How Female Pilots Served During World War

How Female Pilots Served During World War

In 1942, the United States was faced with a severe shortage of pilots, and leaders gambled on an experimental program to help fill the void: Train women to fly military aircraft so male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.

WASP Interactive

The group of female pilots was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots — WASP for short. In 1944, during the graduation ceremony for the last WASP training class, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, said that when the program started, he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”

“Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” Arnold said.

A few more than 1,100 young women, all civilian volunteers, flew almost every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers — as part of the WASP program. They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition. The WASP expected to become part of the military during their service. Instead, the program was canceled after just two years.

WASP with a plane named “Miss Fifinella,” the mascot designed for the women by Walt Disney Studios

Courtesy of The Woman’s Collection, Texas Woman’s University

They weren’t granted military status until the 1970s. And now, 65 years after their service, they will receive the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress. Last July, President Obama signed a bill awarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. The ceremony will take place on Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Women With Moxie

Margaret Phelan Taylor grew up on a farm in Iowa. She was 19, had just completed two years of college and was ready for adventure in 1943 when a Life magazine cover story on the female pilots caught her eye. Her brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her? She asked her father to lend her money for a pilot’s license — $500, a huge amount then.

“I told him I had to do it,” Taylor says. “And so he let me have the money. I don’t think I ever did pay it back to him either.”

But there was a problem. She was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2-inch requirement.

“I just stood on my tiptoes,” she says. When she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASP were trained, “Well, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.”

Short, tall, slim, wide, they all came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the female civilian volunteers.

“They didn’t want to bring in a bunch of girls who didn’t know how to fly an airplane,” says Katherine Sharp Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, who’s writing a book about the WASP, tentatively called Against Prevailing Winds: The Women Airforce Service Pilots and American Society. “So you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they had to learn how to fly so they could be a WASP.”

A Dangerous Job

Once when Taylor was ferrying an aircraft cross-country, somewhere between Arizona and California, she saw smoke in the cockpit. Taylor was trained to bail out if anything went wrong. “But the parachutes were way too big. They weren’t fitted to us,” she says. “The force of that air and that speed and everything, why that just rips stuff off you. You’d slip right out.”

Margaret Phelan Taylor was a WASP during World War II.

Courtesy of the Taylor Family

So her plane was smoking and Taylor faced a defining moment.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going until I see flame. When I see actual fire, why, then I’ll jump.’ “

Was she scared? “No. I was never scared. My husband used to say, ‘It’s pretty hard to scare you.’ “

The plane’s problem turned out to be a burned-out instrument.

But 38 female pilots did lose their lives serving their country. One was 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson from Kalamazoo, Mich.

“I’ve always known of her as the family hero,” says Rawlinson’s niece, Pam Pohly, who never knew her aunt. “The one we lost too soon, the one that everyone loved and wished were still around.”

Rawlinson was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina. She was coming back from a night training exercise with her male instructor when the plane crashed

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