This March, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections celebrates Women’s History Month and commemorates the many women whose unique voices and stories are preserved in letters, diaries, recordings, and photographs scattered throughout our collections. Pieced together, these historical fragments offer a glimpse into the lives of faithful Christian women who fulfilled their unique vocations in a range of callings as missionaries, writers, doctors, preachers, educators, musicians, evangelists, and more.
Today we remember the life and ministry of Elizabeth Greene (1920-1997), accomplished aviator and first pilot of Mission Aviation Fellowship, whose flying career spanned more than two decades and crisscrossed the globe from Peru to Sudan to Western New Guinea. Greene’s aviation adventures and single-minded focus on missionary service are documented in correspondence, articles, film footage, and photographs sprinkled throughout Collection 136: Records of Mission Aviation Fellowship.
Elizabeth Greene’s fascination with flying came to her early in life. “Almost since I can remember I have had a great desire to fly,” she would later recall. Known as “Betty” to her friends, she started flight lessons as a teenager and was flying solo by the age of sixteen. Her love of aviation, however, was tempered by another calling—global missions service—and as a student at the University of Washington, Greene joined a Civilian Pilot Training program in hopes of becoming a missionary pilot.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Greene put her aviation skills to use in the military, joining the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (W.A.S.P.). She would later describe her war service as good preparation for missionary work: “The best flight training the world had to offer women, which Uncle Sam paid me to take, was not unworthy preparation for a would-be missionary servant of Christ.” During the war, Greene honed her skills as a pilot, flying radar missions and even experimental test flights in B-17 bombers. During her military service, Betty published an article in HIS magazine, the official publication of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, that would change her life.
Titled “A Gal, A Plane, and A Dream,” the short piece detailed Greene’s enthusiasm for flying and even greater passion for advancing global mission efforts through aviation. “I will never forget my first my first solo night flight,” she wrote. “Sitting up there alone in the dark I watched the colored lights of the field off to one side, listened to some Mexican band music seep through my earphones, saw the Pleiades periodically come into view as I circled, and all the while had a throbbing song in my heart as part of Psalm 42:8 kept running through my mind: ‘… in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.'”
The article introduced Greene as “A girl who plans to use her flying talents on the post-war mission fields,” a tagline that caught the attention of Jim Truxton, another Christian military pilot with missionary ambitions. Truxton wrote to Greene with an invitation to collaborate in his fledgling plans for a missionary aviation service. As the W.A.S.P. program disbanded at the close of the War, Betty joined Truxton in Los Angeles to launch the new mission in office space donated by Dawson Trotman, president of The Navigators. The organization was officially incorporated on May 20, 1945, under the leadership of Jim Truxton and within months began its initial aviation assignments.
Self-described as “a servant of missions,” the organization was imagined as a nondenominational service agency to evangelical Christian missions, both denominational and independent. MAF would provide air transportation, ambulance and medical service, and supply lines to remote frontier stations. The mission also surveyed possible sites for new mission endeavors and maintained a series of airstrips around the world. Additionally, MAF operated a radio communications network and worked in cooperation with independent sister organizations in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Finland, Surinam, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa. More recently, MAF has provided search and rescue services during political uprisings, and delivered humanitarian aid for populations suffering from famine, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
While the organization originally styled itself as the Christian Airman’s Missionary Service, much of its founding vision and early administrative success is due to the efforts of a woman. Though the mission was overwhelmingly dominated by men, Greene held the distinction of being CAMS’ first pilot and full-time employee. When the mission purchased its first aircraft on Valentine’s Day in 1946, Greene also piloted its inaugural flight, ferrying two Wycliffe Bible Translator missionaries to a remote area in Mexico.
Although the organization was rebranded as Mission Aviation Fellowship in 1945, it still overwhelming recruited men as pilots and remained skeptical about women’s contributions to mission aviation service. Greene, however, was undeterred. Over the next sixteen years, Betty Greene held multiple field assignments around the globe—serving alongside Wycliffe Bible Translators in Peru, flying for Sudan Interior Mission in Nigeria, and navigating in and out of remote jungle airstrips in Irian Jaya, her final post in 1960. After two years in Irian Jaya, Betty retired from active aviation and took on a recruitment and training role for new pilots at MAF headquarters.
While Betty Greene navigated the male-dominated world of MAF as skillfully as she piloted her aircrafts, she was also clear-eyed and honest about the challenges of aviation service as a woman in her field. Her detailed correspondence and reports to MAF leadership and fellow pilots do not shy away from the sobering realities of pilot life. In one letter, she openly pondered the question of carrying weapons for personal protection while on assignment. “I have to face the question of whether or not I will carry a firearm with me,” she wrote, “I have practically decided to have to carry a pistol inconspicuously in the plane…. I can’t help but believe it is the sensible thing to do when in jungle country where animal life is dangerous and food scarce.” [Letter from Greene, June 4, 1946. MAF Records, Folder 1-9].
In a 1966 interview for the Christian Times, Greene outlined the practical reasons why MAF was consistently hesitant to recruit women pilots. “Even apart from MAF’s attitude about women flying as a lifetime’s work, I caution women about this…. That does not mean, of course, that God will not put His hand upon someone else as He has me, but as a very definite general rule MAF does not accept women to do as I have done.” For the Mission, Greene explained, three objections formed their position on women pilots: (1) Women did not often have the technical or mechanical training required for pilots to maintain and repair their airplanes (2) The role also included loading and unloading heavy cargo, often difficult for women, and (3) Pilots were frequently deployed on solo assignments that left them stranded in remote locations for days or weeks, a situation MAF deemed inappropriate for women [Greene Interview, December 21, 1966. MAF Records, Folder 47-55].
In a 1971 retirement letter to her colleagues, Betty looked back over nearly three decades of service, expressing gratitude for her term of service, but also a wistful sense of loss. “It seems strange to write in order to tell you that I’m no longer active in MAF…. It is true that MAF does not need me.” This realization, Greene confessed, produced “a deep sense of trauma as I faced up to the fact of no longer being needed.” Leaving the organization that she had helped to shape from its earliest years was heartbreakingly difficult. She wrote, “long years of involvement are not easily broken; feelings about being rejected by those you counted your dearest friends force their way in—though unwarranted” [Letter from Greene to Colleagues, November 24, 1971. MAF Records, Folder 148-9].
Although Elizabeth Greene retired fifty years ago, her legacy continues in the ongoing work of MAF today, where women pilots are actively welcomed and encouraged to meld their calling as missionaries and passion for aviation in gospel service to the world.
More records documenting the life and ministry of Elizabeth Greene are found in Collection 136: Records of Mission Aviation Fellowship. Another source at the Archives on mission aviation service is Collection 528: Ephemera of Mission Aviation History.