Also known as: WASPs Date: From August, 1943, to December, 1944 Definition: Women pilots who flew training missions and ferried aircraft for the United States Army during World War II.
Significance: WASPs demonstrated the military potential of women pilots. They also compiled an outstanding record of service and flight safety, and became a symbol of the entrenched sexism which kept women pilots out of the armed forced during the Second World War and denied WASPs veterans benefits and military recognition until 1977.
The origin of the WASPs dates to 1941, when famed pilot Jacqueline Cochran recruited American women to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force. A veteran pilot holding numerous distance and speed records in a wide variety of aircraft, Cochran hoped to assist the British in their fight against Germany while also creating the foundation for a contingent of women military pilots in the United States. She led her first group of pilots to the United Kingdom in 1942, hoping to command any similar contingent which formed in the U.S.
At the same time, Nancy Harkness Love persuaded Major General Harold L. George, commander of the U.S. Army’s Air Transport Command, to use female pilots in his Ferry Division. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt publicly endorsed the idea, and in September, 1942, Love took over the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) at Love Field (named after her millionaire husband, Colonel Bob Love, who was George’s Chief of Staff) in Dallas, Texas.
Cochran was devastated. Lieutenant General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), responded by placing her in charge of training women pilots for the Army Air Force (AAF). Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) set up shop at Howard Hughes Airfield outside Houston, Texas, in 1942, then moved to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, the following year.
Formation of the WASPs
The move to Sweetwater coincided with the Army’s decision to combine the WAFS and the WFTD to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) under Cochran’s command in August, 1943. The move eliminated confusion and duplication of effort in the training of women pilots, and gave Cochran a free hand to set the highest standards for training. She demanded that each female pilot trainee have a minimum of thirty-five hours of flight time prior to acceptance into the WASP program (male pilot trainees in the Army did not have to have any prior flight time), and accepted only 2,000 applicants from a pool of more than 25,000.
Interestingly, Cochran’s pilots became civilian employees of the War Department (earning 20 percent less than men in the same grade) rather than members of the armed forces. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall wanted to commission the women as officers in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), but Cochran refused to give up control over her pilots to the WAC commander, Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, and the issue faded away. It came back to haunt the WASPs later.
Despite their nonmilitary status, Cochran’s pilots trained to AAF standards during a twenty-three week course which included cross-country, aerobatic, instrument, and night flying in a number of different aircraft, and many hours of classroom work and simulator training. More than 50 percent of the trainees washed out, while the 1,074 who eventually graduated moved on to fly training missions and ferry aircraft for the Army. By the end of the war, WASPs had flown every airplane in the AAF inventory, from nimble P-51 Mustangs to B-17 and B-29 heavy bombers, and compiled an amazing record of safety. Only three WASPs were lost in fatal accidents in the course of delivering 12,652 planes, while another thirty-four were killed in training accidents. This record proved far superior to that of male pilots, who had a higher rate of discipline problems and were more reluctant to perform mundane training missions. In contrast, WASPs enthusiastically pulled target sleeves for aerial gunnery practice, simulated bombing runs on antiaircraft positions to train gunners, ferried aircraft across the United States and even overseas, and served as instructors for male pilots learning to bomb and strafe ground targets.
The success of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots seemed to promise a greater role for women pilots in the armed forces. Instead, the shortage of pilots that had driven the creation of military programs for women pilots eased by mid-1944, and male civilian pilots began to push for an end to the WASP program. They resented competing with women for military duty as pilots, and argued that the impending Allied victory made additional women pilots unnecessary. Cochran and Arnold tried to save the WASPs by supporting legislation integrating them into the AAF, but after intense lobbying the bill they supported proved to be nineteen votes shy of passing in June, 1944. Afterward, it seemed clear the WASPs were doomed, and in December, 1944, the last class of pilots graduated from Avenger Field.
Those women already flying for the Army served until the end of the war in 1945, then found themselves mustered out. Ironically, their greatest battle was yet to come, for they soon found themselves denied status and benefits as veterans because they had officially served in the Army as civilians. It took thirty-three years of lobbying for the United States to finally recognize WASPs for their military service, a step which Congress took in 1977.