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This Day in History: Women Airforce Service Pilots

On this day in 1942, the first pilot qualifies to fly for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. That squadron was a predecessor to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, an organization that assisted the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

These women were not officially a part of the military. They were civilians.

“There were no GI benefits, no fringe benefits, and no dress parades,” former WASP Deanie Parrish would later say, “just the satisfaction of knowing they had done their duty and they had completed their mission.”

The WASPs might never have existed but for the efforts of two women pilots: Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love. These renowned aviators knew that there were many capable women pilots who were ready and willing to serve. Why couldn’t they fill domestic needs so male pilots could be freed up for combat?

“Cochran and Love had very different strategies but the same goal—to create a women’s air corps,” the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum explains.

It was no easy task. Some men were worried that women would not be capable of handling the heavy B-29 bombers. In the end, though, Cochran and Love got their way.

Two separate groups were formed: the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (with Love in charge) and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (with Cochran in charge). These groups were merged into the WASPs on August 5, 1943.

The women who volunteered for WASPs were no shrinking violets. They had to earn their keep. More than 25,000 women applied and 1,879 candidates accepted. Of these, only 1,074 successfully completed their training at Avenger Field, in Sweetwater, Texas.

“Our training program was the same as the one male cadets were going through all over the country,” Parrish described, “ground school, flight school, cross-country flying, night flying, instrument flying, daily calisthenics, flying link trainers, and constantly marching—the Army way.”

“We had to deliver the goods,” another WASP, Cornelia Fort concurred, “or else there wouldn’t ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.”

The women had another concern that men of their time did not: The WASPs had to ensure that their reputations were above reproach. Thus, the barracks had housemothers. Women pilots couldn’t smoke; they had to dress modestly when out of uniform. “The stakes were high and their focus was on graduating and getting into the sky,” one historian describes. “But Avenger’s Field was soon known as Cochran’s Convent.”

The women flew more than 60 million miles in 12,650 aircraft. They flew every type of plane the Army Air Forces owned, including powerful fighter planes and heavy bombers. The women made test flights. They towed targets so the men could practice. They transported cargo. They flight tested repaired aircraft. They were even flight instructors.

On at least one occasion, a WASP took a plane on what was supposed to be a day trip. She expected to be back by night fall. It didn’t quite work out that way. Four weeks and many missions later, Teresa Jones finally returned to home base. She’d flown 6 planes across 17 states and 11,000 miles, hand-washing her clothes each night because she had no overnight bag and nothing else to wear.

Whatever the military needed, these women delivered. Sadly, 38 of them even gave their lives while serving.

The commanding general of the United States Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, once said that he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”

He was wrong—and he admitted it. “Now in 1944,” he stated, “it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

The unknown women of the Greatest Generation were surely just as great as the men.

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