When Elinor Otto enters a room, her orange hair might be the first thing noticed, but her energy, joy, and sense of humor quickly supersede. Despite turning down an opportunity to be an actor as a young woman, according to John Perry, her grandson, she has now reached celebrity status. Otto has spent the last few years traveling, appearing on television, being honored with awards, planting ‘Rosie the Riveter’ memorial rose gardens, and sharing her inspiring message with young people. Everywhere that she travels, people line up to shake her hand and ask for a photograph together.
A brisk and bright Monday morning found her in Southern California at March Air Reserve Base finally receiving the opportunity to fly aboard one of the aircraft she helped build over the course of her 68-year career in the aeronautical industry. The day began with a ceremony to recognize Otto and was hosted by top leaders of the U.S. Air Force including General Carlton Everhart II, Commander, Air Mobility Command and Lieutenant General Maryanne Miller, Commander, Air Force Reserve Command and was completed by a flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster.
While receiving a Lifetime Achievement Medal from the Air Force Association, it came to the attention of General Everhart that Otto, despite helping build each of the 279 C-17 Globemaster aircraft to roll out of the factory, she had never had the opportunity to fly in one. Inspired by Otto’s personal mission to share her story with young people with the hope to inspire future generations of Rosies, an idea was sparked. Quickly turning into flames, a special mission was organized to honor the contributions of Elinor Otto and to create an inflight mobile classroom to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math to young women and young men. This unique flying classroom aboard the C-17 Globemaster would host Junior ROTC, ROTC, Civilian Air Patrol youth with the opportunity to witness aeromedical crews perform medical training and as well as experience the inflight refueling process.
During the ceremony, Otto shared her passion for youth particularly young women, considering their future as high-tech Rosies. “I’m looking forward to what they are going to do and I pray that they will beat the men! I know that they are ambitious, willing to try anything and I am proud of them. If I can inspire one person in my life it is such an honor. After the ceremony, people of all ages lined up to meet Otto, many with “Rosie the Riveter” posters ready for her to autograph. Elinor greeted each person with a kind smile and posed for many photos with forearm curled.
The legacy of Elinor Otto began in the 1942 when she answered the wartime call of a poster to work in an aeronautical factory. It read, “Men are going off to war, come and do your part.” Otto, and what would soon become a boom of women entered the workforce and were hired into industrial positions formerly occupied by men. “Us woman were all excited. It was a great challenge. And I thought, oh that is wonderful, I can learn what men are doing. And if they work as hard as they say they do, “said Otto who began her decades long career as a real life “Rosie the Riveter” at Rohr Aviation in Chula Vista making 65 cents per hour.
Later, a 1942 Westinghouse poster proclaiming, “We can do it!” symbolized this generation of woman who answered their nation’s call and continues to inspire generations of women. Also working for McDonnell-Douglas and later Boeing, never putting down the riveting gun, Otto earned the title of “Longest working Rosie the Riveter.” Her riveting gun was only laid to rest at age 95 when the factory was reconfigured. When asked about her longevity, she spoke about how much she enjoyed the work. “I enjoy doing physical work instead of sitting in an office with a typewriter that I did once,” She said, “I was bored.” She shared about learning about all the different tools, climbing around the fuselage, and working hard with the rivet gun. “It was fun. Hard work, but fun.”
“We didn’t know we were doing anything important. We didn’t. We just kept working, we had to get schedules out. There was no nonsense about silly things to make us feel important and everything. So, we didn’t know and when they laid us off. They still didn’t say anything nice like you did a great job or anything. So, we just went along our business until decades later all of a sudden they realized that we did do something. we are proud of that and honored that this generation does realize it” Otto shared. Her dedication of sharing her passion of aircraft, education, and her hopes for the future was inspiring to all who attended. Her passion and joy, contagious. She waved from the cockpit of the C-17, her wide grin visible from the ground below as the plane prepares the taxi.