Women Airforce
Service Pilots


Biography 1

Some of the Aviators


Jackie Cochran

1906 - 1980

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran
At 2:23pm on September 23, 1938, with the equivalent of just a few minutes more gas left in her tanks, Jackie Cochran's silver P-35 shot across the finish line in the challenging, transcontinental Bendix Race. The triumphant former beautician had just won the cross-country race, completing the 2,042 miles from Los Angeles to Cleveland in just eight hours, ten minutes and thirty-one seconds. Using an innovative, new fuel system, she chalked up another first by becoming the first pilot to finish the course non-stop. Within a year Cochran was awarded, for the second time, the most prestigious prize given to American women aviators: the women's Harmon trophy. She'd also broken a women's altitude record, climbing to 33,000 feet, and she'd broken several speed records. When Cochran was asked what fueled her ambitions she would reply: "I might have been born in a hovel, but I determined to travel with the wind and the stars."

Cochran's earliest memories are of life with a foster family on what she called "Sawdust Road," but what was, in fact, a lumber mill town in northern Florida. In her autobiography she remembered having no shoes until she was eight years old, sleeping on a pallet on the floor and wearing dresses made of cast-off flour sacks. As a child she was hired by a beauty shop owner, and by the time she was 13, she was cutting hair professionally. In the 1920s she became one of the first women to master the newly invented permanent wave. But one of the customers, noting Cochran's spark, encouraged her to do something more serious with her life. With very little formal education, Cochran enrolled in nursing school.

Even though Cochran completed three years of training to be a nurse, she never quite adjusted to the profession. In her autobiography, she remembers not ever getting "comfortable with the sight of blood." She constantly had to resist the urge to hand in her notice, reminding herself that a nurse was more valuable than a beautician. But she was never convinced, and an experience delivering a baby to an impoverished mother in Florida helped drive her back to the beauty trade. She remembered three children were sleeping on pallets next to the woman giving birth. "There I was with neither the strength nor the money to do the smallest fraction of what needed to be done to make those lives better... . In a beauty shop the customers always came in looking for a lift. And unless I really screwed up," she concluded, "they left with that lift."

Her next job as a beautician at Antoine's in New York's Saks Fifth Avenue brought Cochran into her future husband's world. At a dinner in 1932, the dashing millionaire financier Floyd Bostwick Odlum advised Cochran that if she were ever to realize her dream of setting up her own cosmetics firm, she'd need wings to cover enough territory to beat her competition. Cochran took the advice to heart, and that summer she learned to fly. "At that moment, when I paid for my first lesson," Cochran remembered later, "a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born."

It wasn't until the end of the decade, after Cochran had established herself as America's leading female pilot, that she tried to turn her new profession into one in which she could make a vital contribution to her country. In September 1939, shortly after Warsaw fell to the invading German army, Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arguing that, in the eventuality of American involvement in the war, women pilots could fly military aircraft on support missions, releasing men for combat duty. Implicit in Cochran's letter was an offer to begin the planning for such a squadron of female pilots. Even though she constantly promoted the idea, nothing came of her suggestions for a couple of years.

It was the British who resoundingly demonstrated that women were more than up to flying military aircraft. By July of 1941, almost two years into the war, England was desperately short of pilots, and the flight schools couldn't keep up with demand. The Royal Air Force's solution was to use trained female aviators to ferry planes around the British Isles. The women's contribution was invaluable. They were moving planes around by the thousands with just a few minor accidents. In the summer of 1941, Cochran spent some time in London studying how that operation worked. When she returned to the U.S., President Roosevelt asked her to research ways of using female pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The following summer, Cochran returned to Britain, this time with 25 hand-picked American women recruits who would help ferry planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

While Cochran was in Britain, another renowned female pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, suggested the establishment of a small ferrying squadron of trained female pilots. The proposal was ultimately approved. Almost simultaneously, General Hap Arnold asked Cochran to return to the U.S. to establish a program to train women to fly. In August of 1943, the two schemes merged under Cochran's leadership. They became the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

Cochran was soon thrilled at the success of her experiment. Her female pilots were no longer just ferrying planes around the states; some were training B-17 turret gunners, others were working as test pilots at repair depots, some were training staff pilots at navigator schools, and yet others were tow-target pilots. In January 1944, the War Department announced that the Army Air Forces women's fatal and non-fatal accident rates were lower than the men's. In March Cochran presented a report of the WASPs achievements to General Hap Arnold. She hoped that it would help convince Congress to bring the WASP formally into the Army Air Forces.

Cochran's hopes were dashed by the end of the year. Not only had Congress voted against admitting the WASP into the military, the program had been deactivated. As the war progressed, fewer men were required for combat missions. Also, male pilots conducted an extremely effective campaign against the WASP, arguing that the women weren't needed. On December 20, 1944, the women pilots were flown home.

The end of the WASP, however, was not the end of Cochran's flying career. In 1946 she competed in the Bendix Race again, coming in second with a time of four hours and 52 minutes. In 1950 she set a new speed record for propeller driven aircraft, and in 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. In the end it was her health that grounded her. In the early '70s, doctors told a devastated Cochran that she needed a pacemaker and that she could no longer fly. But even that news failed to slow her down for long. According to one friend she bought a big recreational vehicle that she drove "like an airplane all over the country." Another friend remembers her spending much of the end of her life cycling around her large ranch, back and forth to her vegetable garden.

Cochran's spirit finally broke after her husband died in 1976. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and she was often in excruciating pain. Friends say she began talking a lot about death, frequently asking to be buried with a doll that she won as a child and a sword presented to her by the Air Force Academy. The latter she wanted in case she needed to fight her way out of hell. When she finally died in 1980, the sword was returned to the Air Force Academy, but the doll went with her to the grave.



Nancy Harkness Love

1914 - 1976

Nancy Harkness Love

Nancy Harkness Love
In the mid-1930s a young woman from a prominent Philadelphia family found a job in Boston selling airplanes on commission. Her long list of customers included Joseph Kennedy, Sr., who, according to one account, was more concerned in finding a wife for a future president, his son, than in buying a plane. The young saleswoman, Nancy Harkness, apparently wasn't interested. She had her own marriage in mind, one that would in its own way gain her local celebrity. In 1936, she married an Air Corps Reserves officer called Robert Love. The union was splashed all over the Boston papers -- "BEAUTIFUL AVIATRIX WEDS DASHING AIR CORPS OFFICER" read one headline; "THE ROMANCE OF THE GLAMOROUS YOUNG SOCIETY COUPLE MEETS THE ROMANCE OF THE SKY" announced another. The marriage did more than give Nancy public attention. It placed the already extremely capable pilot in an excellent position to lobby for a women's flying squadron during the war.

Love was the daughter of a wealthy physician; she had been flying since she was a teenager. Though she went to all the right schools, including Milton Academy in Massachusetts and Vassar in New York, she was restless and adventurous. In college she earned extra money taking students for rides in a plane she rented from a nearby airport. Once she flew so low over campus, almost brushing the treetops, that someone was able to read the plane's tail number. University officials were not amused. She was suspended from school for two weeks and forbidden to fly for the rest of the semester.

After their marriage, the Loves built a successful Boston-based aviation company for which Nancy was a pilot. She also flew for the Bureau of Air Commerce: In one project she tested three-wheeled landing gear, which subsequently became standard on most planes. In another, she helped mark water towers with town names as a navigational aid for pilots.

Love was not a headline-grabbing pilot like the famous aviator Jackie Cochran, but her qualifications as a pilot meant that her first proposal for a women's flying squadron, though rejected, was taken seriously. In May 1940, just months after the Second World War broke out in Europe, Love wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds who was setting up a Ferrying Command within the Army Air Forces. She said she had found 49 excellent women pilots who could help transport planes from factories to bases. "I really think this list is up to handling pretty complicated stuff," she argued. "Most of them have in the neighborhood of a thousand hours or more -- mostly more, and have flown a great many types of ship." General Olds was intrigued. He took the suggestion to General Hap Arnold, who turned it down, though not permanently.

According to one account, a chance comment her husband made proved a decisive factor in resurrecting Nancy's proposal. In the spring of 1942, Robert was called for military duty in Washington as the deputy chief of staff of the American Ferry Command. Nancy got an administrative job in Baltimore, to which she commuted by plane. One day Robert happened to mention his wife's daily flight to work to Colonel William Tunner, who was heading up the domestic wing of the ferrying division. Tunner, who at that very moment was scouring the country for skilled pilots, was amazed. He wanted to know if there were many other women who could fly. Within days, he met with Nancy and asked her to write a proposal for a women's ferrying division. Within months, the 28-year-old Love had become the director of the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron, or WAFS, with 25 experienced female pilots under her command.

From the very beginning, Love and the WAFS had problems getting the media to take them seriously. One of the first newsreel stories showed Love welcoming some of her new recruits. The announcer summed up the story saying: "What will they think of next." "Life" magazine proclaimed that Love was one of the six American women in the public eye who had beautiful legs. The War Department tried to tone down the publicity, urging the press to treat the women pilots with "diplomacy and delicacy." And Love tried to ensure that her pilots did nothing to attract unwarranted attention. She knew that one misstep could turn the tide of public opinion against her whole team. "If the WAFS are to succeed, our personal conduct must be above reproach," she told her recruits. "There cannot be the faintest breath of scandal. Among other things, this means you may not accept rides with male pilots." She went on to explain why. "If a male pilot and a WAF were seen leaving a plane together there would be suspicions that they were playing house in government property."

The following summer, Love was asked to fly an important mission which, if it had proceeded as planned, would have greatly expanded the scope of her operation. The British had asked for the delivery of 100 B-17s in order to fly deep into Europe. Colonel Tunner suggested to Love that she become the first woman pilot to fly a military plane on an intercontinental flight. The day Love and her co-pilot were to set off, General Hap Arnold got word of the mission. Fearing a tremendous backlash if a woman pilot was shot down by enemy fire, he moved immediately to ground the women. As Love started the engine on the B-17 and was about to taxi down the runway, an officer came screeching down the runway in a jeep with an urgent telegram in hand. The message was from Arnold. It read: "CEASE AND DESIST, NO WAFS WILL FLY OUTSIDE THE CONTIGUOUS U.S." Love and her co-pilot shut down their engines. The photographer who was on hand to record the takeoff, took a still of the two women anyway. The picture captures the disappointment of two frustrated aviators trying desperately to smile.

In the summer of 1943 Love's squadron merged with a women's pilot training program that had been set up under Cochran's leadership the previous fall. Cochran was named director of the combined units, which was known as the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Love was put in charge of all WASP ferrying operations. Under her command, female pilots flew almost every military aircraft then in the air. In some instances, they were even asked to demonstrate to the men that a particular plane was safe. According to Colonel Tunner, the women were instrumental in rescuing the tarnished reputation of the high-speed P-39 pursuit plane, which the men had named the "flying coffin." The men, Tunner claimed, were having so many accidents in the ship because they weren't flying it "according to specifications." He ordered a group of female pilots to begin deliveries of the P-39. "They had no trouble, none at all," Tunner noted years later. "And I had no more complaints from the men."

After the war, Love received an Air Medal for her service to the country. She then retreated from public life and raised three daughters. The family moved to Martha's Vineyard, where they frequently hosted WASPs who had been under Love's command. Love died of cancer at the age of 62 in 1976, so she didn't live to see the WASPs being accorded military recognition three years later. But right up to her death, the women she had commanded remained some of the most important people in her life. Among the things she left behind was a box she had kept for more than 30 years. Inside was a handwritten list she had compiled in 1940 of women pilots. It also contained clippings and photographs of each of the women who had died under her command.



Cornelia Fort

1919 -1943

Cornelia Fort

On December 7th, 1941 Cornelia Fort, a young civilian flight instructor from Tennessee, and her regular Sunday-morning student took off from John Rodgers Airport in Honolulu. Fort's apprentice was advanced enough to fly regular take-offs and landings and this was to have been his last lesson before going solo. With the novice at the controls, Fort noticed a military aircraft approaching from the sea. At first that didn't strike her as unusual; Army planes were a common sight in the skies above Hawaii. But at the last moment, she realized this aircraft was different and that it had set itself on a collision course with her plane. She wrenched the controls from her student's grasp and managed to pull the plane up just in time to avoid a mid-air crash. As she looked around she saw the red sun symbol on the wings of the disappearing plane and in the distance, probably not more than a quarter mile away, billowing smoke was rising over Pearl Harbor. The disbelieving Fort had just unwittingly witnessed the U.S. entry into World War II. A little more than a year after this near miss, Fort would be flying military aircraft for the U.S. and a mid-air collision would tragically make her the first American woman to die on active military duty.

That Fort should one day put on a flight suit, live in army barracks and fly some of the largest and fastest military aircraft of the day, would probably have raised more than a few eyebrows in the genteel circles in which she was raised. Dr. Rufus Fort and his wife Louise had brought up their oldest daughter to be the demure wife of a Southern gentleman. Their five children grew up in an opulent 24-room house originally built in 1815. It stood on 365 acres of land along the Cumberland River in Davidson County, Tennessee. A chauffeur drove the children to their exclusive private schools. And after Cornelia turned 19 her father presented her to society in an elaborate debutante ball, attended by hundreds.

Around the time Dr. Fort died in the spring of 1940, Fort took her first flying lesson. She was instantly addicted. Though she could never quite articulate why she loved planes so much, her sister would later claim that it was quite simple: Cornelia was, Louise observed "a great rebel of her time." Within a year Cornelia had become the first female flight instructor in Nashville. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Pilots Training Program, she took a flight instructor's job at Fort Collins, Colorado. Then in the fall of 1941, she was hired to teach defense workers, soldiers and sailors to fly in Hawaii. In a letter home to her mother she wrote: "If I leave here I will leave the best job that I can have (unless the national emergency creates a still better one), a very pleasant atmosphere, a good salary, but far the best of all are the planes I fly. Big and fast and better suited for advanced flying."

In fact, the national emergency created by America's entry into the war did temporarily create better opportunities for Fort and many other U.S. women pilots. The first invitation came in a telegram dated January 24, 1942 from leading female aviator Jackie Cochran. It asked Fort to join a select group of American women who would fly with the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain. Fort couldn't accept the offer because she wasn't back in the continental U.S. in time, but in the fall of 1942 she was one of a handful of women to receive another invitation. This time the telegram asked her, "if interested, to report within twenty-four hours to Wilmington, Delaware, for service in the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command." Fort was more than interested, she was ecstatic. Here was a chance to play an important role in the war effort. In a letter home she wrote, "the heavens have opened up and rained blessings on me. The army has decided to let women ferry ships and I'm going to be one of them."

The female pilots in the newly established squadron, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Service, or WAFs as they were known, were hired to fly planes from factories to military air bases. Their services freed up male pilots for combat missions. Fort frequently found herself flying in open cockpits in freezing weather without a radio. On these ferrying missions during the war, the women often had to navigate by comparing maps with landmarks they could see below them. The job was made even more difficult because some of the planes, though tested, had never been flown before, and many of the air bases were camouflaged. In poor weather conditions a cross-country trip could sometimes take several days. At the end of a mission, Fort would hitch rides back on whatever form of transportation was available, sometimes it was a train sometimes another plane.

From the very beginning, Fort and the other women in the squad were the focus of hostility from their male counterparts. "Any girl who has flown at all," she once wrote, "grows used to the prejudice of most men pilots who will trot out any number of reasons why women can't possibly be good pilots... The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hanger pilots," she concluded, "is to show them." The women did just that. They were resilient, professional, and as capable as the men of flying any military aircraft they were asked to. They called in sick less frequently and they maintained a marginally better safety record.

Fort flew for her country for just a few brief months. On March 21, 1943, she was one of a number of pilots, both male and female, who had been assigned to ferry BT-13s to Love Field in Dallas Texas. During the course of that mission, one of the men's landing gear clipped Fort's airplane, sending it plummeting to earth. Fort didn't have time to parachute to safety. Her commanding officer, sent a compassionate letter back to the young pilot's mother: "My feeling about the loss of Cornelia," wrote Nancy Love, "is hard to put into words -- I can only say that I miss her terribly, and loved her...If there can be any comforting thought, it is that she died as she wanted to -- in an Army airplane, and in the service of her country."

Despite the words of sympathy, Fort and the other 37 female pilots who died flying military planes during the war, received no military recognition. The army didn't even pay for their burial expenses because the women were considered civilians. Fort's achievements as a military pilot are commemorated by an airpark named after her that was built in 1945 near her family farm. Her own words on an historical marker at the site simply and modestly sum up her wartime contribution: "I am grateful" she wrote, "that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country."




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