WASPs Don’t Always Sting: The Early Days
Our yearning to fly the big ones remained just that. We had to go through rigorous training. The job would be tough, so we had to measure up to doing what was demanded. Up at six o’clock, breakfast leading into a morning of hands-on learning about every aspect of flying we had to know, afternoon classroom sessions, dinner at seven followed by time for study and homework, and lights out at ten. We lived and breathed airplanes.
Our actual flight training took place in the smallest planes. Barely room in them to breathe. These were the trainers. But the thrill of hearing the engines turn over and watching the propellers spin almost took my breath away. And this was just the beginning!
This excitement made the fact that we were not really considered Army personnel bearable, although we were required to follow the same rules that the soldiers were held to. But there were no benefits (insurance, pension, military honors, burial in a military cemetery) afforded to the women. Our job was to ferry planes from certain bases to other bases throughout the United States—a job that used to belong to the men. But the soldiers were needed overseas to fight.
In 1940, Nancy Love had the same dream as Jackie Cochran—to assist the army by allowing women pilots to fly planes to locations where needed. Nancy sought to obtain permission from the Army to organize qualified volunteers from all over the United States into pilots who could bear some of the burden of the war. In 1942 her dream became a reality, the same year as Jackie Cochran finally received the authority to found her own group.
A pilot in her own right, Nancy was successful in finding women who would fly (or “ferry”) planes. She formed her women volunteers into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Their sole mission was the successful transporting of planes from base to base as the Army needed.
Jackie Cochran’s vision was to form her recruits into a new segment of the Army, not only flying planes from base to base, but learning everything there was to know about planes and the mechanics behind their performance. Of the nearly nineteen hundred women who applied, close to one thousand women completed Jackie’s demanding requirements, the first of which was that no woman would be considered unless she was already a licensed pilot. This was to our advantage because it meant that we could graduate sooner and get on with the business of why we were there.
Although first based in Houston, Texas, Jackie eventually asked for and received the “go-ahead” to move her training grounds to Avenger Field at Texas Women’s University in Sweetwater, Texas. By then, Nancy Love’s WAFS and Jackie’s WFTD (Women’s Flying Training Detachment) merged to become the world-famous WASPs (Women’s Air Service Pilots). Their mascot? A cartoon rendition of a Wasp named Fifi.
Note: From 1943 until December 20, 1944, the WASPs served the Army’s needs for transporting planes, training new pilots, and participating in “war games” as preparation for men facing the real dangers overseas. Actual flight instruction took place every weekday with weekends free for relaxing, going into town, and other recreational pleasures. Those days were a far cry from pre-WASP days at home. Sweetwater at that time was still mostly desert with very little to offer in the line of entertainment. Everyone learned to relax just being together and getting to know each other better. (Next month: Action In The Air )