Women Airforce Service Pilots

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)
The WASP badge
Elizabeth L. Remba Gardner, Women's Airforce Service Pilots, NARA-542191.jpg
Elizabeth L. Gardner, WASP member, at the controls of a B-26 Marauder
Agency overview
FormedAugust 5, 1943 (1943-08-05)
Preceding agencies
  • Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), formed September 1942
  • Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), formed September 1942
DissolvedDecember 20, 1944
Employees1,830 accepted for training
1,074 completed training
Parent agencyUnited States Army Air Forces

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) (also Women's Army Service Pilots[2] or Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots[3]) was a civilian women pilots' organization, whose members were United States federal civil service employees. Members of WASP became trained pilots who tested aircraft, ferried aircraft and trained other pilots. Their purpose was to free male pilots for combat roles during World War II. Despite various members of the armed forces being involved in the creation of the program, the WASP and its members had no military standing.

WASP was preceded by the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Both were organized separately in September 1942. They were pioneering organizations of civilian women pilots, who were attached to the United States Army Air Forces to fly military aircraft during World War II. On August 5, 1943, the WFTD and WAFS merged to create the WASP organization.

The WASP arrangement with the US Army Air Forces ended on December 20, 1944. During its period of operation, each member's service had freed a male pilot for military combat or other duties. They flew over 60 million miles; transported every type of military aircraft; towed targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice; simulated strafing missions and transported cargo. Thirty-eight WASP members lost their lives and one disappeared while on a ferry mission, her fate still unknown as of 2019.[4] In 1977, for their World War II service, the members were granted veteran status,[5] and in 2009 awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.[6][7]

Creation of the WASP

WASP started out as two separate organizations. Pilot Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran wrote to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 to suggest the idea of using women pilots in non-combat missions.[8][9] Cochran was introduced by Roosevelt to General Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, and to General Robert Olds, who became the head of the Air Transport Command (ATC).[10] Arnold asked her to ferry a bomber to Great Britain in order to generate publicity for the idea of women piloting military aircraft.[8] Cochran did go to England, where she volunteered for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and recruited American women pilots to help fly planes in Europe.[11] Twenty-five women volunteered for the ATA with Cochran.[12] The American women who flew in the ATA were the first American women to fly military aircraft.[11] While in England, Cochran studied the organization of both the ATA and the Royal Air Force (RAF).[13]

In the summer of 1941, Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love independently submitted proposals to the U.S. Army Air Forces to allow women pilots in non-combat missions after the outbreak of World War II in Europe.[14] The plan was to free male pilots for combat roles by using qualified female pilots to ferry aircraft from the factories to military bases, and also to tow drones and aerial targets. The U.S. was building its air power and military presence in anticipation of direct involvement in the conflict, and had belatedly begun to drastically expand its men in uniform. This period led to the dramatic increase in activity for the U.S. Army Air Forces, because of obvious gaps in "manpower" that could be filled by women. To compensate for the manpower demands of the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government encouraged women to enter the workforce to fill both industrial and service jobs supporting the war effort.[15][16]


Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) pilots, March 7, 1943

Nancy Harkness Love's husband, Robert Love, was part of the Army Air Corps Reserve and worked for Colonel William H. Tunner.[16] When Robert Love mentioned that his wife was a pilot, Tunner became interested in whether she knew other women who were pilots.[17] Tunner and Nancy Love met and began to plan an aviation ferrying program involving women pilots.[17] More formally, on June 11, 1942, Colonel Tunner suggested putting women pilots into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).[18] However, there were technical problems with this suggestion, so it was decided to pursue hiring civilian pilots for the ATC instead.[18] By June 18, Love had drafted a plan to send to General Harold L. George who sent the proposal onto General Henry H. Arnold.[18] Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about women working as pilots during the war in her September 1 "My Day" newspaper column, supporting the idea.[19] General George again broached the idea with General Arnold, who finally, on September 5, directed that "immediate action be taken and the recruiting of women pilots begin within twenty-four hours."[20] Nancy Harkness Love was to be the director of the group and she sent out 83 telegrams to prospective women pilots that same day.[20]

The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) went into operation publicly on September 10, 1942.[21][22] Soon, the Air Transport Command began using women to ferry planes from factory to airfields. Love started with 28 women pilots, but they grew in number during the war until there were several squadrons.[23] Requirements for recruits were that they had to be between ages 21 and 35, have a high school diploma, a commercial flying license, 200 horsepower engine rating, five-hundred hours of flight time and experience in flying across the country.[24]

Uniforms for the WAFS were designed by Love and consisted of a gray gabardine jacket with brass buttons and square shoulders.[25] The uniform could be worn with gored skirts or slacks also made of gabardine.[25] Because they had to pay for their own uniforms, only 40 women ever wore the WAFS uniform.[21] All WAFS were issued a flight uniform of khaki flight coveralls, a parachute, goggles, a flying scarf and leather flying jacket sporting the ATC patch.[26] Headquarters for WAFS was at New Castle Army Air Base.[21] Tunner ensured that there were quarters for the women to live in at the base.[27] WAFS worked under a 90 day, renewable contract.[28] WAFS earned $250 a month and had to provide and pay for their own room and board.[29]

The first group of WAFS recruits were known as the Originals.[30] Betty Gillies was the first woman to show up for training.[30] On October 6, Gillies was made an executive officer and second-in-command of the WAFS.[31] Gillies was familiar with drill and command techniques which she had learned at finishing school.[13] The first WAFS assignment was run by Gillies on October 22, 1942.[32] Six WAFS would ferry six L-4B Cubs from the factory to Mitchel Field.[32] The original squadron of 28 was reduced to 27 when Pat Rhonie left on December 31 after disagreeing with Colonel Baker.[33]

The WAFS each had an average of about 1,400 flying hours and a commercial pilot rating. They received 30 days of orientation to learn Army paperwork and to fly by military regulations. Afterward, they were assigned to various ferrying commands.[34] At the beginning of 1943, three new squadrons were formed.[35] The 4th Ferrying Group was in Romulus and commanded by Del Scharr.[35] The 5th Ferrying Group was stationed at Love Field and was under the command of Florene Miller.[35] The 6th Ferrying Group was stationed at Long Beach and commanded by Barbara Jane Erickson.[35]


Cochran returned from England and arrived in the US the day before the announcement of the WAFS.[36] Cochran was angry that Love's proposal had been accepted, while her own had seemingly been ignored.[13] The next day, Cochran flew to Washington, D.C. and confronted General Arnold about her earlier proposal.[37] The WAFS had been formed while General Arnold was out on prolonged medical leave.[13] On September 13, Arnold sent a memo to General George E. Stratemeyer that designated Cochran as the director of "Women's Flying Training."[38] On September 15, 1942, Cochran's training proposal was also adopted, forming the 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).[39] WFTD would be working with the Flight Training Command (FTC).[40] WFTD was conceived of a program to train more women to ferry aircraft.[41] On October 7, General Arnold proposed the goal of training 500 women pilots.[42] By November 3, General Arnold was proposing a "maximum effort to train women pilots."[42]

The Aviation Enterprises at Howard Hughes Field at the Houston Municipal Airport became the base of the WFTD.[43] The first trainees recruited for WFTD, class 43-1, started at Houston Municipal Airport on November 16, 1942.[44] Cochran made Dedie Deaton her staff executive and in charge of finding housing for class 43-1- also known as the "Guinea Pigs."[45][46] Women trained on old planes, many of which bore "visible and invisible scars."[47]

WFTD pilots were issued large khaki coveralls (which the trainees called "zoot suits"), were ordered to wear any shoes they had, and a hairnet on the flight line.[48] The WFTD women were housed in various locations and had to find their own transportation to training.[49] The first deaths occurred when Margaret Oldenburg and her instructor when they were practicing spins on March 7, 1943.[50] Oldenburg had put her plane, a PT-19 open cockpit, into a spin that she could not recover from and the crash killed her and her instructor.[50] Because the WFTD were civilians, there was no money to cover the funeral costs.[50] Cochran paid for the expense out of her own pocket and Deaton escorted Oldenburg's body home.[50] Another crash took place on March 21, 1943, when Cornelia Fort was ferrying a BT-13 with a group of male pilots.[51] One of the pilots, while showing off, flew too close to Fort's plane and his landing gear collided with the wing of her plane, breaking part of it off.[52] The plane went into a nose-dive, killing her.[53]

Cochran pushed aggressively for a single entity to control the activity of all women pilots. Tunner, in particular, objected on the basis of differing qualification standards, and the absolute necessity of the ATC being able to control its own pilots. But Cochran's preeminence with Arnold prevailed, and in July 1943 he ordered the programs merged, with Cochran as director.[11] The WAFS and the WFTD were combined to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).[54] Love continued with the program as executive in charge of WASP ferrying operations. The formal announcement combining WAFS and WFTD took place on August 20, 1943.[55]

WASP adopted a patch in 1943 that featured the female gremlin Fifinella.[1] Fifnella was conceived by Roald Dahl and drawn by Walt Disney, and became the official WASP mascot.[1]