In 1942, the United States was faced with a severe shortage of pilots, and leaders gambled on an experimental program to help fill the void: Train women to fly military aircraft so male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.

“Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” Arnold said.

A few more than 1,100 young women, all civilian volunteers, flew almost every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers — as part of the WASP program. They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition. The WASP expected to become part of the military during their service. Instead, the program was canceled after just two years.

Women With Moxie

Margaret Phelan Taylor grew up on a farm in Iowa. She was 19, had just completed two years of college and was ready for adventure in 1943 when a Life magazine cover story on the female pilots caught her eye. Her brother was training to be a pilot with the Army. Why not her? She asked her father to lend her money for a pilot’s license — $500, a huge amount then.

“I told him I had to do it,” Taylor says. “And so he let me have the money. I don’t think I ever did pay it back to him either.”

But there was a problem. She was half an inch shorter than the 5-foot-2-inch requirement.

“I just stood on my tiptoes,” she says. When she arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASP were trained, “Well, there were a lot of other short ones just like me, and we laughed about how we got in.”

Short, tall, slim, wide, they all came in knowing how to fly. The military trained male pilots from scratch, but not the female civilian volunteers.

“They didn’t want to bring in a bunch of girls who didn’t know how to fly an airplane,” says Katherine Sharp Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, who’s writing a book about the WASP, tentatively called Against Prevailing Winds: The Women Airforce Service Pilots and American Society. “So you have women who are getting out of high school and taking every dime they had to learn how to fly so they could be a WASP.”,

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