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  • Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II:Exploring Military Aviation, Encountering Discrimination, and Exchanging Traditional Roles in Service to America
  • Kathleen Cornelsen (bio)

Although they often encountered discrimination, the extraordinary women of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, explored new opportunities and opened new doors for women in military aviation and space exploration by exchanging their traditional roles to become civilian air pilots for the United States military during World War II. From towing targets to flying fighters, they refuted the mistaken belief that women were less capable than men as pilots. Despite a challenging beginning, they successfully organized to relieve male pilots for combat duty, and under the direction of Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, two accomplished female pilots, the WASP exceeded the expectations of the military. Their contributions and accomplishments remained unrecognized by the military for over thirty years, but the WASP's explorationinto new arenas of aviation had a significant impact on future generations of women.

Even though women had been flying for many years before the start of World War II, the concept of women flying military aircraft was unique. General Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, expressed the sentiments of most Americans when he said in 1941 that "the use of women pilots serves no military purpose in a country which has adequate manpower at this time."1 America's most famous female pilot, Jackie Cochran (Figure 1), had written to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 suggesting that women pilots be used in non-combat roles during times of national emergency.2 When Cochran proposed her ideas to General Arnold, he recommended she ferry a bomber to Great Britain to generate publicity for women piloting military planes. Upon her return, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Cochran to submit a report on the viability of women pilots in military service.3 Within the month, Cochran presented her report to General Arnold proposing that the Army Air Force hire qualified women to ferry planes.4 Her plan was initially rejected, but as the need for male combat pilots became more urgent, the opportunities for female aviators to travel new paths in military aviation greatly increased. In September 1942 the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was formed with Nancy Harkness Love as its director.5 This squadron used women pilots to ferry military aircraft between factories and Army Air Force bases. Within [End Page 111] days the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) was created as a training program for women pilots under the leadership of Jackie Cochran. Both programs performed valuable services as the WAFS ferried the planes while the WFTD trained female pilots. The WASP was born when the two organizations merged on 5 August 1943. Out of 25,000 applicants, 1,074 women pilots completed their flight training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The stage wasset for women to explore new opportunities in military aviation. The well-trained and well-qualified WASP flew more than 60 million miles and over seventy-seven types of military aircraft. They were pioneers exploring uncharted courses in women's military aviation. As they performed their duties, these aviatrixes gained the knowledge, experience, and respect that would lead to greater prospects for women in aviation.

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Figure 1.

Jackie Cochran, Founder and Director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, from the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Most WASP had never been given the opportunity to fly modern aircraft. Their service as civilian air pilots for the Army Air Force allowed them to explore many new areas in aircraft aviation. These women knew no limits. They flew all of the fast pursuit class planes and the largest of the bombers.6 The WASP were trained to fly planes with dangerous reputations such as the heavy B-29 Super Fortress, a long-range bomber that men were reluctant to fly due to design problems.7 After training, the female pilots flew the planes at heavy-bomber bases to convince the skeptical male pilots of the planes' safety.8 The women's success with these intimidating aircraft marked a pivotal step towards...


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pp. 111-119
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