to earn her license. Betty greatly admired her older brother Robert. “The loss of my brother made me even more determined,” she said. “I was kind of a copy cat. I liked to try everything he did.”
I made a deal with my father after that air show, that I would stay in school if he paid for lessons.” He accepted the arrangement, and throughout her time at college, Betty alternated between coursework and flight training. She did both very well and graduated early from Bennington College in Vermont with a degree in Marine Biology. When she was a freshman she had begun taking flying lessons and eventually earned her pilot’s license. By graduation she had logged sufficient hours in the air to be accepted into the WASP.
In 1943 Betty flew military aircraft for WASP ferrying them planes from factory to airfield or port. She also assisted with aerial target practice towing airborne targets and few test flights. She did what her fellow WASP’s did. They were a sisterhood of sorts.
She married Arthur Oral Pfister in 1954. Art was also a pilot who had flown the “Hump” over Burma, China and India during the war. He had served for four years. He always said Betty was the “love of his life.” They met while skiing on a mountain in Aspen. The couple moved to Aspen, Colorado, where they began a family and raised their three daughters. Arthur raised cattle and quarter horses in retirement. Betty continued to fly.
When the war ended Betty purchased a decommissioned a Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter plane. It was a plane that never saw any combat during the war. She paid $750 for it and named it “Galloping Gertie”, painted it red and white. She raced it and showed it at exhibitions. She won the All Women’s International Air Race in 1950from Montreal to West Palm Beach, Florida and 1952 she won again in a flight from St. Augustine, Fla., to Welland, Ontario. It seems she always had a healthy spirit of competition. The plane was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1950 and it became permanent in 1956. “Gertie” lives there still.
In her later life she undertook a number of endeavors. She worked for Pan American Airways as a stewardess and did some instruction. On rare occasions she worked as an aircraft mechanic and, once in a great while, she flew cargo planes. Although there were not many piloting opportunities for women, she was lucky to find several unconventional jobs. One involved transporting cattle to South and Central America. In 1953 she decided she wanted to fly helicopters. Flying was always such a big part of her life. She earned her helicopter license. She was only the 52nd American to do so. She flew many rescue missions. She flew as often as she could in any aircraft the was available, including gliders and balloons. She received her glider license in 1966.
Once again she competed with the U.S. Helicopter Team in the 1973 and 1978. They were world champions. Betty served as an international judge during the 6th World Helicopter Championships in France. In 1992, she was appointed as Chief US Judge at the 7th World Helicopter Championship in England. “I’d hate a 9-to-5 job with weekends off,” she told The New York World-Telegram and Sun in 1950. “I had one once, but couldn’t stand it.” Ever the adventurer, Betty bungee jumped off a bridge in Australia during an Aspen Sisters City trip when she was in her seventies. “I did what I did best, and what I liked most,” she said.