As early as World War I, two American aviatrixes taught cadets to fly. It was only natural that women who loved to fly wanted to use their skill to help in World War II.
They found their niche with the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command in the Army Air Force. The ATC was favorable to women; they had a lot of airplanes that needed to be moved and they needed pilots. Women ferried military aircraft around the country from October, 1942, through December, 1944.
In October, 1944, General “Hap” Arnold announced the AAF had sufficient pilots for present combat needs. The end of the war seemed in sight. Returning combat pilots could fill the service pilot jobs performed by WASPs. Dissolution of the WASP was set for December 20.
The Ferrying Division wanted to keep the women to ferry pursuit planes, which were crucial to the war in Europe. Men had to fly the heavy bombers and cargo planes overseas, where the women were not allowed to go. After December 20, 1944, dozens of badly needed pursuit fighters sat on airfields with no one to deliver them.
The new book WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds by Sarah Byrn Rickman concentrates on the 303 women in the Ferry Command. Here are snippets from their experiences:
One woman wanted to buy her own plane for $1,500. She got a loan for $1,300 at a time when people weren’t getting loans for cars. She discovered years later the banker gave her the loan because he figured she’d kill herself and her family would pay off her debt.
Twenty-seven men and six women ferried open cockpit Stearman PT-17 trainers in winter from Montana to Tennessee. It was 9° in Great Falls, Montana. The line crews had to heat the engine oil to get the engines to start. The pilots were bundled in bulky flight gear that failed to keep out the cold. They had to fly over the Rockies. Snow hid landmarks. They didn’t have radios, so had to communicate by hand signals. The women, flying together, arrived in Tennessee after nineteen days, before the men.
Cornelia Fort had been giving a flying lesson in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, humorously portrayed in the movie Tora, Tora, Tora. They landed safely. Cornelia was the first WASP to die when a male pilot doing aerobatic maneuvers during a ferry jaunt struck her plane.
Getting P-51 Mustang fighter planes from Long Beach to Newark for shipment to Europe was a high priority. Ferry pilots held War-B-II priority, allowing them to bump civilians and high-ranking military officers from airline flights. One WASP bumped Frank Sinatra from a flight, disappointing his fans waiting to see him during a Memphis stopover.
Some men resented the women pilots because they took the glory out of flying. The men couldn’t swagger if women flew. One WASP recalled, “We released men for combat. The men did not want to go to combat. That’s why some of the men resented us.”
The women’s accomplishments were unique for their time. The women didn’t talk about their experiences after the war. No one believed them. The Army Air Force had sealed their records.
In the mid-70s, Navy women were lauded as the first to fly military aircraft. A renewed effort began to win recognition of the WASPs by gaining militarization, which was finally granted in 1977.