Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Those Amazing Women and Their Flying Machines

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Women’s Air Service Pilots organization was disbanded. A federal organization, the WASPs was formed seventeen months earlier by merging the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, both created in September 1942. 

As civilians, members of the WASPs were not in the military, however, in June 1944 the House considered HR 4219, a bill that would grant them military status. It was defeated 188 to 169. Two weeks prior, the House Committee on the Civil Service (Ramspeck Committee) reported that it deemed the WASPs “unnecessary” and “unjustifiably expensive,” having cost the government $50 million. They recommended the program be halted. 

During its period of operation, each member’s service had freed a male pilot for combat or other duties. The women flew over sixty million miles, transported every type of military aircraft, towed targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice, simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo.

More than 25,000 women applied to the WASPs. Qualifications were that the applicant must be between 21 and 35 years old, at least 5’2” tall, in good health, hold a pilot’s license, and have a minimum of 500 hours of flight time. Over 1,800 were accepted, the majority of whom were Caucasian. There were two Chinese-Americans, two Mexican-Americans, and one Native American.

Of those accepted, 1,074 completed the training. Although they were not trained for combat, their course of instruction was almost the same as male aviation cadets. The women received no gunnery training and very little formation and aerobatic flying, but they did go through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. By graduation, WASPs had 560 hours of ground school and 210 hours of flight training. In addition, they knew Morse code, meteorology, military law, physics, aircraft mechanics, and navigation. 

On December 7, 1944 (Pearl Harbor Day), the last class of WASP pilots graduated from training, despite the plan to disband the organization. After the announcement was made, nearly two dozen women offered to continue the work at a salary of $1.00 per year, but the offer was rejected. Following the group’s disbandment, some WASP members were allowed to fly on board government aircraft as long as room was available and no additional expenses were incurred. The other had to arrange and pay for their own transportation home.

Several times during the 1970s efforts were made to gain recognition for the WASPs, but it was not until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed legislation P.L. 95-202 providing that service as a WASP would be considered active duty for the purposes of programs administered by the Veterans Administration. In 1984, each WASP was awarded the WWII Victory Medal, and those who served more than one year received the American Theater Ribbon/American Campaign Medical.

Would you ever consider learning to fly?


Linda Shenton Matchett is an author, speaker, and history geek. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she was born a stone's throw from Fort McHenry and has lived in historic places all her life. Linda is a member of ACFW, RWA, and Sisters in Crime. She is a volunteer docent and archivist at the Wright Museum of WWII. Find out more about Linda and her books on her website. Receive a free short story when you sign up for her newsletter. 

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