TAMPA — It was an uncommon passion for a girl who grew up in the 1920s and '30s: Dorothy Ebersbach yearned to fly airplanes.
At first, she had a hard time making it come true. The country needed pilots, and the government offered a training program. But Miss Ebersbach couldn't get into the program because she was woman.
That didn't stop her from getting her pilot's license. Last year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her service to the country during World War II.
"There was a ceremony in Washington, D.C.," said her longtime friend Gayla Russell. "But she wasn't strong enough to go."
Miss Ebersbach died of natural causes at her home on Nov. 14, just a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday.
She was born in Pomeroy, Ohio, but moved to Tampa with her family while still a girl. The house she lived in at the time of her death was built by her father, who owned a construction company. Miss Ebersbach lived there off and on for close to 80 years.
She earned her bachelor's degree from Ohio University and returned to Tampa to work for her father's business, Ebersbach Construction. When Miss Ebersbach was denied entry into the government pilot-training program, her father bought her a plane and she took private flying lessons. She earned her commercial pilot's license, and Miss Ebersbach and her father both figured she would continue to work for the construction company, at least partly as a pilot.
But then the war came, and the U.S. military needed pilots. Male pilots went into battle, so the Army started an organization called the Women's Airforce Service Pilots. Miss Ebersbach was one of 1,102 young women in the program. They were the first women to fly American military aircraft.
The WASP pilots performed auxiliary duties, such as transporting cargo, but their work was still perilous. As part of Miss Ebersbach's service, she towed targets that soldiers in gunnery school fired at for practice. Several of her friends and colleagues were killed. Miss Ebersbach had a close call when her plane developed a leak and her windshield was covered in oil. She had to land virtually blind.
WASP was disbanded at the end of the war. The women who were part of the program never received recognition from the government until that ceremony last year, Russell said.
After the war, Miss Ebersbach returned to Tampa.
"She was taking care of her mother, and she developed an interest in nursing," Russell said. "She went back to school and got her nursing degree from Case Western Reserve University."
She then started another career, working as a nurse for the Hillsborough County Health Department for 21 years until she retired in 1975.
Her older sister Esther Grant was widowed and moved in with Miss Ebersbach in the family home. They lived together for many years, traveling the world and often hopping into Miss Ebersbach's plane for a quick trip to a restaurant they liked on Florida's east coast. Grant died in 2002 at age 101.
Miss Ebersbach gave up flying in the mid-'70s, around the time she retired from the Health Department. She figured the longer she flew, the worse her odds of crashing became. So she quit with her safety record intact, Russell said.
Miss Ebersbach never married. Women of her generation were supposed to be subservient to their husbands, and that just wasn't in her nature.
"She was just too strong an individual," Russell said. "She was the kind of person who wouldn't bend."
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]