Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
Click here for source notes on this article.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Bessie Coleman, better known as Queen Bess, was America’s first black woman pilot. Born in Texas in 1892, into a world of extreme poverty and deepening racial discrimination, her dream to “amount to something one day” was fought against overwhelming odds. Working as a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop, she read about World War I pilots. She decided that she wanted to become a pilot. But she was met with the reaction: “You, a Negro and a woman—you must be joking.”
Undeterred, Bessie sought the advice of a valued customer in the barbershop. “Go to France,” he said. “The French are much more accepting of both women and blacks— but first learn the language.”
That same day, Bessie began taking French lessons. A few months later, she sailed for France, and signed up with an aviation school. Her training included everything from banked turns and looping-the-loop to airplane maintenance. In 1921, she became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Back in the U.S., an African-American woman pilot was big news. Thunderous applause and a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” greeted Bessie at her first airshow in New York. Memphis and Chicago followed. Bessie’s future never looked brighter. She managed to buy an old Curtis Jenny, a favorite plane among barnstormers. She was heading for a performance in Los Angeles, when the engine stalled; she crashed onto the street below, was knocked unconscious, broke one leg, and fractured several ribs.
Distraught over having disappointed her fans, she sent a telegram to the local newspaper: AS SOON AS I CAN WALK I’M GOING TO FLY! Seven months later, she was back in a borrowed plane, performing to upbeat crowds in Ohio, Texas, and Florida.
Bessie loved flying and accepted its risks, but her real ambition was to open a flight school. Sadly, she didn’t live to see her dream realized. In 1926, her old, run-down plane went into a spin. Bessie was thrown out of her seat, and fell to her death.
At her funeral, thousands paid their respects to the brave young aviator. With her pluck and determination, Bessie Coleman had set an example for many black people.
Shortly thereafter, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles became a reality, introducing young blacks to the world of aviation. Among those inspired by Bessie was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman African-American astronaut.
As you can see, Roxie Munro is a talented illustrator as well as a writer. She has a new series of nine desktop two-sided fold-out wordless nonfiction books called KIWiStorybooks Jr.. They come with a stand-up "play figure" and a free interactive app loaded with games and puzzles, fascinating facts in a Q&A format, sounds, and more. OCEAN has a Coral Reef on one side and a Research Ship Laboratory on the other.
Roxie is also a member of Authors on Call. You can read more about how you can have her visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Bessie Coleman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Feb. 2018,
You’ve probably heard about Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic. But did you ever hear about Cal Rodgers?
Only eight years after the Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air machine, newspaper tycoon William Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first to fly across the continent in less than 30 days.
Although Cal Rodgers had just learned to fly, he was ready. “He’ll need every atom of courage..,” Wilbur Wright had said of any man who attempted to win the prize.
The nation had not a single airport, and there were no navigation aids or repair places. . To help him, a train carrying a second plane, spare parts, a crew of mechanics, Cal’s wife Mabel, his mother, and reporters was rented by a company producing a grape drink named Vin Fiz. In exchange, Cal named his airplane after it, and would scatter Vin Fiz promotional leaflets from the sky— the first aerial ad campaign.
On September 17, 1911, Cal took off from Brooklyn, made a sweep over Manhattan and headed for New Jersey, where the train, and an enormous crowd, was waiting.
The next morning, right after takeoff he tried to avoid some power lines, hit a tree, and plunged into a chicken coop. Feathers floated as he emerged from a tangle of wires, splintered wood, and torn fabric. Head bleeding, cigar clenched between his teeth, he muttered, “Oh, my beautiful airplane.”
They rebuilt the Vin Fiz, and a few days later he was again airborne. Stopovers were frequent, as were brushes with death. The plane struck telegraph wires; it piled into a barbed-wire fence (demolished again); and landing in Indiana, Cal was attacked by a bull. He became the first pilot to fly in a thunderstorm. But the Vin Fiz buzzed on.
When he reached Chicago, other contenders had dropped out. Cal realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the west coast in 30 days. But he pressed on…
To avoid the Rocky Mountains, he flew south over Texas, then west. By the time he reached California, after a dozen crashes, his plane had been rebuilt so often that little remained of the original.
A month later, after still another crash and in yet another rebuilt plane, he finally reached the Pacific, greeted by 50,000 spectators
Tragically, Cal’s luck ran out. A few months later, he flew into a flock of seagulls, and plunged to his death.
But he did it— he became the first pilot to fly across the American continent.
In eleven intricately drawn mazes, eight vehicles, each carrying a different product, are on their way to the city. Fish, apples, dairy products, corn, vegetables, flowers, eggs, and baked goods all travel through colorful and minutely detailed landscape mazes to reach the city farmer's market. Information on all of the products and their journeys is included, along with answers to all of the mazes. For additional fun, kids are challenged to look for objects hidden on each spread. For more information, on Roxie's Market Maze, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "A Transcontinental First." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Master Chef of Kids' Hands-on Science
Think you might like to be a helicopter pilot? If so, here’s what the U.S. Flight Aptitude Selection Test for helicopter pilots says: “Helicopter pilots must pass some of the most demanding physical tests of any job in the military. To be accepted for pilot training, applicants must have excellent vision and be in top physical condition. They must have very good eye-hand-foot coordination and have quick reflexes.”
A sense of balance is also extremely important because sometimes instruments alone are not enough to keep a helicopter oriented properly in the air. Pilots may have to make very subtle corrections. So here’s a test for balance. Be forewarned. Not many people can do this, maybe one in twenty.
1. Stand at attention.
2. Make two fists and extend your arms straight down by your sides. Point your index fingers to the ground.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Bend one leg back at the knee so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and you are standing on one foot. Don’t let your foot droop. You must maintain your knee at a right angle.
5. Keep your eyes closed and hold this position for ninety seconds.
6. Try not to shake.
I learned about this from a Scotsman who told me about this test to qualify for the British Royal Air Force. He couldn't pass it, nor could I. In fact, no one I knew could rise to the helicopter pilot challenge except a Navy pilot in my family. He held the position perfectly for two minutes. Solid like a rock. No problem.
It’s clear that when it comes to certain skills not everyone is equal. Some people are not even close. So very few people are in the running to become helicopter pilots. You're probably not one of them but this may change with training.
Vicki Cobb is a former science teacher with a M.A. in secondary school science. She is also the founder and president of iNK Think Tank, the group that is producing The Nonfiction Minute. Thanks, Vicki!
Check out How Could We Harness a Hurricane?. To find out more about this book and other books that Vicki has written, click here.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 CItation
Cobb, Vicki. "Take the Helicopter Pilot Challenge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Take-the-Helicopter-Pilot-Challenge.
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council