|“You and more than 900 of your sisters have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASPs have dispelled that doubt.”|
|- Gen. Hap Arnold, AAF, in a speech to the last class of WASPs, before the program was disbanded in December 1944.|
In the Beginning:
In 1939, on the day after Germany’s tanks rolled into Warsaw, Poland, pilot Jacqueline Cochran sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging the use of women pilots in the armed forces. In May 1940, another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love wrote the Ferrying Division of the Armed Air Forces with a similar idea but the Army was not ready to put women in the cockpit of its planes. By September 1942, however, all that was changing.
The demand for male combat pilots and warplanes left the Air Transport Command (ATC) with a shortage of experienced pilots to ferry planes from factories to points of embarkation. The leaders of the ATC remembered Nancy Harkness Love’s proposal and hired her to recruit twenty-five of the most qualified women pilots in the country to ferry military aircraft. These outstanding women pilots were called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS.
- WASP served as part of the Army Air Forces from September 1942 to December 1944
- 30 women invited to join the WAFS
- 28 WAFS assigned to operational duties
- 25,000 women applied for WFTD/WASP training
- 1,830 were accepted
- 1,074 graduated from the program and were assigned to operational duties
- 900 WASP and 16 WAFS remained in service at the time of deactivation, December 20, 1944
- 38 died while in the WASP program
- 60,000,000 miles were flown
- WASP earned $150 per month while in training, and $250 per month after graduation
- They paid for their own uniforms, lodging, and personal travel to and from home
On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were merged and re-designated the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP. Cochran was appointed the Director and Love was named WASP Executive with the ATC Ferrying Division.
Nancy Harkness Love and the WAFS first gathered as a squadron at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Although the WAFS were required to have 500 hours of flying time, those that arrived averaged more than 1,000 hours. The pilots checked out and trained for just a few weeks before they were assigned to their posts.
While the WAFS began their ferrying duties, Jacqueline Cochran was organizing the WFTD and recruiting classes of women pilots. The training involved size months of ground school and flight training. The first three classes trained in Houston, Texas, at the Municipal Airport. Bad weather and crowded skies prompted Cochran to move the program to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.
The WAFS and the first classes of the WFTD graduates were assigned to the Air Transport Command and ferried planes from factories to points of embarkation. Eventually, the Air Transport Command complained that it could not take all the pilots graduating from Avenger Field. In response, Cochran announced to all air base command that she would accept any job – “dishwashing jobs” she called them – which the WASP could do and thereby relieve additional men for combat duty. The WASP flew every type of plane in the Army’s arsenal and served as flight instructors, tow-target pilots for gunnery training, engineering flight test pilots, and flew radio-controlled planes.
Deactivation and Militarization:
Unfortunately, for the sake of expediency, the WASP and WAFS were hired under Civil Service. Cochran, Love, and Arnold intended the women pilots to be made part of the military, but the need for pilots was so great and militarization was slow, requiring an act of Congress. They began the program with the idea of militarizing the WASP later.
In 1944, just as the bill to militarize the WASP went before Congress, the need for pilots decreased. The decision was made to deactivate the WASP, and the program formally ended on December 20, 1944. General Arnold would record that “…in any future total effort, the nation can count on thousands of its young women to fly any of its aircraft.”
This amazing experiment using women pilots during wartime seemed destined to be forgotten. Then, in the mid-1970s, the Navy announced to the media that, for the first time in history, women would be permitted to fly military planes. The announcement reverberated among the WASP, and like nothing else, mobilized them to seek recognition. With the help of Bruce Arnold, General Hap Arnold’s son, and political help from Senator Barry Goldwater, a World War II veteran who had commanded WASP in his squadron, the WASP finally gained their belated militarization from Congress in 1977.
In 2010, the WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress. Over 250 surviving WASP were on hand in our nation’s Capital to receive the honor.