The Role Of Women Pilots In The Air Force


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The Role Of Women Pilots In The Air Force

World War II


By Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, a group of American women was volunteering to go to England and ferry planes there. At their head was Jacqueline Cochran, the most famous woman pilot of the 20th century. Cochran had already proposed to Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold a program employing women pilots in the United States to free men there of overseas only should the need arise.

In mid summer 1942, Arnold, hard pressed for pilots, told Cochran to come home from England and put her plan into action. She came home in early September. Few American women had enough piloting time to meet the requirements for joining the Air Transport Command, which ferried planes.

However, by December, 25 had qualified as members of the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) under Nancy Love. Meanwhile, at Houston, a cadet flight school had enrolled 28 women, each having a minimum of 200 pilot hours and they were undergoing rigorous training from which two were withdrawn for medical reasons. Three failed to pass the tough course. As additional students reported to the flight school, facilities proved inadequate and the school was transferred to Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas.

As the urgent needs of the Air Forces increased, so did the duties to which women graduates were assigned. By September 1943, they were reporting not only to ferry aircraft, but to low target training to four-engine bomber school and to B-25 and H-26 (twin-engine bombers) schools from which they were assigned lo other bases. The acronym WAFS referred to "ferrying squadrons" and it was no longer applicable and with the appointment of Cochran to direct all WASPs the name was from then on "Women Airforce Service Pilots.


Love simultaneously was designated executive for WASP in the Air Transport Command. Aviation had not then witnessed--nor is it ever likely to do so again- anything like what the young women pilots tackled and accomplished. Rapidly the term "experimental" was forgotten as time after time they succeeded where failure was predicted.

Under top secret conditions, a group trained as low-target pilots. Of that first group, some them learned to fly radio controlled target planes. During that training one WASP sat in a PQ-8 craft controlled by a second WASP in a "mother ship" using radio controls. The "captive" WASP rode helpless as her tiny plane zoomed and dived, but in dire emergency she was ready to over-ride the radio controls. Those towing targets reported to bases devoted to training anti-aircraft crews and airborne gunnery men, often as not using live ammunition.

More than one WASP-piloted plane landed with holes in the planes as well as in the targets. Some flew low-level missions laying down smoke screens in mock chemical warfare. Others flew fighter aircraft as targets for fighter pilots who "shot" film rather than ammunition. In the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command women pilots proved step by step that they could fly anything the Air Forces had and do it well like the men. These women gathered cross-country navigational skills, practiced flying by reference solely to instruments, and criss-crossed the nation making deliveries in more and more complicated planes. By the date when all WASPs left service, the women were ferrying every P-47 Republic "Thunderbolt" rolling off factory lines and just about the same for all other fighter aircraft.

Throughout the United States, WASPs flew cargo, top secret weapons and personnel. They tested planes to be certain they were safe for use by instructors and students. They flew for the Weather Wing. Whatever their assignment, WASPs performed acceptance and praise. But unlike other women in military service, Women Airforce Service Pilots never received the militarization promised to them. Thirty eight died in the line of duty. They died and were buried without military honors. No WASP enjoyed the privileges of other veterans after the war ended. But in every way save one, WASPs lived a military life. The exception was their right to resign-a right few exercised until they were told they would be sent home on Dec. 20, 1944. Even then, more than 900 continued in service to the last minute of the final hour.

Becoming Veterans: In the mid 1970's, newspapers announced that the Air Force planned to train its "first women military pilots." To WASPs the news was an outrage and an insult. They at once began a campaign to be recognized as the veterans they knew themselves to be in 1977. Congress acknowledged the fact that these women were indeed veterans, pilots who had done dangerous duty when their nation needed them. But official acceptance did not come until 1979.

In that year, the Air Force accepted them as a part of itself. The Women Airforce Service Pilots are proud that in 1984 each was awarded the Victory medal and those who served on duty for more than a year also received the American Theater medal. All WASPs cherish memories of having served as pilots in WWII. What they achieved then paves the way for all American women who seek to serve the United States as military pilots.

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