Women in aviation: a legacy of unbridled spirit and marked devotion

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jenny Coker
  • 8th Airflift Squadron
It seems as if every time that I turn around, there is another heritage month in the news, in my e-mails and around the base. So what's so great about Women's History Month? I tend to tune all heritage month information out--I'm just a Heinz 57, All-American mutt. Three generations back, you'd be lucky to find a relative of mine who had a high school education, much less one who could tell me which country or ethnic group I should be embracing.

I can empathize with my own gender. Yet more personally, I identify with my gender in my profession, as I do occasionally run into, not discrimination, but ignorance. Many well meaning people, upon hearing what I do, will incredulously ask, "Do they let women fly in combat zones?" I once had a fifteen minute argument with a foreign customs agent about my profession - even with military orders, he refused to accept being a pilot as a reason for entering the country because I was a woman.

As a result, when I hear Women's History Month what springs to mind is not Frances Perkins or Hellen Keller, but rather the elder sisters of aviation, World War II's Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). These were the first women to fly America's military aircraft--not in combat, but by ferrying the combat airplanes from the factories to military bases or by towing drones and aerial targets.

The foundation of the WASP program was a long process, pushed by Eleanor Roosevelt and many of the famous female pilots of the era. All of the WASPs were, in fact, already licensed pilots. These women received training in Sweetwater, Texas for up to four months to learn military flight, and the rules and regulations of the Army Air Forces. Over 1,000 women earned their wings and went on to deliver 12,650 aircraft, which accounted for over 50 percent of the ferrying that took place during World War II.

WASPs, similar to the original Flying Tigers, were civil service employees and did not receive military benefits. The 38 women who lost their lives during the war were not allowed any military honors or even a U.S. flag on their coffin. The WASPs were disbanded in 1944 after the bill for their militarization under the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp failed. Additionally, for the next 35 years all their records were classified and sealed. In 1977, however, the records were unsealed and the U.S. Congress finally granted the WASPs military status. Seven years later, the pilots were also awarded long overdue World War II Victory Medals as well as American Campaign Medals. On July 1, 2009 the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

These women were the beginning of a long line of female pilots in the Air Force. Their track record highlights the great courage and service of women pilots--one that persists today as women continue to succeed at flying combat aircraft and missions. So in this month, let us remember these great women pioneers. And I, for one, will raise a toast to their achievements.