Unsung Heroines of the Sky

woman pilot

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Did you know there are unsung heroines of the sky? It is bad enough to be unacknowledged as a mother, housewife or wife, but being unrecognized for risking one’s life for one’s country takes ingratitude to a higher level. And that higher level was the skies during World War II.

The WASPS or War Airforce Service Pilots of WWII delivered planes all over besieged Britain and beyond so men could be released for combat duty. They were volunteers and pioneers from the magnificent home-front that women manned during the five years of conflict. They would become unsung heroines of the sky.

The women pilots filled the shortages of trained pilots that became worse as the war progressed. The average lifetime of a male pilot was not long, as the battles became more ferocious. It was only in 1977 that these women were finally recognized as the unsung heroines of the sky, that they indeed were.

Women Pilots Enter Male Arena

A few of the WASPs were already pilots when the conflict broke out in 1939. Like famous Amelia Earhart, they loved to fly, defying the gender divide as their spirits along with their planes soared in the skies. Jaqueline Cochrane was such a woman. She was American and had watched the war escalate in Europe before America entered the conflict.

Aware of the contributions of women in munition factories, on the land and in the armed forces, Jaqueline saw no reason why women could not offer help in the battles above the trenches. Women did not have to enter the battles themselves, but could free up valuable pilots by ferrying planes from factories to military bases and departure points.

Formation of WASP

Jaqueline Cochrane sourced qualified American pilots to go to Britain and help in this way. A year later she did the same to support the American effort when the USA joined the conflict. Another American woman, Nancy Love along with her husband flew planes to Canada for shipment to France. Nancy was a very experienced flyer, having started in 1930 when just 16 years old. She had flown in an Amelia Earhart trophy race and worked for aviation companies in testing equipment.

In 1943 these two women merged their talents and squadrons to form the civilian WASP. In the next year, a critical one for the war, over a thousand women ferried planes and people all over the conflict zones. Many of the young women recruited, had never flown before.

They were given rudimentary instructions on one aircraft, then were expected to fly whatever plane was presented. To enable this, they were given notes on the dashboard differences and without any practice runs, they took off and learnt in the air. One passenger complained the woman pilot was reading a book as she flew, not realizing it was the instruction manual.

Heroine, Cornelia Fort

One American pilot, Cornelia Fort, was training another woman, when a Japanese aircraft whizzed by from the direction of Pearl Harbour. Cornelia had been one of the few aerial eyewitnesses of this attack that catapulted the US into the war. She was also the first female pilot to die in service to her country. She was just 24 years old.

Thirty-eight women pilots in total died in planes during the WASP program. Their deaths were not due to incompetence, but airplane defects, attack and collisions. The standard issue parachutes were too large for the women. They fell through them to their deaths, as unsung heroines of the skies. The military refused to pay for the funerals, or drape their coffins with a flag. Other pilots usually chipped in for that and provided a flag.

Unsung Heroines

The unsung heroines who had delivered such a great service expected to become part of the military, but they were dismissed due to their gender. The armed forces were happy to involve women when they needed help, but not prepared to give them peacetime work.

Such are women’s limitations. Men who had trained the male pilots during the war lobbied for the women’s positions and succeeded. It was back to the kitchen for the girls now the men needed jobs. Some women however did score pilot jobs but for minor airlines. Others, missing the skies, opted to be air stewardesses.

They kept in touch through reunions, but never forgot their time in the skies in a man’s world.

It was not until 1976, that the American air force admitted women and they made the announcement of their generosity, but ignoring the existence and achievements of the volunteer WASP women.

It took 65 years for the WASP women, the unsung heroines of the sky, to gain the accolades they deserved. President Obama awarded them a Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

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Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.


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