Women of the Sky: Early Female Aviators

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter W. Napier III
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

This year, in celebration of Women’s History Month, the historian’s office wanted to highlight a few of the courageous women who broke down barriers during World War II.  Many Americans are familiar with the epic picture of Rosie the Riveter, building ships, aircraft, and other machines of war for the pilots, sailors, and soldiers on the front line.  Less are familiar with the Women Airforce Service Pilots/Women’s Army Service Pilots/Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP), who were trained female pilots that tested and transported aircraft from the American factories to forward military bases.  Even fewer are aware of the Nachthexen or Night Witches, female bombers from the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. 

Women remained barred from combat specialties in the United States military until 2015, yet during World War II many of these barriers had been proven to be unnecessary and artificial.  In 1939, with war on the horizon, Jackie Cochran, a civilian aviator, wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting the use of female pilots.  In 1941, she would make a proposal, along with Nancy Harkness Love, for female aviators to be permitted to conduct non-combat flight missions.  They presented this proposal as a way to ensure more male pilots would be free for combat duty, but they also recognized the golden opportunity to present the capabilities of female pilots. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States government pushed women to take up industrial jobs so that men could enter the military, but it took until September of 1942 before the military brass finally broke down and allowed women to fly military aircraft.  On September 5, General Hap Arnold directed that women should commence being recruited the following day.  Love was appointed director, and after General Arnold’s directive she began contacting female pilots immediately.  The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) officially began on September 10, 1942 with 28 women.  The Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) also began around this time until the groups were consolidated into the WASP grouping in 1943.

WASP recruits had to be at least five foot, two inches, between 21 and 35 years of age, in good health, have a pilot’s license and 35 hours of flight time.  Female volunteers came out in force, with 25,000 applications and netting nearly 2000 accepted volunteers.  The women who were accepted would then be put through a rigorous training regimen and taught to fly according to military standards.  The training caused almost 50% of the volunteers to wash out.  The select few who made it through training would become the first women to fly US military aircraft.  During World War II, WASP pilots conducted 80% of all ferrying missions, delivered over 12,000 aircraft, and flew every aircraft in the US arsenal.  Despite their dedication and skill, the WASP group was disbanded in 1944 and the women were not given military status. 

On the other side of the world, the desperate position of the Soviet Union meant that any available fighter, man or woman, would be put in the fight.  There are numerous stories about Russian women fighting in the infantry against the Nazi forces, and their female snipers are legendary.  In these desperate times, Major Marina Raskova petitioned Joseph Stalin to allow her to form female combat units.  In 1941, the first three female squadrons were developed and began flying bombing missions against German targets in 1942.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew the Polikarpov U-2 biplane.  The aircraft had a wood design, and was mainly used for crop dusting.  The women were not welcomed by their military comrades, and the aircraft was a great example of how they felt about women pushing into aviation.  The old 1928 aircraft proved resourceful, however, for the very reason that it was outdated.  The U-2 could fly slower than the more powerful German planes, and had great maneuverability causing issues for the Luftwaffe pilots who opposed them.  The small aircraft meant that bomb capacity was very low, creating the need for multiple sorties a night.  While this meant greater exposure, it also gave the pilots extensive experience.  When the pilots would conduct a bombing run, they would idle their engines and the only noise would be the wind against their wooden aircraft.  The sound reminded the Germans of broomsticks flying through the night sky, earning the unit their famous nickname: the Night Witches.

From US factories to the Eastern front, female aviators proved their capabilities in and out of combat during World War II.  It took decades, however, for their hard work to be recognized. The WASP veterans would not be recognized as a military organization until 1977, when Jimmy Carter finally signed a bill into law giving WASP veteran’s credit as active duty personnel and providing them access to veteran benefits.  That same year the Air Force’s first class of female pilots to graduated.  The 514th Air Mobility Wing is proud that the first female Reserve pilot, Colonel (R.) Kathy Rambo Cossand, is a Freedom Wing alumni.  Even as a pilot, however, Colonel Cossand recalls that she had to sneak on to her first real world mission. 

In order to insure a more diverse and inclusive Air Force, Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to look back and recognize the dedicated, often underappreciated--service of women in the military.  Their selfless service established pathways for today’s recruits, allowing women far more opportunities for military service.  As General Arnold said, he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.  Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

Further Reading and Sources