Fly Girls: The Full Story of WWII’s Unknown Superheroes

The year was 1942, and the US Army Air Forces were faced with a severe shortage of skilled pilots. The US was pulled into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor a year prior, almost all reserve pilots were called into active duty. But the problem was that only men were allowed to operate military planes at the time, even though most of their flight instructors were women.

Female pilots lined up on the tarmac

WASP pilots. Source: Twitter

Through pure willpower and determination, 1,100 female pilots were eventually allowed to fly domestic military aircraft while their male counterparts were released for combat duty overseas. This is the story of how the actions of a few brave women not only created a legacy of female empowerment but paved the way for female pilots for years to come.

The Start of the War

When the United States joined World War II in December 1941, all pilots were called into active duty. But the problem was that these pilots couldn’t fight overseas until someone took over their duties at home. The government had created the Civilian Pilots Training Program (CPTP) a few years prior, which allowed men and a handful of women to gain flight experience.

Nancy Harkness Love wearing a WASP uniform standing on an airplane wing with her parachute slung over her shoulder

Nancy Harkness Love on September 16th, 1942, holding her parachute. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Their goal was to increase the number of civilian pilots, which would, in turn, prepare the US for military engagement. But these programs, which took place in universities and flight schools, were not part of the military. It wasn’t until two female aviation pioneers lobbied for a military-backed program that more women joined the ranks in the sky.

From the Beginning

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was created in the summer of 1943 when two pilot training programs were combined into one. In 1942, Pilot Nancy Harkness Love created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which provided a very small handful of women to transport military aircraft from factories to Air Force bases.

Nancy Harkness Love walking in-ground attire for WASP

Nancy Harkness Love September 1942. Photo by Nara Archives / Shutterstock

Nancy’s husband, Robert Love, was part of the Army Air Corps Reserve and worked for Colonel William H. Tunner. When Robert mentioned to William that his wife was a pilot, William became interested in training more female pilots for the military. He and Nancy worked together to get approval for WAFS, which was rejected at first. But four days after Eleanor Roosevelt supported the idea of women flying military planes in her “My Day” newspaper column, WAFS was approved, and Nancy got to work.

Why Can’t We Have One, Too?

In the same year, fellow female pioneer, Pilot Jacqueline Cochran, started the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). This military program trained women to become pilots for domestic non-combat missions. Jacqueline came up with the idea while she was on a trip to England. She saw that England already had programs for training women to take over male pilot’s domestic duties.

Jacqueline Cochran and Pilot Wesley Smith with cameras set up in front of them and a plane in the background

Jacqueline Cochran and Pilot Wesley Smith October 1934. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

When she returned to the States, Jacqueline contacted General Henry H. Arnold to suggest that a similar program be created in the United States. The General, who had just approved Nancy’s WAFS program, liked the idea. When these two groups formed the WASP, Jacqueline ran the program, and Nancy was in charge of the ferrying division. But while this program was military approved, it officially held civilian status.

Not Too Short

To be accepted into the WASP, the women had to be between the ages of 21 and 35, in good health, and already have a pilot’s license with at least 500 hours of flight time. WASPs also required the women to be over five foot two inches, but this one requirement was not strictly enforced. When then 19-year-old Margaret Taylor saw a Life Magazine cover about female pilots, she realized she needed an adventure.

Three WASP pilots walking in a lot full of planes

WASPs on the flight line at Laredo AAF, Texas, on January 22nd, 1944. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

She borrowed 500 dollars from her dad and got her pilot’s license, even though she was half an inch shorter than the height requirement. But when she arrived for training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, she stood on her tiptoes and was accepted. “There were a lot of other short ones like me,” Margaret told NPR. “We all just laughed about how we got in.”

Not Taken Care Of

Over 25,000 applied to be part of the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted, and only 1,074 completed training. Each recruit already had their pilot’s license but was retrained to fly the way the military wanted them to. But while the women were participating in a military-approved program, they were not treated as such.

Jacqueline Cochran standing in front of a speed plane

Jacqueline Cochran 1939. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

The women had minimal health care and no uniforms, lodging, health insurance, or firetrucks to put out a fire from potential crashes. They also didn’t have an ambulance and had to borrow from a neighboring base. But more determined than ever, they showed up every day, ready to train. After completing four months of training, the women received their wings and became the first women to fly US military aircrafts.

Rigorous Training

While the women were not trained for air combat, their training essentially mirrored male pilot training. They were required to finish the same primary, basic, and advanced training as the men and many of the WASP recruits went onto even more advanced, specialized training. The recruits spent 12 hours a day on base, with six hours dedicated to studying and the other six hours to practicing actual flying.

Female pilots looking at a chart on the ground

Female pilots circa 1941. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Although the women didn’t receive any aerobic flying or gunnery training, they did learn how to recover from any position. They also learned Morse code, military law, meteorology, physics, mechanics, and navigation. By the time WASPS graduated, the recruits had completed 560 hours of classroom learning and 210 hours of flight training.

Their Hearts Are In Flying

Women accepted into the flight training program came from very different backgrounds. One of the first women to graduate from WASP training was Betty Gillies, who later went on to become the first woman to fly and ferry the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress along with Nancy Love. By 1942, Betty, who trained with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) before the WASPS was formed, had over 1,000 hours of flying time, which was way more hours than what most male pilots had completed.

Betty Gillies standing in front of her plane

Betty Gillies. Photo by Kharbine-Tapabor / Shutterstock

But the WASPs also had other recruits, like Adaline Blank, who was a former assistant buyer before she became a pilot. Adaline would often write letters to her older sister, explaining, “There are salesgirls, college girls, teachers, and stenographers. Every type and size, but we all have this in common: our hearts are in flying, so come what may, nothing else matters.”

Prove Them Wrong

While WASP cadets came from a wide range of jobs, they were, for the most part, white. Out of 1,830 pilots, there were two Chinese Americans, two women from Hispanic descent, and one Native American woman. Several black pilots made it to the final interview stage but were all rejected after their final interview. While women were fighting gender discrimination, black women were fighting racial discrimination as well.

Mildred Hemmons Carter with a pilot’s uniform on / Mildred Hemmons Carter at an old age

Source: Pinterest / Twitter

Pilot Mildred Hemmons Carter was one of the first women to earn her pilot’s license through the CPTP but was asked to withdraw her application from the WASPs because of her race. She then went on to apply for the Tuskegee Airmen, which was a group of black combat pilots but was rejected this time because of her gender. She was finally recognized as a WASP 70 years later, and took her final flight at age 90!

Busy Bees Get To Work

After training, the women were sent to 122 different air bases across the United States and began their duties. One of the first WASP duties was to ferry aircrafts from factories to airbases. By the end of 1944, the women delivered 12,652 aircraft within the US, including fighter planes, trainer planes, and bombers. The women ended up flying over 80 percent of all ferrying missions in World War II, including the types of aircraft that were used in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Two female Chinese American pilots

Two female Chinese American pilots. Photo by Frances M. Tong / Museum of Chines in America Collection

Pilot Barbara Erickson London was one of the women who ferried C-47s and the infamous P-51s, which were transport aircraft and fighter-bomber planes, respectively. After flying over 8,000 miles, Barbra went on to become the only woman who was awarded an Air Medal in WWII.

Confident in the Face Of Danger

Although the WASPs didn’t serve overseas in combat missions, they still served in many crucial and sometimes domestic missions. They would fly with canvas targets attached to the back of their bomber plane so that male pilots could practice firing live anti-aircraft artillery from the ground. This required swift maneuvering because one wrong move and the plane was shot down.

A photograph of female pilots in training

Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

But even the best pilots risked the chance of having their plane shot down. Former WASP pilot Kaddy Stelle, explained, “You couldn’t help but realize the danger, but we had a lot of confidence that the people who were doing the training were in control.” But the gunmen are human, and there were errors made, especially in low-altitude missions.

Technical Difficulties

One of the planes that were shot during target towing was an A-24 flown by 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson. The A-24 was a naval scout plane and dive bomber, but like many A-24s at the time, Mabel’s plane wasn’t properly taken care of by the Army Air Corps. Mabel was practicing towing targets during a night flight at Camp Davis in North Carolina when her plane started having technical problems.

Mabel Rawlinson

Mabel Rawlinson. Source: Twitter

She was asked to return to the airfield, but on her final descent, she caught the tip of a pine tree and crashed. The other pilot was thrown from the cockpit and suffered serious injuries, but Mabel’s hatch malfunctioned and was unable to get out of the burning plane.

Not the Military’s Problem

An investigation into her death showed that the planes that were used by the WASPs during target towing were not properly maintained, and her death could have been avoided. But since the WASPs were only military-approved and not a part of the military, Mabel was considered a civilian when she died. This meant that the military did not have to pay for her funeral or any other WASP funeral for that matter.

Jacqueline Cochran and female pilots in training

Jacqueline Cochran surrounded by female pilots in training in 1943. Photo by Nara Archives / Shutterstock

They also didn’t pay for her remains to be sent back to her family in Kalamazoo, Michigan. So the female pilots pooled their money together and paid for Mabel’s body to be transported by train. The military also banned Mabel’s family from draping an American flag on her coffin because of her civilian status, but her family put one anyways.

Hard to Scare

But not all crashes ended in death. One day while WASP Margaret Taylor was flying an aircraft across the country on a ferrying mission, she started to see smoke in her cockpit. Although she was trained to jump whenever something went wrong, all of the parachutes were way too big. They were fitted for male pilots, not females.

Jacqueline Cochran standing next to her plane with Chuck Yeager and Bill Longhurst at the Edwards Air Force Base in California

Jacqueline Cochran, Chuck Yeager, and Bill Longhurst at the Edwards Air Force Base in California 1953. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

“The force of that air and that speed and everything, why that just rips stuff off you. You’d slip right out,” Margaret told NPR. She decided that she wasn’t going to jump unless a fire started. Luckily, it was hard to scare Margaret, who made a safe landing and didn’t have to jump. Once she landed, mechanics looked over her plane and saw that one of her instruments had burned out.

Something to Prove

The WASPs flew over 78 different types of planes, with a select few who were chosen to pilot jet-propelled planes and work with radar-controlled targets. This was a huge opportunity at the time. The women would also take over flying planes that were deemed difficult by their male counterparts.

Three female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary Service

Douglas Fairweather, Mona Friedlander, and Joan Hughes of the Air Transport Auxiliary Service in 1940. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

General Henry Arnold eventually recruited two WASPs for a mission to fly a YP-59 (a fighter aircraft that ended up not entering combat due to poor performance) and a B-29 Superfortress (the type of heavy bomber that was used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) The General thought that if men saw women flying these types of planes, they would be embarrassed and take the missions. His plan worked, and from that day on, he could always find a male pilot to fly those planes.

Training Other Pilots

Another one of the WASP’s duties was to help with bomber crew training. This meant that the women would fly the bomber planes while the male cadets practiced as navigators, gunners, and bombardiers, which is the name for the crew member that would target aerial bombs.

Mrs. G. Patterson, Miss Rosemary Rees, and Mrs. Marion Wilberforce

Mrs. G. Patterson, Miss Rosemary Rees, and Mrs. Marion Wilberforce on January 17th, 1940. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

The WASP pilots would also fly simulated strafing missions, which is when a military plane attacks ground targets by flying at a low altitude and drops tear gas on male ground troops. This trained the men to use their gas masks and put them on quickly. Like the target towing missions, these missions required that the WASP pilots maneuver swiftly and precisely. They also simulated real combat situations, which the women didn’t learn during their training.

The Amazing Cornelia Fort

Although the women were skilled pilots, 38 WASPs lost their lives in accidents: 11 during training and 27 during domestic missions. The first woman who lost her life was a pilot by the name of Cornelia Fort. Before training to become a WASP, Cornelia already had a reputation as a skilled pilot. On December 7, 1941, she was in the middle of teaching a civilian flight training session at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese started to attack.

Cornelia Fort and four other pilots sitting and standing around the wing of a plane

Cornelia Fort, second from the left, in 1943. Source: nationalmuseum.af.mil

Not only was she the first pilot to encounter the Japanese Air Fleet, she and her student barely escaped a mid-air collision with a Japanese aircraft. The next year, Cornelia was the second pilot to join the WASP program. Unfortunately, her life came to an end when she crashed during a ferrying mission on March 21, 1943. Cornelia was only 24 years old.

Hazel Ying Lee

Another incredible WASP pilot was Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American woman to fly in the United States military. Hazel was working as an elevator operator, one of the few jobs open to Chinese-Americans at the time when she decided to train to become a pilot. She soon became the first female pilot to fly fighter planes, such as P-63 Kingcobras, for the military.

Hazel Ying Lee

Hazel Ying Lee. Source: Tumblr

Hazel was known as a fearless pilot who liked to play pranks on her fellow pilots. Unfortunately, she lost her life in November 1944 while ferrying an aircraft. There was some confusion in the air control tower, and they approved two planes for landing at the same time. The P-63s crashed, and Hazel died from her injuries two days later.

The Media’s Influence

The WASPs were classified as federal civil service employees and were not considered part of the military. This meant that the women had to pay for all of their transportation, uniforms, and housing. Since the pilots weren’t enlisted in the US Army Air Forces, they could resign at any time, just as long as they completed basic training.

Three female pilots standing near their plane

Three WASP pilots at Avenger Field in Texas. Source: Imgur

The women also faced scrutiny from the media at the time. Although General Henry Arnold testified in front of the US House of Representative military committee that the WASPs were skilled pilots, many members of the media liked to paint a different picture. Time, the New York Daily News, and the Washington post all wrote articles telling women to step down and give their jobs back to men.

Gender Discrimination

Many WASP pilots faced gender discrimination on multiple occasions. Not only were they paid two-thirds of what men made for doing the exact same job, but many men also refused to acknowledge their ability to fly. Some would comment that small women couldn’t handle large military aircrafts, and some commanders would only give undesirable planes to the women to fly.

Captain Duncan Davis giving female pilots and others tips while pointing at a map on the wing of a plant

Captain Duncan Davis giving female pilots and observers tips. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

Out of the 122 bases WASPs served in, Camp Davis in North Carolina was the worst when it came to gender discrimination. The base commander reportedly told pilots that both the women and the planes were expendable. The women were not given sufficient practice time and were unfairly evaluated. There were also reports of sugar found inside of a plane’s engine at a crash site.

The Birds and the Bees

The female pilots were also discriminated against because of their age. The initial WAFS program (which later became WASP) only allowed women from ages 21 to 35 to enlist to avoid the “irrationality of women” when they enter menopause. At the time, the military declared that 40 was the official age for the start of menopause and they didn’t want to deal with a hormonal woman in the middle of a war. WASPs were also banned from flying while they were menstruating.

WASP pilots walking through a hanger carrying their parachutes

WASP pilots. Photo by Nara Archives / Shutterstock

Many of the WASP’s commanders believed that women were less efficient during that time of the month and didn’t want to take any chances. But the discrimination didn’t stop with the military. The women would make the occasional landing while ferrying a plane, but because they were wearing pants, they weren’t allowed into some restaurants.

It All Comes Down

News articles that advertised against women pilots motivated many civilian male pilots to rally against the WASP program. Many started writing letters, detailing their disgust about the recent closures of male-only civilian training programs. Many of these men, who were scared of the draft and the ground army, felt that the WASPs were encroaching on their territory.

Four female pilots walking away from their planes

Four female pilots circa 1940s. Photo by F&A Archive / Shutterstock

Well, the lobbying seemed to work because, in June 1944, the House of Representatives bill that would give WASPs military status was defeated. And since the program cost over 50 million dollars in government funds, the WASPs would have to make a formal request for funding through legislation. As a result, the military ordered the program’s disbandment by December 20, 1944, eight months before the end of the war.

Time to Go Home

The last group of women to complete their WASP training was on December 7, 1944. Their class was nicknamed “The Lost Last Class,” and they only served for two and a half weeks before the program was officially shut down. In an interview with NPR, former WASP pilot Lillian Yonally said that when the day came for her to go home, she was just dismissed.

Lillian Yonally at Avenger Field in Texas.

Lillian Yonally at Avenger Field in Texas 1943 Source: Tumblr

The pilot, who had served for over a year, didn’t have a ceremony, a party, nothing. She remembers just being dismissed and then hopping on a plane home to Massachusetts. While the same rang true for many other female pilots, other women were happy to report that their base did throw them a little going away party before they left to go home.

What Do We Do Now?

The WASPs were the only female branch to not receive military status during WWII and the only branch to be discontinued before the war was over. Many women wanted to continue flying after the WASP program was canceled but struggled to find work. 20 WASPs even offered to continue ferrying military aircraft for a dollar a year, but their offer was rejected.

Jacqueline Cochran with Captain Norman Edgar looking at a globe while conversing

Jacqueline Cochran and Captain Norman Edgar in 1943. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Commercial airlines also rejected WASP pilot applications because of fear of backlash for hiring someone from the wrong gender. Other women volunteered for the Chinese Air Force, which was still active in the war against Japan. Pilot Teresa James wrote to Congress and requested veteran status for all WASP members, but her request was repeatedly denied.

Children of the Depression

While a handful of WASPs became pilots for small airlines and others became flight attendants, most women left the industry entirely. Like many veterans from World War II, the women never really spoke about their experiences, and according to a few former WASPs, they never expected anything in return. These women were children of the Depression. They were very self-reliant and had the mentality of taking care of themselves and only themselves.

Jean Howard, Jacqueline Cochran, Edibe Subasu, and Ruth Nichols sitting together after dinner looking at a model airplane

Jean Howard, Jacqueline Cochran, Edibe Subasu, and Ruth Nichols on August 11th, 1954. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

They didn’t expect the military to grant them anything, even if they secretly wished it would. After their disbandment in December 1944, the women kept in touch sporadically. They started having reunions in the 1960s, which refueled their fight for official military status. Then in 1976, something happened that really ruffled their feathers.

Finally, a Victory

The Air Force Academy announced that they were going to start letting women enlist equally along with men, claiming that this was the first time they allowed women to fly military aircraft. Although the former WASPs were happy for their fellow female pilots, they were frustrated with being forgotten about by their own Air Force. For two whole years, more than 1,100 women flew military planes, and 38 tragically lost their lives serving their country.

Members of WASP standing on steps holding a WASP flag

Members of WASP celebrating after the Senate voted in 1977. Source: Twitter

This rallied the women together to lobby for military recognition, who ended up convincing Senator Barry Goldwater to help. Barry had also ferried planes during World War II and understood the importance of these women’s cause. Then in 1977, over 30 years after the WASP program began, former President Jimmy Carter finally granted the WASPs official veteran status.

Stories Sealed Away

According to employees at the National Archives, all military records that contained any information about the WASP pilots were treated differently from other records, meaning they were marked as classified. Like most wartime files, the official WASP files were sealed for 35 years. This made it very hard for historians to access any information about the program or the women’s contributions to the war effort.

Jacqueline Cochran walking passed civilians

Jacqueline Cochran 1941. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

So while the women were lobbying for official military status, most people hadn’t heard about the WASPs. Unlike other World War II stories, it wasn’t until the files were unsealed and former President Jimmy Carter granted the women official veteran status that their stories were officially reported on and shared with the world.

Congressional Gold Medal

Then in July 2009, former President Barack Obama and the United States Congress awarded the former pilots with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honors a civilian can receive. During the ceremony, the former president spoke about the importance of programs like WASP and how these women left a blazing trail for many women to come.

Female pilots lined up in a ‘V’ next to a plane

WASP pilots. Source: Twitter

One of the women present to receive a medal was former WASP member Lillian Yonally. Although she was happy to receive a medal, it was a bittersweet moment. “I’m sorry that so many girls have passed on,” Lillian told NPR. “It’s nice the families will receive it, but it doesn’t make up for the gals who knew what they did and weren’t honored that way.” Of the 1,100 WASPs, fewer than 300 were alive to receive this honor.

Women of the Future

Although it took decades for the WASP pilot’s accomplishments to be recognized, their contribution to the aviation industry and the war effort motivated many other women to follow in their footsteps. In 1993, Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt became the first female fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, after initially training to become a T-38 instructor pilot. Jeannie then went on to become the first woman to command a US Airforce combat fighter wing.

Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt at the Captain Marvel film premiere wearing her uniform

Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt in 2019. Photo by AFF-USA / Shutterstock

Another female pilot made history when Captain Kari Armstrong became the first woman F-15E weapons school officer in 2015. She was also the second female student, after Jeannie, to finish the weapons school. As of 2020, about 21 percent of Air Force Officers are women, and there are over 65,000 female pilots.

Remembering the Past

Pioneers Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy love, and the other 1,074 courageous women in the Women Air Force Service Pilots served their country with dignity during World War II. For two years, they ferried over 12,000 military aircrafts, trained countless male pilots, and flew a combined one million miles.

Jacqueline Cochran standing in front of her plant in a pants suit in 1948.

Jacqueline Cochran 1948. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

The women of WASP stood up in the face of discrimination and proved that women can fly planes just as well as men. They set a standard and example for other American women to follow in their footsteps, decades after completing their service. Although their stories fell through the cracks after World War II was over, they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve and proving they are the true superheroes of aviation history.

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