Elinor Otto, widely known as the last Rosie the Riveter, joined the head of Air Mobility Command on a C-17 flight over California Monday to educate and inspire the next generation of airmen.

Otto, 98, who has worked on every C-17 Globemaster ever built, had never actually flown on one. She finally got that opportunity when she spent more than three hours on a Globemaster III piloted by Gen. Carlton Everhart, the head of AMC, near March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. With them were about 30 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets who were given the opportunity to see some of the Air Force’s missions.

Otto began working at the Rohr Aircraft Corporation in Chula Vista, California, in 1942, during World War II. The women who took on the jobs left by men as they departed for war became known as “Rosies.”

“During the war, no one thought we did anything,” Otto told Air Force Times. “Nobody said we were Rosies or anything back then. Then they realized, ‘Gosh, these women did do something.’ ”

The women were let go when the men returned home. Otto landed a job with Ryan Aeronautical Co. in San Diego. She later went to work for Douglas Aircraft Company, which merged with McDonnell Aircraft, and then became Boeing. Amazingly, she didn’t retire until 2014, at age 95.

The flight was “a way for us to inspire our youth,” Everhart told Air Force Times.

Besides flying in the C-17, the cadets watched an air refueling and an aeromedical evacuation simulation.

Bringing Otto onboard and letting her share her story with the JROTC students provided “a true inspiration for the next Rosie the Riveters,” men or women, Everhart said. In fact, Otto is part of a national effort to encourage young people, and especially young women, to pursue science, technology, engineering and math degrees for the jobs of the future.

“People have got to keep studying high technology,” Otto said. “I tell these young people to get a good education and learn and get a wonderful, technical job.”

Elinor Otto, one of the original Rosie the Riveters, meets airmen at March Air Reserve Base in California on Monday. Otto flew on a C-17 Globemaster III for the first time after dedicating more than 70 years of her life to service in the aerospace industry. (Staff Sgt. Heather Cozad/Air Force)
Elinor Otto, one of the original Rosie the Riveters, meets airmen at March Air Reserve Base in California on Monday. Otto flew on a C-17 Globemaster III for the first time after dedicating more than 70 years of her life to service in the aerospace industry. (Staff Sgt. Heather Cozad/Air Force)

The C-17 flight had a three-part goal:

  • To get young students excited about aviation
  • To educate them on what they can do in the Air Force and how the missions work
  • To show their families that the service is invested in educational opportunities for their children

“It’s a way to charge them up and inspire them,” Everhart said. “But also a way of spreading that educational piece.”

Everhart said he wants to take this “flying classroom” to other air mobility bases around the country.

One of the concerns he hears from airmen is that the quality of local schools around some Air Force bases is below par, which could influence whether they stay in the Air Force.

For that reason, AMC is now interested in complementing the education that airmen’s children receive. This includes partnering with local schools around different AMC bases, said spokesman Col. Chris Karns.

“This will show we’re actively involved and a committed partner to making the improvements that families want to see at any location they’re at,” he said.

The flying classrooms can have different themes that touch on various elements of the Air Force as well as education that students need, Karns said.

For example, one of the Air Force bands could teach students about music education, as well as the Air Force, he said.

Enhanced education could help airmen stay in service instead of getting out to move to different school districts.

This initiative would come at no additional cost to the Air Force, Karns said, because it could coincide with AMC training.

“We still have to do our training missions,” Everhart said. “So if we do them with bright, young minds onboard, you’ll knock out two birds with one stone.”

Elinor Otto on technology

Former Rosie the Riveter Elinor Otto discusses technology with Air Force Times's Charlsy Panzino.