Women Pilots of WWII Trained in Texas

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran

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, two famous women aviators Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love presented separate proposals for women pilots

Nancy Harkness Love

Nancy Harkness Love

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 thereafter 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).

Class 43-3, January 1943, Houston Municipal Airport

Class 43-3, January 1943, Houston Municipal 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.

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 return fare back home.  After the WFTD and the WAFS merged in August 1943 to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), 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, and 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 WASP 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.

Shirley Slade, trainee, Avenger Field, July 19, 1943 LIFE magazine

Shirley Slade, trainee, Avenger Field, July 19, 1943 LIFE magazine

The WASP flew sixty million miles ferrying12,650 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, the 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 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 signing WASP Congressional Gold Medal into law

July 2009, President Obama signing WASP Congressional Gold Medal into law

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

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