WOMEN PILOTS OF WWII

When the United States entered World War II, the top brass, including General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), had doubts about women’s ability to pilot large aircraft. In the summer of 1941 even before the United States entered the war,

Jacqueline Cochran
Wikipedia

two famous women aviators Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love had presented separate proposals for women pilots to be used in non-combat missions. Meantime, the British government asked Jackie Cochran to recruit American women pilots to ferry aircraft for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, the first organized group of American women pilots to serve in the war.

Finally, after lobbying by Eleanor Roosevelt and the military’s realization that there were not enough male pilots, in September 1942 Nancy Love gained permission to recruit women for training in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Soon, Jackie Cochran returned from Britain to win appointment as director of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) headquartered at Houston’s Municipal Airport (present Hobby Airport). The new recruits were classified as civil service, not military personnel.  Calling themselves “guinea pigs,” the Houston WFTD were housed in motels and private homes and transported to the airfield each day in trailer trucks. They had no life insurance; there were no crash trucks or fire trucks on the airfield, and they had no uniforms. Since there were no facilities for changing clothes they wore the same gear—GI coveralls in the standard size 52, which they called “zoot suits”—to ground school, to drill, to fly, and to march to and from the mess hall.

Training Class, 1943
Photo by WASP member Lois Hailey
Wikipedia

When they were moved in early 1943 to better quarters at Avenger Field—the only all-female air base in history—at present Sweetwater, they had to pay their own way and pay for their room and board. If they washed out of the program, they had to pay their fare back home. After the WFTDs and the WAFS merged in August 1943 to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), Jackie Cochran became the director of the program and Nancy Love headed the ferrying division.

Jackie Cochran recruited women from all over the country but excluded black pilots claiming that since the program was new, innovative, and not very popular, including black pilots might endanger the service’s status. More than 25,000 women applied, fewer than 1,900 were accepted. After seven months of military flight training, 1,074 earned their wings to become the first women to fly American military aircraft—a rate comparable to male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.

The WASPs were all pilots with a minimum of 100 hours when they entered the service, but they were trained to fly “the Army way.” Their program followed the same course as male Army Air Corps pilots except for no gunnery training and very little aerobatic and formation flying. The women received 210 hours of flying time divided equally between PT-17s, BT-13s, and AT-6s.

The WASP flew sixty million miles ferrying 12,650 aircraft from factories to military bases and ports of embarkation. They towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and flew simulated strafing missions, even dropping tear gas and other chemical agents during the training of ground troops. They accepted the very dangerous task of testing damaged airplanes. As part of bomber crew training, WASPs flew the aircraft while male combat trainees practiced as bombardiers, navigators, and gunners.

When the AAF reached a surplus of male pilots toward the end of 1944, it was determined that the WASP was no longer needed. By the time the WASP was disbanded on December 20, 1944, thirty-eight had been killed in accidents—eleven in training and twenty-seven during active duty. Since they were not considered military, the dead were sent home at the family expense and did not receive military honors. Even their coffins could not be draped with the U. S. flag.

In her June 1, 1945 report, Jackie Cochran wrote that WASP safety, accident, and fatality rates compared favorably with male pilot records. Despite her report, WASP records were classified secret and sealed, not to be released for thirty-five years.  Ironically, Colonel Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold who had originally been opposed to women pilots, began lobbying in 1975 to have the WASPs recognized as veterans. With the help of Senator Barry Goldwater, who had served as a WWII ferry pilot, Congress passed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977, granting the WASP corps full military status for their service.

On July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Gold Medal into law and the following May 10th the 300 surviving WASPs came to the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders.

July 2009, President Obama signed WASP Congressional Gold Medal into law.
Wikipedia

The National WASP WWII Museum is located in Sweetwater near Avenger Field.

Advertisements

BRITS LEARNED TO FLY IN TEXAS

In March 1941 the United States and Great Britain agreed on a secret operation under the Lend-Lease Program to train Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots in six civilian U.S. aviation schools. The plan was instituted in order to locate the RAF pilots out of danger of constant aerial

Courtesy, British Flying Training School Museum, Terrell, Texas

attacks during their training and the scheme remained a secret because of the United States’ neutrality laws.

Terrell, a town of 10,000 just thirty miles east of Dallas became the first and largest British Flying Training School. Local residents were so delighted to take part in this patriotic mission by allowing the pilots to train at the site used by their small flying club that Terrell’s town

Young British Cadets receiving their BFTS uniforms.

council offered to install all the facilities at no cost. The young, future pilots were flown to Canada where they were discharged from the RAF, given a six months U.S. visitors visa, civilian clothing, and then flown to Terrell where they were welcomed with open arms.

One account says the pilots had some difficulty understanding “Texas talk.” For instance, when they visited in local homes, which they did frequently, the residents often said as the students left, “Y’all come back,” which resulted in the young men turning on their heels and returning immediately. After some explaining, the pilots understood that no one meant for them to return that instant. The expression was intended as a welcome for future visits. Many of the Brits had not even learned to drive a car before they arrived in Texas to learn to fly airplanes and they knew nothing about Texas. They wore wool clothing, which they quickly abandoned. They expected cowboys and Indians and were surprised to discover ordinary folks.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II, the training was no longer kept a secret. The young men donned their blue RAF uniforms and continued training. The two-year program was compressed into about seven months, which required flying seven days a week from five A.M. to ten P.M. Upon completion of the course, the pilots returned to Great Britain and another class took their place. By August 1945 when the program ended, more than 2,000 cadets had earned their wings and established many life-long friendships.

More than one-third of the graduates were killed in combat. Twenty died during the training exercises and Terrell residents, who adopted the young men as their own sons, buried them in part of the Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery, which is maintained by the Terrell War Relief Society. Terrell’s No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum, the largest of its kind in the United States, displays log books, training materials, WWII memorabilia, and uniforms.

The Royal Air Force in Texas, Tom Killebrew

The Royal Air Force Trains in Texas

In March 1941 the United States and Great Britain established a secret operation to train Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots in six civilian U.S. aviation schools.  The plan was instituted in order to locate the RAF pilots out of danger of constant aerial attacks during their training and the scheme remained a secret because of the neutrality laws in the United States.

No. British Training School Logo

No. British Training School Logo

Terrell, a town of 10,000 just thirty miles east of Dallas became the first and largest British Flying Training School.  Local residents were so delighted to take part in this patriotic mission by allowing the pilots to train at a field used by a small flying club that Terrell’s town council offered to install all the facilities at no cost.  The first fifty future pilots were flown to Canada where they were decommissioned by the RAF, given a six-month U.S. visitors visa, and outfitted in civilian clothing.  From Canada they were flown to Terrell where they were welcomed with open arms.  Their training began on August 11 and as each group completed the two-year program, which was compressed into about twenty weeks, more students joined the school until it reached a capacity of 200.

Terrell Air Field

Terrell Air Field

One account says the pilots had some difficulty understanding “Texas talk.”  For instance, when they visited in local homes, which they did often, the residents upon departure kept saying,  “Ya’ll come back,” which resulted in the young men turning on their heels and returning immediately.  After some explaining, the pilots understood that no one meant for them to return that instant.  The expression was a welcome for future visits.  Many of the Brits had not learned to drive a car or been in an airplane before they arrived in Texas to learn to fly and they knew nothing about Texas.  They wore wool clothing, which they quickly abandoned.  They expected cowboys and Indians and were surprised to discover ordinary folks.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II, the training was no longer kept secret.   The student pilots, who were finally able to wear their blue RAF uniforms, continued training, and  were joined at the flying school by American Aviation Cadets.   Every few weeks as each class completed the course, the pilots returned to Great Britain ready to take part in the war.  By August 1945 when the program ended, more than 2,000 cadets had earned their wings and many life-long friendships had been established with the residents of Terrell.

More than one third of the graduates were killed in combat.  Twenty died during the training exercises and Terrell residents, who adopted the young men as their own sons, buried them in the Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery, which is maintained by the Terrell War Relief Society.  Terrell’s No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum , the largest of its kind in the United States, keeps alive this little known chapter of World War II history.  The museum collection includes logbooks, training materials, WWII memorabilia, and uniforms.   Tom Killebrew’s book, The Royal Air Force in Texas: Training British Pilots in Terrell during World War II, shares the history of the Terrell Aviation School.

Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery

Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery

Tom Killebrew's book: The Royal Air Force in Texas

Tom Killebrew’s book: The Royal Air Force in Texas

Bessie Coleman, Aviator

When flight schools in the United States refused to accept African Americans, Elizabeth Coleman sought aviation training in France.  She became the first black female to earn a pilot’s

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

license and the first black person in the world to earn an international pilot’s license.

One of thirteen children born to sharecroppers in 1892, Bessie grew up in Waxahachie south of Dallas vowing to “amount to something.”  That dream was a long time in coming.  She attended a one-room segregated school where she excelled in reading and math.  Her father who was part Cherokee left the family when Bessie was eight and moved to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) where he believed he would find fewer personal barriers.  Bessie and the other children helped their mother with the washing and ironing that she took in and they picked cotton to add to the family income.

After graduating high school, Bessie took her savings to Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (present Langston University) but she ran out of money at the end of the first semester.  While living with a brother in Chicago during World War I and working as a manicurist, she heard the returning pilots talk about flying during the war.  Impressed by the young woman’s potential, the publisher of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, and a local banker provided financial backing for Bessie to go to France for pilot training.  She took a French language course and left for Paris on November 20, 1920.

According to Doris Rich in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Bessie learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.”  She went on to improve her skills with lessons from an ace French pilot before returning to New York in September 1921.  She soon realized that to earn a living as a pilot, she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, which required additional training.  Still unable to find anyone willing to teach her, she again sailed for Europe for advanced study in France and training in Germany from one of the chief pilots at an aircraft design corporation.

For five years she wowed crowds, both black and white, that called her “Queen Bess” for her daring exhibition flying.   She flew a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane and surplus army aircraft leftover from the war.  Her first appearance on September 3, 1922, on Long Island was to honor veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I.  Later in Chicago (at

Bessie Coleman and her plane, 1922

Bessie Coleman and her plane, 1922

present Midway Airport) she performed daredevil figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips.

Continuing with her goal of “amounting to something,” she accepted a roll in Shadow and Sunshine, a film she hoped would offer the income to finance her own flying school.  However, when she realized the film opened with her wearing tattered clothing, using a walking stick, and carrying a pack on her back, Doris Duke wrote that Bessie “walked off the movie set as a statement of principle. . . She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”

As she traveled the country performing, she often spoke at schools and churches encouraging young blacks to consider careers in aviation.  On one of her trips to Waxahachie, she refused to give an exhibition on the school grounds unless blacks were allowed to use the same entrance as whites.  Her request was honored, but once inside, blacks and whites remained segregated.

She became known as “Brave Bessie” for her daring stunts and was celebrated as one of the most popular fliers in the country.  On April 30, 1926, she was scheduled to perform in a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida.  Ignoring the concern of family and friends who did not think her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” was safe, she took off on a test flight with her mechanic and publicity agent piloting the plane.  She did not buckle her seatbelt because she intended to make a parachute jump during the performance the following day and she wanted to be able to looked over the cockpit sill to check out the landing site below.  Just minutes into the flight, the plane failed to pull out of a dive, went into a spin and threw Bessie out of the plane at a height of 2,000 feet.  The pilot died on impact and the plane burst into flames.  An investigation revealed that a loose wrench, probably used for service, had jammed the plane’s controls.

Her death at age thirty-four came before she fulfilled her dream of establishing flying schools for black students, but she was not forgotten.  Bessie Coleman Aero groups organized and on Labor Day in 1931, 15,000 spectators saw the first all-black air show in America sponsored by the Aeros.  Black female student pilots in 1977 organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.  A street in Chicago in 1990 was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and Chicago declared May 2, 1992, as Bessie Coleman Day.  Finally, in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in honor of Bessie Coleman.

Black Heritage Stamp,1995

Black Heritage Stamp,1995

Lindbergh’s Texas Visits

Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh

In 1923, before Charles Lindbergh became famous, like all barnstormers of his day, he wanted to boast that he had flown in Texas.  When he bought his first World War I surplus Jenny in Georgia, he flew it to Texarkana.  The following year, on a trip to California, Lindbergh mistook the Nueces River for the Rio Grande and by the time he discovered his error he had to land in a sheep pasture outside Camp Wood, Texas, about ninety-miles west of San Antonio.  The pasture proved too small for a takeoff with both Lindbergh and his partner Leon Klink in the cockpit.  “Slim,” as Camp Wood residents called Lindbergh, flew the plane into town and landed on the town square.  The takeoff required fitting the forty-four-foot wingspan of the Canuck (Canadian version of the Jenny) between telephone poles spread only forty-eight feet apart.  All went well until one wheel dropped into a rut in the street causing the plane to swing around, strike a pole, and crash into a hardware store.  No one was injured and the storekeeper refused payment for damages.  After a week of hosting the young aviators while they repaired their plane, the town took a real liking to the pair, especially the quiet and courteous Lindbergh.

Two weeks after his Camp Wood experience, Lindbergh became a U.S. Air Service Cadet at Brooks Field in San Antonio, completing his advanced flight training at nearby Kelly Field in 1925.  Lindbergh became a world-famous aviation hero by making the first solo flight, May 20-21, 1927, aboard his Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, to Le Bourget Field in Paris.

Spirit of St. LouisNational Air & Space Museum, Wash. D.C.

Spirit of St. Louis
National Air & Space Museum, Wash. D.C.

The “Lindbergh Boom” in aviation began as aircraft industry stocks rose and interest in flying skyrocketed.  Lindbergh’s fame helped him promote commercial aviation.  When Transcontinental Air Transport hired him to select its aircraft, routes and equipment, he returned to Texas to survey the first commercial transcontinental air route through Amarillo.  On March 10, 1929, he came to Texas again when he flew the inaugural flight for the U.S.-Mexican airmail from Brownsville to Mexico City via Tampico.  Somewhere along the route several bags of mail went missing for a month causing the philatelic world of stamp collectors to refer to the adventure as the “Lost Mail Flight.”