February 5, 2009 in Washington Voices

‘Weather girls’ had wartime role

Rogers High students became forecasters, observers
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Conant photo

Evelyn Conant, war appointment weather observer, records information, in 1944, from a theodolite at Felts Field. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Conant
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Discussing the weather is often regarded as a banal conversation starter – a topic to banter about before moving on to more substantial things. But not for Evelyn Conant. When she talks about the weather her eyes sparkle and her hands fly.

In 1944, while still a senior at Rogers High School, Conant, along with six other girls, was asked to be an observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Prior to World War II, the organization listed only two women as observers or forecasters. “The government was in a real bind for weather observers,” recalled Conant. “Our school was picked as an experiment to see if girls could understand (the job). All seven of us got special wartime appointments.”

Conant and her band of “weather girls” proved up to the task. By the end of the war, more than 900 women were working as weather bureau observers and forecasters, filling positions of men who’d been called to duty.

The job was both fascinating and challenging. “I just fell in love with it,” she said. Conant, 83, is the archivist for the Davenport Hotel. From a comfortable chair in the hotel lobby, she recalled her 2 1/2 years with the weather bureau.

“We trained right at Felts Field, on the job,” she said. “Our training was actually doing the job, day after day.” The girls took classes, too, and had to learn all the various types of aircraft that flew into Felts Field. “Pilots would ask us specific questions about the weather and we had to know about the airplanes.”

The job entailed gathering, tracking and mapping weather data. “The most fun I had was sending up weather balloons,” Conant said with a grin. “We did at least three times a day.”

They released the balloons from atop the administration building at Felts Field. “There was a little platform up there,” she said. “I remember I froze!”

Conant would fill a balloon with helium, release it, and then track its progress using a device called a theodolite. From her rooftop vantage, at timed intervals, she charted the velocity and direction of winds at various altitudes by watching the balloon.

The advent of weather satellites and Doppler radar provides detailed imagery unheard of in the 1940s, yet weather balloons are still used today. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, twice a day, every day of the year, weather balloons are released simultaneously from almost 900 locations worldwide, including 92 released by the National Weather Service in the U.S. and its territories.

Some of the weather symbols are still used today, as well. With a deft hand, Conant sketched the various symbols she used on the weather maps. A straight line with a bump in the middle for cumulus clouds, a tiny star for snow and what looks like a capital R with a tail for thunderstorms. “We had codes for everything,” she said.

In addition to releasing balloons, Conant used other sources of weather information. “Every 15 to 20 minutes we had to go down to the flight line and read the temperature and the dew point.”

After a year at Felts Field, Conant said, “they sent me to Pendleton.” At 18, she was 5-foot-1 and weighed approximately 99 pounds. She quickly became the darling of the pilots. They got her a small flight suit and some boots, and she went from watching the skies to flying the skies.

“I’d put my hair up and march to the plane,” she recalled. She flew in B-24s, B-26s and B-29s and even took a flight in a P-38. Though the aircraft was a single-seater, she said the pilot took out some radio equipment and she sat piggyback with her legs hanging over his shoulders. “Oh, boy, did I have fun!” So much fun, that after her stint as a weather observer, she became a flight attendant for Northwest Orient Airlines.

Conant said her time with the Weather Bureau made her feel part of the war effort. “With my grades I could have gone to college,” she said. “My older brothers wanted to go to college, but they were both drafted. I felt it wasn’t my place to go when my brothers couldn’t.”

Conant, a Spokane Valley resident, still loves to watch the skies and says despite the snow, the best weather in the world is right here. “I can’t imagine living where it’s hot all the time,” she said, shaking her head. For her, there’s magic in the changing of the seasons. “When you see those cumulus clouds rolling up, you know there’s going to be a storm. She paused to catch her breath. Her eyes shone. “Why, it’s just beautiful.”

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com


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