Neighbors: ND woman became an aviation pacesetter

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Today Neighbors salutes a woman from North Dakota who served her country during World War II and became an aviation pacesetter.

Viola Thompson was born around 1914 near Fingal, N.D. She was a young girl when her family moved to Fargo.

While she was growing up, she would tag along with her brother Marnel when he went to Hector Airfield in Fargo to watch the planes. There, in 1939, she had her first plane ride plus a flying lesson. It cost $1 for the ride and $2 for the lesson.

Viola eventually attended a business college, then got an office job. But whenever she could snatch some extra time, she spent it in the sky. So it was that in 1942, she became the first female in North Dakota to obtain a commercial flying license.

With the war on, the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) was formed in 1943, and Viola offered her services as a pilot.

She trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, graduating in 1943 as a member of the fourth class to do so. And when she graduated, she became the first North Dakota woman to receive her wings with the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Viola then spent most her time as a target tower, meaning she towed targets for anti-aircraft gunners, at Camp Davis, N.C., and Camp Stewart, Ga. Some of the planes she flew were Douglas dive bombers and Curtiss Helldivers.

However, the WASP program was short-lived, bowing to political pressure and to views that women shouldn't be flying airplanes. The program was shut down in 1944, leaving a lot of women who were providing essential war service at loose ends. This included Viola.

However, she met and married Robert Mason. And she continued to fly planes, even receiving a seaplane rating.

Eventually she and Robert moved to Alaska, where she became a member of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). For her service with CAP, she was awarded a Meritorious Service Award.

After a long life of taking to the sky, Viola (Thompson) Mason died in 1978.

Neighbors thanks Allison Veselka, an assistant at the Barnes County Museum in Valley City, N.D., for sending in this story.

For the story of another female pioneer pilot from the area, see Danielle Teigen's story in the Sept. 2, 2018, issue of The Forum. It concerns Florence Klingensmith, of the Moorhead area, who was flying in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.