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WASPs: the women who flew ahead of their time

Imagine this: It is the 1940s. You’re an American, serving the US military during World War II. You’re a trained pilot and your job is to fly military planes from factories to air bases around the country. You also test these planes, a dangerous job that has caused the death of many colleagues. But it’s necessary for the war effort as the country faces a shortage of pilots. The catch? You’re a woman.

Rosie the Riveter was not the only working woman. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), also known as “Avenger Girls,” served the military during World War II from within the US. Over a thousand women served, but they did not receive official military status until almost 30 years later. 

The WASPs were an elite task force, only accepting 1,879 out of the 25,000 women who applied. By the end of the training, only 1,074 graduated with silver wings. This program, led by Nancy Harkness Love and Jacqueline Cochran, was made of two groups: the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment.

The primary role of the WASPs was to ferry planes across the country. But these planes were often refurbished, badly maintained, or simply broken, making these trips risky and dangerous. In an interview with historian Katherine Landdeck, ferrying pilot Teresa James described one of her “short trips” as full of bad weather, snakes, and scorpions. And yet, by the end of the war, the WASPs ferried over 12,000 planes, flying all 77 US Army Air Force planes, and logging over 60 million miles. They also conducted flight tests, screening out which planes could not be sent overseas. Over the course of the program, 38 women died.

Despite their service, there was no attempt to accommodate the women in any way. As they were not officially militarized, the women had to pay for their own colleagues’ funerals out of pocket and provide their own flying gear. When Margaret Phelan Taylor’s plane started smoking mid-trip, she was forced to keep flying—aware that she had no exit as the plane’s parachutes were too large for women. One woman, Dorothy Britt, had to use pillows in order to prop herself up and reach the pedals. But the hardest blow was when Cochran’s push for militarization was denied in 1944. Eventually, the program was disbanded due to fear that the WASPs would take jobs from returning male pilots. 

According to Landdeck in an NPR interview, “It was a very controversial time for women flying aircraft. […] It was unacceptable to have women replacing men. They could release men for duty — that was patriotic — but they couldn’t replace men.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the US Air Force began accepting women as pilots again. The US military, forgetting the WASPs, claimed that it would be the first time women would be flying aircraft for the military. But the women were ready to call them out and remind the country who they were.

By the end of the 1970s, the WASPs were finally granted veteran status. However, they faced pushback from Veterans Affairs Chief Benefits Director Dorothy Starbuck and were unceremoniously ignored by the military and media. It wasn’t until 2009 that the women of the WASPs were invited to Washington D.C. and awarded Congressional Gold Medals by President Barack Obama. Sadly, 65 years after disbandment, less than 300 women were still alive to receive the award themselves.

Still, the most enduring part of the WASP legacy is the horizon they cleared for women after. Years after the war, Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier. In fact, NASA’s first female pilot Eileen Collins referred to the WASPs as her inspiration. As of 2019, over 65,000 women serve in the US Air Force as pilots. The women’s long fight for recognition reclaims the history of the original fly girls and reminds us that there has long been a place for women in the skies.  

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