History of American Women’s Aviation Feats – Part III – WASPS

By Bonnie L Johnson

This article is the third of four articles to introduce the reader to the women’s feats in aviation. This article will introduce you to the role women played in support of World War II by flying and the Mercury 13. The last article will be on the Air Race Classic.

Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (1943-1945)

With the onset of World War II and the fledgling aviation industry booming, there was a shortage of pilots for ferrying airplanes, towing targets, and flight-testing airplanes. Jacqueline Cochran approached General Hap Arnold about forming a women’s auxiliary to help with the war effort. General Arnold sent Jacque to England to observe their operations and to take with her 25 qualified female pilots.

While Jacque was in England, Nancy Love approached General George about created an all women ferrying service. The pilots for her program had to have 100 hours and would only ferry airplanes in the U.S.

When Jacque returned from England and found Love’s organization operating, she again approached General Arnold about her training organization. She was given permission to establish such an organization, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment in Houston, Texas in 1942.. Jacque knew that time had come for the women to be able to do more for the war effort. In August of 1943 she was allowed to combine both the ferrying and training organizations at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. To be eligible for the program, the young women had to have earned their pilot’s license.

The women flew ferry routes, flight tests and target drones. These women would fly every airplane that would see service during World War II.

Of the thousands that applied 1830 were accepted with only 1074 graduating from the program. Fifinella was adopted as their mascot and would be seen on the entry sign into Avenger field.

Army issue clothing was modified so the women could wear it during their tour. Jacque used her money and company to create dress uniforms for the ladies to wear to formal functions and at graduation.

Of the thousands involved in the program 38 did not make it home. Their classmates had to pay for the final trip home, because unfortunately, Congress did not formally recognize the participants of the program until 1979, when they received veteran’s benefits for the very first time.

Of the participants in Cochran’s organization Ann Carl was based at Wright Patterson field in Dayton, Ohio as part of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and she would see the dawning of the jet age during her tenure at Wright Patterson. Jacqueline Cochran would also participate in the jet age by flying a Northrop T-38 to break every record held by a woman. The WASP members still gather each year to reminisce about their role in World War II.

The Mercury 13 (1960s)

Jacqueline Cochran became instrumental in another area for women – Space. As the call for young men to participate in the new space age program began, young women were also being called to the forefront of this new frontier. Twenty-five young women with the proper credentials applied for the space program in 1959. Dr. R. Lovelace put these women through the same testing as the men and thirteen of the original 25 young women completed the first two phases of testing for the Mercury 7 project by the summer of 1961. They were – Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marian Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk. Funk and Cobb would go on to complete the third phase. Only one thing stopped them from going into space – their sex. The United States Space Program determined that it was too dangerous for women to go into space. Three years later (June 16, 1963) the Russians sent a housewife into space. It was not until June 18, 1983 that the United States finally sent a qualified female into space – Sally Ride. In 1991 Eileen Collins would be the first female pilot of the shuttle. Even now Jerrie Cobb is petitioning the United States to go into space as an octogenarian, the same opportunity given to John Glenn. Wally Funk is arranging transportation via the Russian program.

As the say goes, women have come along way from those early days of removing a throttle block to get airborne to flying space machines as part of their astronaut duties.