AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES --
Finding the name of the first female pilot in the United States Military is not an easy task as one might think: the first female pilots who flew for the U.S. military initially graduated civilian classes in the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), created by Jacqueline Cochran, and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), created by Nancy Harkness Love.
Both organizations were created to free up male pilots for combat roles in WWII, while female pilots tested and ferried aircraft, trained male cadets (including towing targets for cadets to target with live ammunition), and performed whatever other flying duties the Army Air Corps had need for at the time. In 1943, the two organizations merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) with the support of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold.
African American women were prohibited from joining the WASPs (as the Armed Services were not integrated until 1948), but two Asian American, one Native American, and two Hispanic American women served.
The women who volunteered all shared one thing: a profound passion for aviation and service. Many were barely in their 20’s, and undeterred by the odds stacked against them they scrounged and borrowed all they could to pay for pilot’s licenses, without which they couldn’t initially apply.
While WASPs were pilots who attended military basic training, met military medical standards, completed military flight training, piloted military aircraft, and died in military operations, they were not considered members of the military—rather, they were officially classified as “civilian volunteers” who paid for their own prerequisite civilian pilot’s licenses and training, the cost of transportation to basic training, their uniforms, and even their own funerals if they died in service.
As WASPs were civilians, when they died in operations the cost of transporting their bodies home fell on their fellow pilots and families. Neither they nor their surviving dependents received military benefits, or even the honor of an American flag on their caskets. This did not deter the survivors; they were consumed by a steadfast dedication to their country, aviation, and fellow pilots.
In June 1944, a bill that would have militarized the WASPs was defeated in congress by 19 votes. In December 1944, the WASP program was deactivated with the support of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold— who had rallied for the creation of the WASPs in the first place. With the end of WWII, male pilots were returning home en masse and there were finally sufficient male pilots to fill positions occupied by WASPs. After the disbandment, some found employment as airline stewardesses; commercial airlines initially refused to hire them as pilots, but they couldn’t bear to leave aviation.
In 1977, a class of female Air Force pilots graduated from training at Williams Air Force Base, AZ. They were lauded as the “first female pilots” in the Air Force; a misnomer that spurred many WASPs to reignite their campaign for recognition.
Finally, over 30 years after their service, the WASPs were formally militarized and earned veteran status, despite vehement opposition by the American Legion at the time (citing that it would “denigrate the term ‘veteran’ so that it will never again have the value that presently attaches to it”).
In 2009, Pres. Barack Obama awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Only around 200 women still lived to accept the medal.
Overall, from 1942-1944, 25,000 women applied to the WASP program. 1,830 were admitted, and ultimately 1,074 WASPs ferried over 12,650 planes and flew over 60 million miles in every single type of military aircraft at that time. 38 women died in service, 37 were injured, and 0 were initially recognized as Military Service Members. This Women’s History Month, we would like to begin the month by thanking these incredible heroines who paved the way for women in the Air Force and fought for their and sisters’ stories to be told.
Cornelia Fort: The first American woman pilot in history to die on active duty, after an in-air collision while flying in formation in 1943.
Hazel Ring Lee: The first Chinese-American female pilot to fly for the US Military. She was the last WASP to die on duty in 1944, after an in-air collision.
Bernice Haydu: Elected President of the WASP Organization in 1974. She introduced the bill to the U.S. Senate that would lead to official veteran designation for WASPs in 1977.
Ola Mildred Redcoat: The only Native American WASP, she enlisted as Air Traffic Control in the USAF after her WASP service and worked for 33 years in the FAA.
Verneda Rodriguez McLean: After her service, she fronted the campaign for WASP recognition and in 1982 was the first WASP to be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dora Dougherty & Dorothea Johnson Moorman: Volunteered to flight test the Boeing B-29 Superfortress when their male counterparts refused to, landing safely despite an in-flight engine fire.
Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Health and Readjustment of the Committee on Veteran Affairs, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth congress first session on S. 1775 and Related Bills: July 1, 1977: pg. 158