This Day in History: Cornelia Fort, the American woman aviator at Pearl Harbor

On this day in 1919, Cornelia Fort is born. She would become one of the most accomplished female pilots to serve during World War II. Did you know that an American woman was flying the skies during the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Her father wouldn’t have liked it. He’d seen the dangers of flight, and he’d hoped that his children would have nothing to do with aviation. When Cornelia was only 5 years old, he made his sons swear an oath on a Bible that they would never attempt to fly.

It didn’t occur to him to include his little girl in that promise. Who would have thought that a southern, gently bred girl like Cornelia would ever attempt to become a pilot? But she did.

Cornelia was a spirited tomboy who didn’t want the life of a Nashville socialite. She admired Amelia Earhart, who’d once attended her boarding school. And then, one day in 1940, she had the opportunity to ride along with a friend in a small plane.

She was hooked—and she never looked back. “Flying apparently added a sense of wonder and joy to her life,” her sister said. “It had been a lumbersome, cumbersome growing up . . . . she was a great rebel of her time.”

Cornelia soon had both her pilot’s license and her instructor’s license. By October 1941, she was teaching future military aviators in Hawaii.

Which is why Cornelia was in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In fact, she was already airborne when Japanese planes first started to stream into the area that morning. What was that plane in her path? She jerked the controls away from her student, narrowly avoiding a collision before turning to look.

She couldn’t believe her eyes. Or maybe she just didn’t want to.

“The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun,” she later wrote. “I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes. I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God . . .”

She landed her plane as fast as she could, hopped out and fled for the hangar, even as the Japanese strafed her plane.

A few months later, she left Hawaii, as she said, because “there was no civilian flying in the islands after the attack. And each of us had some individual score to settle with the Japs who had brought murder and destruction to our islands.”

Cornelia was invited to join the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. Her job was to ferry planes around, freeing up male pilots for combat.

Her time with the WASPs was cut tragically short. On March 21, 1943, she was ferrying planes with other, less experienced pilots. Unfortunately one of the new pilots flew too close to Cornelia’s plane, and his landing gear nicked the tip of her wing. Cornelia’s wing tip, along with 6 inches of its leading edge, broke off. She went into an unrecoverable dive.

The tragedy made her the first woman pilot to be killed on active duty.

“I loved the sky and the planes,” she’d written her mother after Pearl Harbor, “and yet, best of all, I loved flying. . . . If I die violently, who can say it was ‘before my time’? . . . I want no one to grieve for me. I was happiest in the sky . . . . Think of me there and remember me, I hope, as I shall you.”

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