Helen Snapp, WWII pilot, dies

Helen Wyatt Snapp did not want to be called a hero.

“The real heroes are the people who don’t come back” from combat, said the former WASP pilot.

Despite that humility, Snapp was recognized in South Florida and beyond for her contributions to aviation and for helping pave the way for women in flight.

Snapp died Jan. 20 at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines from complications after a hip fracture surgery. She was 94.

Snapp was born in Washington, D.C., and attended Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. During one summer break from school, she and her sister Evelyn began taking flying lessons.

Although she had a fear of heights, when World War II broke out, Snapp entered the Civilian Pilot Training program and became a licensed private pilot.

In 1942 she married Ira Benton Snapp, a lieutenant in Company B 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during its campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

It was while her husband was overseas that Snapp learned about the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) training program and began training in Sweetwater, Texas. She became one of the country’s first female military aircraft aviators.

When she graduated, she was sent to Camp Davis in North Carolina, where her duties included radar operations, aerial target towing and search light training. Later, she flew at Liberty Field in Fort Stewart, Ga. Her responsibility there was to fly planes that towed targets, at which male recruits would shoot live ammunition.

Snapp’s final task in active service was a top-secret mission with radio-controlled aircraft, that would later be packed with explosives and used as the first guided bombs.

She also piloted the B17 Memphis Belle, while traveling from Tampa to Jacksonville, when the plane was being used for War Bond promotions.

She was trained to fly both single and multiple-engine planes.

When WWII ended, Snapp returned to the Washington, D.C., area where she and her husband raised three sons. Simultaneously, she worked for the U.S. Post Office.

They moved to South Florida in 1984.

Snapp’s son Jeremy said his mother has served as a source of inspiration for him since he was a child.

“She participated in a piece of history and got to do a lot of things people normally don’t get to do … like fly fighter planes,” he said.

Besides her aviation career, Snapp was known for enjoying life and cherishing time with her family, friends and fellow pilots, he said.

If she saw any opportunity to connect with her contemporaries, she would take it, he said.

Snapp advocated for WASP pilots to be officially recognized as military members and spoke about the discrimination they felt at the time. Although they participated in military activities, they were considered civilians. Now, they are able to enjoy some military benefits, including using VA hospitals and the opportunity to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“They were doing a man’s job, but they really were kind of played down,” said Suzette Rice, the president of the Wings Over Miami Air Museum, who became a friend of Snapp’s. Rice said Snapp and the other WASP pilots were trailblazers; they were considered civilian pilots, but now women in the military fight in active combat.

Snapp was proud to help make that recognition possible.

“That was the message Helen had,” Rice said. “She would say, ‘We were women doing a man’s job, and nobody had done it before.’”

Snapp and 175 other living members of the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. She was also active in women’s pilot association the Florida Gold Coast 99s and the Wings Over Miami Air Museum.

Ursula Davidson, a pilot and member of the Ninety-Nines, said she will most remember Snapp as a friend who “was always ready for an adventure.”

“She was a good role model about how to live your life,” Davidson said. “Just to keep doing what you like to do and not to be afraid.”

Snapp is survived by two of her sons, Jeremy and David. She was predeceased by her husband and son Ira Ben Snapp II.

There will be a memorial service for Snapp on at 11 a.m. March 2 at the Wings Over Miami Air Museum.

Her family has requested donations to the Wings Over Miami Museum or the Florida Gold Coast 99s in lieu of flowers.

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