Women take flight in wartime

When World War II broke out, hundreds of women took to the skies to support the war effort. Many have contributed as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). However, women like Willa Brown, who were barred from becoming a military pilot because of their race and gender, found other ways to contribute.

These are the stories of five women who contributed to the war effort by flying.

Jacqueline Cochran

Cochran was a famous female pilot whose career spanned four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, SI-86-533)

As war approached in Europe, Cochran was one of many women who believed women should be used in war aviation. In 1941, Cochran selected a group of 27 highly skilled American female pilots to transport military planes to Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), as most male military pilots flew in combat. In 1942, Cochran, at the request of Army General Henry “Hap” Arnold, organized the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) to train female civilian pilots in anticipation of a similar shortage of US military pilots during World War II. . Based first in Houston and then at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, the WFTD received primary flight training on military aircraft from military instructors.

Nancy Love

When World War II broke out, Nancy Love was already an accomplished pilot. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NASM-96-15604)

As WWII approached, Nancy Love also recognized the future need for pilots to ferry planes and identified highly skilled female pilots in the United States who could perform such duties. In September 1942, the Airlift Command of the Army Air Corps approved the creation of a temporary female flight corps, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), under the leadership of Love.

Love’s career in aviation began long before the war. Nancy Harkness Love learned to fly in Houghton, Michigan in 1930 at the age of 16. She was educated at Milton Academy and Vassar College and obtained her commercial pilot license during her university studies. In 1935, she was one of three women hired by the Bureau of Air Commerce to work on its air marking project. Married to Robert Love in 1936, she discovered on her honeymoon on the West Coast that the Beechcraft Company had entered her for the Amelia Earhart Trophy Race at the National Air Races in Los Angeles. Without any experience in pylon flight, she managed to finish in fifth place. She also worked for Gwinn Aircar Company, a job that included flight testing a new tricycle landing gear. Love and her husband were successfully running an aircraft sales business in 1940 when she began flying American planes to Canada, only to ship them to France.

After the war Love continued to fly for business and pleasure.

Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP)

Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) are pictured at Lockbourne Army Air Field during World War II. From left to right, Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn. WASPs were female civilian pilots who flew in non-combat situations for the US Army Air Force during the war. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, SI-91-1471)

In 1943, Cochran’s WFTD merged with Nancy Love’s Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS, a group of experienced pilots) to form civilian Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director; Love remained in charge of the WAFS unit, albeit under Cochran. From 1943 to 1944, more than 1,000 women traveled more than 60 million miles to transport planes and personnel, tow targets and other transport tasks. The WASP flew all military aircraft, including the Boeing B-17 and B-29 bombers. The WASPs were disbanded in 1944, and Cochran was at the center of complications that kept the group from being absorbed into the USAAF’s Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The WASP finally received retroactive military status in 1977.

Fort Cornelia

Cornelia Fort was eager to use her piloting skills for the war effort. (Cornelia Fort Papers, Special Collections Division of the Nashville Public Library)

Cornelia Fort was flying with a student pilot on the morning of December 7, 1941, when they nearly collided with a Japanese plane leaving the scene at Pearl Harbor. Thus, she became one of the few airborne eyewitnesses to the attack. Fort learned to fly after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and became a flight instructor in Colorado and then Hawaii. In January 1942, Jacqueline Cochran invited her to join the group of women flying for the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary. Fort, however, was still waiting to be evacuated from Hawaii. When she finally returned to Nashville to begin teaching for the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), she was in demand as a lecturer and even featured in a short war movie.

Fort was the second woman to volunteer for the Nancy Love Women’s Auxiliary Transport Squadron (WAFS), whose members have traveled millions of miles to transport planes to embarkation points and tow targets. for training exercises.

During a routine ferry flight in 1943, Fort died at the controls of an aircraft when another aircraft struck his. She was the first female pilot to die in the line of duty for the United States Army. A marker at Cornelia Fort Airport in Tennessee bears this quote from the pilot: “I am grateful that my only talent, flying, has been of use to my country.”

Hazel Ying Lee

Hazel Ying Lee was eager to use her pilot skills in a war effort, hoping to become a military pilot first in China and then in America. (US Air Force)

Hazel Ying Lee was one of two Chinese-American women accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) when she joined Class 43-W-4 in 1943.

His piloting career had started a decade and a war earlier. Born in Portland, Oregon, to parents who had immigrated from China, Lee went to work as an elevator operator to learn money for flying lessons. In October 1932, with money saved through his work and support from the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society, Lee obtained his pilot’s license. She was one of the first Chinese-American women to do so.

At that time, Japanese and Chinese forces were at war, and Lee traveled to China in the hope of becoming a military pilot there. However, she was refused a pilot position on the basis of her gender and instead was given an office position. In China, Lee was able to fly for a private airline. In 1938, she returned to the United States, where she supported the Chinese government by purchasing war material in New York.

When Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flight Training Detachment (WFTD) began seeking applications from female pilots to transport planes, freeing up male pilots for the front line, Lee applied. When accepted in 1943, the WFTD had merged with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Among the planes Lee flew as a WASP were the P-51 Mustang and the P-63 Kingcobra. She was one of 30 WASPs to do so.

Tragically, Lee died in the line of duty, as less than a month before the program ended, she collided with another plane while delivering a P-63 to Great Falls, in the Montana. As the FAA notes, “Of the 1,012 women who [were] in the WASP program 38 died in service. Lee was the last.

Willa brown

Willa Brown was excluded from the WASPs because of her race, but aided the war effort in other ways. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

Not all of the women who contributed to the war effort by flight were WASP members. In fact, African American women have been prevented from becoming wasps because of their race.

Willa Brown, an accomplished aviator, contributed to the war effort in other ways. Brown and her husband Cornelius Coffey organized CAP Squadron 613 in conjunction with their school, the Coffey School of Aeronautics. She held the ranks of lieutenant and warrant officer in the organization. She was the principal of the Coffey School when it was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as one of many black schools and colleges to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP – a program that has trained thousands of pilots through United States). The success of Coffey School and other black aviation students led to the eventual admission of blacks to the Air Force through the War Training Service Program (WTS) and provided a pool of instructors. and trainees at Tuskegee Army Air Field.


This content was adapted from a previous online exhibition, Women in the History of Aviation and Space, which shared the stories of women presented at the Museum in the early 2000s.

About Joaquin Robertson

Joaquin Robertson

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