Honouring Betty Greene – the world’s first female mission pilot

Published: 8 Mar 2021

Betty Greene in Peru in 1946 with the ‘Grumman Duck’ aircraft.

As we celebrate ‘International Women’s Day’, we pay tribute to Betty Greene – one of MAF’s founding members who piloted MAF’s first ever flight. MAF’s Jo Lamb charts Betty’s stunning achievements in what was, back then, a very male dominated world…

Born in Seattle in 1920, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Everts Greene made history by piloting MAF’s first ever flight on 23 February 1946 to Mexico.

She took off in a red, 1933 four-seater Waco Standard Cabin biplane from La Habra, California, to reach a remote jungle camp near Tuxtla Gutierrez in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Betty was transporting linguists working with Wycliffe Bible Translators. It was her first of 4,641 flights with MAF.

The inaugural MAF journey took almost a week, and Betty – aged 25 – proceeded cautiously, grounding the plane at one point to investigate a concern with the engine, which turned out to be some flaking paint.

First female pilot to fly over the Andes

Betty built on her WWII experience from the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), where she had flown aerial targets for artillery practice, and helped develop new technology for high altitude flying.

An understanding however, of the challenges involved in flying in tropical climates and over remote and difficult terrain had to be learned on the job.

Betty’s first survey flights were into Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. In December 1946, she went on to become the first woman to fly over the Peruvian Andes mountains into the upper jungles of the Amazon River.

Her pioneering mission flights into uncharted areas of Latin America, fulfilled her calling:

‘What a thrill to be actually doing the work for which we had hoped, prayed and planned.’

Betty Greene (From her book ‘Flying High’, 2002)

Frequently the first pilot – and first woman – to arrive in unreached villages, much of Betty’s early work involved seeking out new places for airstrips to aid community development and mission work.

Betty Greene in Ecuador circa July 1946

Risking her life for the Kingdom

In December 1960, Betty risked her life to reach the village of Hitadipa among the Moni people in central Papua. An airstrip would save a 35-mile trek to reach the next town and offer emergency medical evacuations and access to vital supplies.  

Betty hiked into the heart of a jungle renowned for witchcraft, violent acts, and bloody retaliation. On her three-day trek, she was accompanied by a group of Moni who carried food and equipment from a strap across their forehead. In ‘Flying High’ she wrote:

‘Monis put the bodies of their deceased in a tree house where birds pick the carcass clean, leaving only the skeleton. If a man were killed, his wife would be martyred beside him on a death platform suspended high in the treetops to ensure they entered the afterlife together.

Tribal tradition selected a young girl to grieve the deceased by severing half her fingers and leaving her screaming with pain and mutilated for life. The practice often resulted in infections that would take the lives of those tender girls.’

MAF – the ‘canoe from the sky’

Facing a fragile bridge of woven vines, suspended 20 feet above a furiously swirling river on the first day of her journey, Betty felt cold sweat beads forming as she tasted debilitating fear. In herautobiography, ‘Wings to Serve’, she wrote:

‘Each aching muscle and terrifying vine bridge became suddenly worthwhile as our adventure intensified.

When MAF’s Cessna aircraft circled overhead, the Moni broke into wild cheering and dancing. The atmosphere was electric with joy, victory and pride. The plane laned and the crowd surged towards the ‘canoe from the sky’. Many hours of feasting and dancing followed.  That day changed history for the Hitadipa and is one I will never forget.’

 

Betty Greene (1920 to 1997)

Ahead of her time

Continuing to serve MAF until the mid-1980s, Betty clocked up over 4,640 hours spanning 12 countries, returning in 1962 to work at MAF’s American Headquarters in California.

Betty remained an MAF advocate until her death on 10 April 1997.

Betty’s resilience and grace when continually facing resistance as a female pilot in a man’s world, were remarkable. She was decades ahead of her time and God’s chosen instrument for an important strategic role in MAF’s early development.