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Rosie the Riveter grandma inspires NASA granddaughter

 The B-17 bomber was hauled into the hangar, its belly part missing.


The B-17 bomber was hauled into the hangar, its belly part missing.

Armed with her air gun, Elsie Ledbetter — a farm girl from Robertson County — went to work replacing the warplane's absent underside. She fired again and again, inserting each rivet with her fingers to secure sheet metal to the behemoth aircraft.

As a real-life Rosie the Riveter, Ledbetter joined thousands of women in the American workforce building bombers that earned a reputation for power during World War II. With three brothers and her future husband oversees, she did it for her country, to feel part of the war effort. But it became much more than that.


By breaking ground so many years ago, this 92-year-old Goodlettsville grandma helped pave the way for her granddaughter to grow up to work for NASA and talk to astronauts on her cellphone.

Just a few months ago — after sharing a connection to airplanes for decades — that granddaughter got to pilot a B-17. It brought the two women, separated by generations of experiences, together in a unique way.

If it moved, Amanda Stubblefield loved it. Airplanes, trains, boats, cars, motorcycles. And space shuttles.

The day she watched Sally Ride become the first American woman in space in 1983, Stubblefield's path became set. And she felt free to follow that path, in part, because of her grandmother.

From a young age, Stubblefield assumed that women could do what they wanted. She wasn’t constrained by ordinary career options. She pushed that limit in a field dominated by men. Just like the riveters.

In the winter of 1941, Ledbetter's three brothers were overseas — one Navy, two Army — and she cared for the rest of her 11 siblings. Barely 19, Ledbetter worked in the cafeteria of the old Brick School in Ashburn, Tenn. — a one-room school house where the cooking occurred in the corner of the classroom and the students ate at their desks.


She spent one of her first paychecks on a radio for her family's farmhouse. She bought it on a Saturday and the next Sunday, Dec. 7, she and her siblings listened as the horror of Pearl Harbor piped through its speakers.

"We were worried, we were scared," Ledbetter recalls.


Ledbetter couldn't join the war effort the way her brothers had, but she wanted to contribute. Less than a year later, Ledbetter enrolled in Anderson Airplane School in downtown Nashville. She trained for three months, preparing for work in an underground factory in Marietta, Ga. There, she made patterns to cut sheet metal for the outside of an airplane, she learned to hold a rivet gun with precision, straight and level, and she sealed every wing seam with the "stickiest stuff that ever had been."

Stubblefield's tenacity, that trait displayed by the generation of riveters before her, stuck.

She worked at space camp for several years, and she happened to overhear someone talking about a job at NASA.

"What is your job, and how do I get one like it?" she asked.

A year later, the Vanderbilt University engineering school graduate found herself working for the space program.

In her time with NASA, Stubblefield trained astronaut crews and flight controllers to operate science experiments and life support systems and to respond to spacecraft emergencies such as fires and cabin depressurization.


Stubblefield sometimes took her work home with her on vacation. She once excused herself from family dinner at a restaurant to take a call from the International Space Station. She had to talk an astronaut through fixing a broken toilet.

As a private pilot, Stubblefield also looked for a way to continue to work on aircraft. She volunteered at the Lone Star Flight Museum, which collects military artifacts and war planes to tell the story of the aviation industry. When she visited her Tennessee home, she would talk about the work.

That’s when her grandmother, who always believed "the past should stay in the past" really opened up, telling Stubblefield what she had been through.

There's a story Ledbetter tells, one where her male supervisor in the hangar factory came up and pinched her. Offended, she grabbed a tool out of a nearby workers' belt and walloped the man in the head.

"He had to go to the hospital," she says with a smirk.


Ledbetter was one of more than 310,000 women who worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, according to History.com, filling the holes created by widespread male enlistment. They comprised 65 percent of the industry's total workforce — compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years.

They wore slacks and collared shirts. Though Ledbetter doesn't remember if she wore a bandanna around her head like the iconic, dark-eyed, plump-lipped “Rosie the Riveter” — star of a government campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for the munitions industry — she does remember how it felt to be a riveter.

"It was work and sleep," Ledbetter says. "You didn't play around."

These women proved they could handle such tasks, ones previously held by their male counterparts, and they started social change. “Women,” she says, “can do as good as men in a lot of things.”

Today, when astronauts call mission control and say “Houston, we have a problem,” Stubblefield is the one to whom they often hand the phone.

Stubblefield serves as the lead for all the programs’ maintenance planning. Right now, her job is to help connect recently launched cargo vehicles to the International Space Station.

She credits her grandmother with showing her she could succeed in a male-dominated field. Emboldened by the feminist movement that got a boost from the war effort years earlier, Stubblefield pushed her own boundaries.

When the two women sit and talk now, they connect over aircraft structure and the tools used to remove a plane panel to access its components.

"It helps me see how the types of things she was doing then has transitioned us through life to what I am doing now," Stubblefield says.

A few months ago, they shared another experience. Stubblefield restored a B-17 for the Lone Star Museum, a bomber just like the one her grandmother worked on years ago. As a pilot, Stubblefield was allowed to fly the plane with an instructor for a couple of hours as she brought it for an exhibit in Smyrna.

In the air, she marveled at its heaviness, she had to really pull the yoke to move the nose of the aircraft, nothing like the small movements used in the Cessna and Piper she usually flies. She looked through the bomb sights and popped her head up through the viewing galleries, connecting with the men who flew combat.

And she thought of her grandmother during the war, putting together those planes, aiding in those pilots' successes.

Whether she is working at the museum or an airshow, Stubblefield tells the story of her very own Rosie the Riveter to everyone who will listen. For kids it makes the time period and people more real.

And who knows where that might launch them.

Follow Jessica Bliss on Twitter: @jlbliss

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