Female Pilots From The ’40s Finally Get Recognition

During World War II, when the United States faced a pilot shortage, more than 1,100 women filled the gap. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served as civilian volunteers from 1942 to 1944, flying new planes from factories to military bases, testing planes, and towing targets to give gunners training (they flew planes with a moving target attached so military men could practice their shooting skills — yikes).

At first, people weren’t sure whether they could handle flying military aircraft. But at the final WASP graduation ceremony, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, acknowledged the lady pilots’ abilities, saying, “Now, in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.” WASP didn’t have it easy. The military wouldn’t train them from scratch, so women who wanted to join had to go through pilot training on their own dime before being accepted into the program. And, despite their service, WASP weren’t granted military status until the 1970s. Because the women weren’t technically members of the Air Force, the government wasn’t required to pay for their funerals or the cost of transporting their bodies home if they died serving their country. Instead, fellow pilots often pitched in to cover these costs.

When the program was discontinued, the WASP were released from duty with no ceremony, and some of these female pilots became flight attendants for commercial airlines since no one would hire them to fly in those days. But tomorrow, these women will get long overdue recognition when President Obama will award the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal. [NPR, WhiteHouse.gov]

Celebrate National Women’s History Month on The Frisky! We’ll be highlighting cool, inspiring ladies and talking about the ways women have gotten ahead over the years.