Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. March 10, 2010

On this date in 2010, 300 surviving members of the all-volun­teer Women Air­force Ser­vice Pilots accepted Con­gres­sional Gold Medals in a cere­mony at the U.S. Capitol. Six-and-a-half decades after the end of World War II, the first women to fly Amer­i­can mili­tary air­craft were offi­cially recog­nized for their service by a grateful nation.

Better known by their nick­name WASPs, these air­women who answered their coun­try’s call of duty num­bered roughly 1,100. Although they were attached to the United States Army Air Forces, these pio­neering women avi­a­tors were actually civil­ians who were federal civil ser­vice employees and there­fore had no mili­tary standing. Oddly, these women were pretty much forced to wing it on their own, first starting with paying for their own uni­forms, room and board, and pilot training and ending with paying their way home after dis­charge or for their own fune­ral, burial, and coffin upon which no Amer­i­can flag could be draped because the deceased (38 WASPs) were not mili­tary person­nel. Incred­ibly, more than 25,000 women applied for flight training, 1,830 were accepted, of which 1,074 successfully com­pleted the 21‑to-27 weeks of training at the all-male U.S. Army Air Forces flight school. On Novem­ber 16, 1942, the first class of 29 women pilots reported for training.

WASP started out as two separate organizations. In the sum­mer of 1941 two women avi­a­tors, Nancy Hark­ness Love and Jacque­line “Jackie” Coch­ran, inde­pen­dently sub­mitted pro­po­sals to Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Chief of U.S. Army Air Forces, to allow for women pilots in non­com­bat mis­sions to free up scarce male pilots for com­bat roles. Their plan was for quali­fied female pilots to ferry air­craft from fac­tories to milit­ary bases and also pilot towing planes, i.e., planes that towed targets for live anti­aircraft prac­tice for men on the ground. (Some of the towing planes were riddled in live practice.) The first set of women pilots to take flight—this on Septem­ber 10, 1942—belonged to the Women’s Auxil­iary Ferry Squa­dron (WAFS) under Nancy Hark­ness Love. Five days later Coch­ran’s pro­po­sal to create the Women’s Flying Training Detach­ment (WFTD) to train more women to ferry air­craft was accepted by Arnold. In August 1943 the two orga­ni­za­tions were merged at Arnold’s insis­tence, with Coch­ran to direct the new Women Air­force Ser­vice Pilots and Love retaining charge of WASP ferrying operations.

Eighteen groups of airwomen enrolled in the WASP training pro­gram before it was dis­solved on Decem­ber 20, 1944. The pro­gram included 4 months of training in flying “the Army way” by U.S. Army Air Forces instruc­tors at Avenger Field in Sweet­water, Texas. Although female avi­a­tion cadets were not trained to fly in com­bat zones, their course of instruc­tion was essen­ti­ally the same as male cadets, the major excep­tion being gun­nery training. The per­cent­age of female avi­a­tors failing USAAF mili­tary flight training was com­pa­ra­ble to that of male cadets.

Stationed at 122 air bases across the U.S. in 6 ferrying groups, women of WASP flew over 60 mil­lion miles, chiefly ferrying planes from fac­tories to air­fields, delivered 12,652 air­craft of 78 dif­ferent types, and trans­ported every type of cargo. WASPs flew 80 per­cent of all ferried air­craft (the women flight-tested each one first) and freed about 900 male avi­a­tors for com­bat duty. Iron­i­cally, these ve­ter­an air­women who had sacri­ficed and achieved so much during Amer­ica’s war­time hour of need were prohib­ited from piloting air­craft in the post­war armed se­rvices. They worked hard to be recog­nized and rewarded for their war­time hero­ism and achieve­ments, so quickly for­got­ten in peace­time, and they con­tin­ued to work hard for decades fighting gender dis­crim­i­na­tion and prej­u­dice in the U.S. mili­tary and nega­tive public opin­ion. Today the grand­daugh­ters of these pio­neering air­women proudly serve in air wings of all branches of the U.S. armed forces and have done so since 1973–74 (Navy and Army), 1976 (Air Force), and 1977 (Coast Guard).

WASPs: The Brave Airwomen Who Winged It in World War II

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP): Jacqueline Cochran co-founderWomen Airforce Service Pilots (WASP): Four WASPs with AT‑6 trainer

Left: Jacqueline Cochran, founder of the Women’s Flying Training Detach­ment (WFTD), reviews a line of women pilots who were nick­named “Woof­teddies” based on their unit’s acronym. Cochran is accompanied by a U.S. Army Air Forces offi­cer at an un­named air­field, though it was likely Avenger Field in Sweet­water, Texas. WASP appli­cants had to have a pilot’s license before entering the ser­vice; how­ever, upon grad­u­a­tion the women were retrained to fly according to U.S. mili­tary regu­la­tions by USAAF instruc­tors. After com­pleting 4 months of mili­tary flight training, the pilots earned their wings and joined the first sets of women to fly American military aircraft.

Right: Four WASPs view an aerial chart on the wing of a North Amer­i­can AT‑6 Texan trainer. WASP recruits had to have a high school diploma, be between 21 and 35 years old, be in good health and in pos­ses­sion of a com­mer­cial flying license, have 35 hours of flight time, and stand at least 5 feet 2 inches (157cm) tall before their appli­ca­tion could be accepted. Over 99 per­cent of the trainees were white women, one was Native Amer­i­can, two were His­panic, and two Chin­ese Amer­i­can. A few appli­cants were African Amer­i­cans and made it to the final inter­view stage, only to have their applications rejected.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP): WASP pilots relaxingWomen Airforce Service Pilots (WASP): WASP pilots training on B-17s

Left: WASP pilots relaxing on an unnamed air force base (pro­ba­bly Lock­bourne Air Force Base in Ohio), where they trained to ferry four-engine Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tresses. In ferrying air­craft from location to location, women avi­a­tors occa­sion­ally had to touch down to use a rest­room before reaching their desti­na­tion because the mili­tary air­craft they ferried had no toilet facil­i­ties reserved for females. For a time WASPs were grounded during their men­strual periods because male com­manders believed air­women were “less effi­cient during menses.” Some res­tau­rants refused service to WASPs because they were wearing pants.

Right: Four WASP pilots at the four-engine flight school at Lock­bourne Air Force Base, Ohio. They are Frances Green, Marga­ret (Peg) Kirch­ner, Ann Wald­ner, and Blanche Osborn. Thirty-three years later, in Novem­ber 1977, Presi­dent Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting vete­ran status and bene­fits to sur­vi­ving WASPs. Finally female avi­a­tors were treated and respected for their flying abil­i­ties just like their male counter­parts in the U.S. Army Air Forces Ferry Com­mand to which future U.S. Sena­tor Barry Gold­water was assigned. But seriously, their flying abil­i­ties were long known before this photo­graph was taken in 1944. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay passed up the chain of com­mand the grousing of his pilots over the diffi­culty of flying the new and advanced Boeing four-engine bomber, the B‑29 Super­for­tress. Gen. Arnold instructed Col. Paul Tibbets, the test pilot for Boeing’s B‑29 pro­gram, to recruit two WASPs, who were given 3 days training on the B‑29, to demon­strate that even women with less than a half week of training could fly the mon­ster temper­a­mental air­craft. After the air­women’s success­ful dem­on­stra­tion flight, LeMay’s shamed men stropped their grousing. Arnold, speaking to 71 grad­u­ates of the final WASP training class on Decem­ber 7, 1944, said: “[W]e can come to only one con­clu­sion. . . . It is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

For the Love of Country: Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in World War II

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