Women prove they have the 'right stuff' to fly

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Kane
  • Air Armament Center History Office
March is Women's History Month, a time to remember the contributions of women to the defense of our country. In Colonial times, women helped their husbands defend their farms from Indian attacks. During the American Revolution, women such as Mary Hays McCauly, better known as Molly Pitcher, took care of their husbands and sons in many battles. Women served as nurses, merchants, spies and even combat soldiers -- disguised as men -- during the Civil War.

More than 30,000 women served in the armed forces during World War I, mostly as nurses. Of these, 300 served as French-English telephone operators with the U.S. Army Signal Corps -- the only military women who were not nurses. President Woodrow Wilson recognized their sacrifices through his support for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920.

With pending U.S. involvement in the global war in the summer of 1941, the Army Air Force faced a shortage of male pilots. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the AAF commander, asked famous female aviator Jackie Cochran, recipient of four international and 17 national aviation awards, for suggestions. She offered to recruit female pilots as civilian pilots for the AAF who would release males for combat.

When the AAF turned her plan down, Cochran recruited and trained American women pilots to ferry aircraft for the British. As a result, 25 American women went to Britain in the spring of 1942 as uniformed civilian pilots of the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

Meanwhile, in September 1942, another famous female pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, formed the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron with 38 pilots to fly aircraft to Britain for the Air Transport Command. The success of the WAFS program caused the AAF to revitalize Cochran's women's pilot training program. The first class graduated on April 28, 1943, after 23 weeks of military, ground school and flying training at the Houston airport.

On Aug. 5, 1943, Cochran's group merged with the WAFS to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Assigned to 120 bases across the U.S., WASP ferried aircraft, towed targets, flew experimental aircraft, conducted bombardier and navigational training, and transported personnel. They flew virtually every type of military aircraft, such as the C-47, P-38 Lightning, B-17 Fortress, B-26 Marauder and even the B-29 Super Fortress.

In the book "Test Flying at Old Wright Field," former WASP Ann Baumgartner described her experiences at Camp Davis, N.C., where she went after her training course graduation: "To train artillery men, we flew small cubs, old B-34 bombers, ancient SBD dive bombers, C-45s, tired old fabric-covered C-78s and heavy SB2C dive bombers. Oh, to fly the sleek fighters and bombers at Wright Field."

By mid-1944, the return of male pilots to the U.S. signaled the end of the WASP program, which the AAF inactivated on Dec. 20, 1944. By that time, 1,074 WASP had graduated from the program and 38 had died in the line of duty.

Many WASP returned to private life, while others continued to fly. Some joined the Air Force Reserve with their WASP service counting as commissioned service. Few ex-WASP made military service a career. Unfortunately, as a sign of the times, neither the Army Air Force nor the U.S. Congress provided these women pilots any recognition for their tremendous contributions to the Allied victory during the war.

After the Air Force announced plans to train its "first women military pilots" in the mid-1970s, former WASP campaigned for recognition as veterans. In 1977, Congress awarded them veteran status from the U.S. Air Force. In 1984, each WASP received the World War II Victory medal, and those who had served for more than a year also received the American Theater medal. After a lapse of 33 years these women finally received their richly deserved recognition for their contributions.

About 20 percent of today's Air Force is women, found in 99 percent of all Air Force career fields. Women pilots fly not only noncombatant aircraft, such as transports and tankers, but also the F-15, the F-16 and, most recently, the A-10. Col. Sue Helms flew on the Space Shuttle and made the longest space walk to date. The women pilots of today's Air Force carry on the legacy and the motto of the WASP: "We live in the wind and sand, and our eyes are on the stars."