Beyond Amelia Earhart: Women Pilots of WWII

by | Oct 14, 2019

Fly Girls: The Daring American Women Pilots Who Helped Win WWII, by P. O’Connell Pearson, is a fascinating and compelling account of the many female pilots who supported the war effort. Especially for those of us who think Amelia Earhart was the one and only female pilot of the early 20th century, Fly Girls helps readers realize just how many skilled, ambitious women aviators there were at that time.

This book underscores my belief in the power of biography, more specifically stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My point being, if you know of only one or two female pilots it makes it seem like a rare skill and achievement. Earhart was not, in fact, a rare orchid in the hothouse of male pilots, she was merely the famous one.

In 1929, eight years before Earhart’s final flight, the Ninety-Nine club was established for female pilots. It was named for its 99 founding members. Think of that! Ninety-nine women who knew how to fly, and yet all we typically read about is Amelia Earhart and, sometimes, Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot.

Meanwhile, in the late 1930s as war raged in Europe, several highly accomplished female pilots urged the U.S. government to allow women to fly military planes on non-combat missions, freeing men to enter combat. They met with enormous resistance until December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. declared war.

Soon the WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots, were formed. They ferried planes where they needed to go, towed targets in the air while soldiers fired live ammunition at them, served as test pilots and flight instructors.

As often happens, the women pilots did the same work as the men but did not get the same credit or compensation that their male counterparts received. They were not considered military and so they had to pay for their own transportation, lodging and food. They had no uniforms. Their families could not put a blue star banner in their window as an indication that they had a family member helping the war effort. They couldn’t put a gold star banner if their daughter died in the course of her duties. Thirty-eight WASPs died in the line of duty. These women also were denied access to veterans’ benefits, like college education, funds to buy a home or access to medical care. One happy note: in 1977 (more than 30 years later) the WASPs were given military status.

Nevertheless, these women aviators took every assignment given to them, even when it meant flying old, broken down planes, or, not surprisingly, putting up with harassment, danger and even sabotage. In several cases, according to Pearson, male pilots hesitated to fly certain planes. But the Wasps never said no to an assignment and, in each case, once they showed they could fly a given plane, the male pilots were essentially shamed into flying these planes also.

In the case of the B-29, the biggest four-engine bomber in production (which had a reputation of being temperamental) two female Wasp volunteers learned to fly the behemoth smoothly. Even when an engine caught on fire during their flight check, the Wasps successfully landed the plane.  The inspector said he’d “never seen anyone do it better” and happily certified the pilots to fly the B-29s.

The Air Force then gave the two pilots, Dora Dougherty and Didi Johnson, a B-29 to fly around New Mexico to demonstrate the plane was “so easy a girl can fly it.”

As Dougherty later wrote, “The male flight crews, their egos challenged, approached the B-29 with new enthusiasm and found it to be not a beast, but a smooth, delicately rigged, and responsive ship.”

Still, after a few months, the women were ordered to stop by the top brass. Although more B-29 certified pilots were needed, the upper level of the Air Staff were afraid Dougherty and Johnson were hurting the male pilots’ egos with their demonstrations.

By the way, Dougherty has an Illinois connection; after the WASPs were disbanded, she came to the University of Illinois as a flight instructor.

Another familiar refrain in Pearson’s story is the assumption by men that women didn’t have the skill or the stamina to fly these fighter planes. Time after time the women proved them wrong.

One of my favorite stories is when more than 20 PT-17s had to be flown from Montana to Tennessee. The team assigned included six women. Although they all took off from Montana at the same time, they each flew their own route, stopping for refueling and spending the night independent of one another. The first six planes to arrive were the ones piloted by women. Two days later, only two other planes had landed. Of the 14 planes piloted by men, some had gotten lost and thus delayed, two had been damaged, and others had, apparently, taken detours to visit family or girlfriends.

In the course of telling these women’s stories, Pearson does a great job of giving an overview of WWII. Fly Girls is a great introduction for young readers not familiar with that history.

But the thing I love best about Fly Girls is that it reminds readers that you don’t have to be famous to do extraordinary things. That’s a message we can all stand to hear.

Alexandra the Great book cover

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