In 1939, on the day after Germany's tanks rolled into Warsaw, pilot Jacqueline Cochran sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging the use of women pilots in the armed forces. In May 1940, another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love wrote the Ferry Division of the Army Air Force with a similar idea, but the Army was not ready to put women in the cockpit of planes.

The demand for male combat pilots and warplanes left the Air Transport Command with a shortage of experienced pilots to ferry planes from factory to a point of embarkation. The leaders remembered Love's proposal and hired her to recruit twenty-five of the most qualified women pilots in the country to ferry military aircraft. These outstanding women pilots were called the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron
( WAFS).

WAFS Nancy Love (center) Gertrude Tubbs (left) and Adela Scharr (right) studying for ferrying operations. Photo [Special Collections, Texas Women's University]

By September 14, 1942, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, also approved a program that would train a large group of women to serve as ferrying pilots. The training school was placed under the direction of Cochran. The program was called the Army Air Force Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).

On August 5, 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were merged and were redesignated the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Cochran was appointed Director, and Love was named WASP executive with the ATC Ferrying Division

Love and the WAFS first gathered as a squadron at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Although the WAFS were required to have 500 hours of flying time, those that arrived averaged more than 1000 hours. The pilots were checked out and trained for just a few weeks before they were assigned to their posts.

These are some of the first American women to fly military aircraft. They came from diverse backgrounds, from all over the country, but they all had a desire to fly and to help their country in a time of need. [Gene (Shaffer) FitzPatrick]

While the WAFS were beginning their ferrying duties, Cochran began organizing the WFTD and recruiting classes of women pilots. The training involved six months of ground school and flight training. The first three classes trained in Houston, Texas at the Municipal Airport. Bad weather and crowded skies led Cochran to move the program to Avenger field in Sweetwater, Texas.

WASPs were trained in the military way - and that meant strenuous calisthenics every day. [Jeanne Robertson]

The WAFS and the first classes that joined the Air Transport Command out of the Houston and Sweetwater training programs ferried planes from factory to point of embarkation.

Eventually, the Air Transport Command complained that it could not take all the pilots graduating from Avenger Field. Cochran announced to all the air bases that she would accept any job (she called them "dishwashing jobs") which the WASP could do and thus relieve additional males for combat duty. Besides flying all the airplanes in the Army's arsenal, WASP taught flight instruction, flight testing, flew radio-controlled planes and anti-aircraft tow targets.

In 1944, just as the bill to militarize the WASP went before Congress, the need for pilots lessened. The decision was made to deactivate the WASP in December 1944. General Arnold would record that "in any future total effort, the nation can count on thousands of its young women to fly any of its aircraft."

WASPs Elizabeth (MacKethan) Magid (Class 44-W-2), Mildred AMilly@ Davidson (Class 44-W-4), Eloise Huffhines (Class 44-W-4), and Clara Jo (Marsh) Stember (Class 44-W-3) on the tail of a B-29 Superfortress at Maxwell Army Air Base, Alabama. These girls were co-pilots on B-24 Liberators. They flew slow-time and engineering-test missions. Only Dorothea (Johnson) Moorman (Class 43-W-4) and Dora (Dougherty) Strother (Class 43-W-3) got to check out in the B-29 Superfortress. [Special Collections, Texas Woman's University]

The amazing experiment using women pilots during wartime almost seemed destined to be forgotten. Then, in the mid 1970s, the Navy announced to the media that, for the first time in history, women would be permitted to fly government planes. The announcement reverberated among the former WASP, and like nothing else, mobilized them to seek recognition.

Women Learning to Be Army Pilots,
To Relieve Men in Ferry Command

Hundreds Now in Training in West Texas Would Be
'Nastiest Fighters' If That Were the Aim, Says Director

New York Times,
Wednesday, April 28, 1943

SWEETWATER, Texas, April 27 -- Women fliers by the hundreds are threading the sky of West Texas in the Army's new program to prepare them for air service. There will be thousands of women in this program which the Army is supervising for the first time.

The Flying Training Command which from its headquarters at Fort Worth administers the schooling of all bombardiers, navigators and aerial gunners for the Army Air Forces is in charge of the women's training.

The program started almost from scratch. Miss Jacqueline Cochran, its director, surveyed the women pilot potentiality in this country in 1940, and found only four women who had flown planes of 600 horsepower and more. With that to build on, students were recruited and their training begun. . . .

Their duty will be to ferry planes from factory to field and from field to field, to any point in the country designated by the Army. Men pilots will thus be released for other service.

From thirty States, the girls include former office workers, outdoor girls, small town girls and big city girls and girls who used to live an easy life. Avenger Field is like nothing they ever knew before. . . .

"Gentler treatment" is about the only difference in the instruction of women students, says Major L. E. McConnell, Army supervisor at the field.

Could they, if necessary, man fighting and bombing planes on active duty in the war theatre?

"Yes," is Major McConnell's reply.

WAFS Barbara Jane (Erickson) London and Evelyn Sharp. London prepares to take off in the P-51 Mustang - the Army Air Forces' hottest fighter plane. Sharp wears the gabardine WAFS uniform. The WAFS were disappointed when they had to exchange their uniform for the Santiago Blues worn by the WASPs. [USAF; USAF neg. No. K-621]