When the United States entered World War II, the country was faced with a shortage of pilots. Nearly simultaneously, two efforts were organized to recruit women pilots to overcome this shortage and to free male pilots for combat duty. The United States Army Air Forces directed aviator Nancy Harkness Love to recruit women to ferry planes for the Air Transport Command. In September 1942 her group was commissioned as the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and was stationed at the New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Shortly thereafter aviator Jacqueline Cochran was appointed director of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, independent of Love's WAFS, by Gen. Henry H. Arnold, chief of the AAF. Cochran had just returned from Great Britain where, at the request of the British government, she had brought twenty-five women pilots to ferry aircraft for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. This was the first organized group of American women pilots to serve in the war. In 1940 and 1941 Love and Cochran had separately proposed to the United States military that American women pilots be sought, but their plans were not approved because there were more male pilots than airplanes. General Arnold had also expressed his doubts at that time about the ability of women to pilot large aircraft. The first class of Cochran's 319th WFTD, called the "guinea pigs," began training at the Municipal Airport in Houston in November 1942, one month after the WAFS was formed. The airport did not have housing for the trainees, and the establishment officer, Leoti Deaton, had difficulty finding accommodations in Houston because of wartime shortages. The women were housed in motels and private homes and were picked up each morning and driven to the airport in trailer trucks. For the first few weeks facilities at the field were primitive. Since there was not a place to change clothes, the trainees flew, attended ground school, drilled, and marched to and from the mess hall in the same pair of GI coveralls, called "zoot suits." When better quarters became available, the women were moved to Avenger Field (see SWEETWATER ARMY AIR FIELD) at Sweetwater, Texas, in early 1943. They were required to pay their own way there and the return fare if they washed out; they also had to pay for their room and board. In August of 1943 the WFTDs and the WAFS were merged into one command called the Women Airforce Service Pilots, with Cochran as the director. While Cochran attempted to recruit women from all geographic areas of the United States, she felt unable to accept the black pilots who applied, believing that their presence would endanger the stability of the innovative and not altogether popular program. The WASPs were treated as much as possible like male cadets. They marched wherever they went and lived in barracks. They received approximately 210 hours of flying time, about equally divided between PT-17s, BT-13s and AT-6s. Approximately 285 hours were devoted to ground school instruction. The training period lasted seven months. Graduates of Avenger Field went on to flying assignments throughout the United States. They ferried 12,650 planes of seventy-seven different types, including B-17s. Fifty percent of the fighters manufactured were ferried by WASPs. After proving themselves as ferry pilots, they towed targets, flew tracking, smoke-laying, searchlight, strafing, and simulated bombing missions, gave instrument instruction, and tested damaged airplanes, a dangerous task. The WASP program began on a civilian basis because it was an experiment. While the women fliers functioned in the military, they lived under civilian law. They did not receive government insurance, and hospitalization for sickness or illness was difficult to work out. In 1944 a bill proposing militarization of the WASPs was defeated in Congress, largely as a result of lobbying by male civilian pilots. By late 1944 the war in Europe was almost over, and there was a surplus of pilots. On December 20 the AAF determined there was no longer a need for the WASPs, and the program was discontinued. The program began as an experiment to see if women could handle the duties of military pilots and to release males for combat. Twenty-five thousand women applied to be WASPs, 1,830 were accepted, 1,074 graduated, and thirty-eight gave their lives serving their country. They flew sixty million miles for the AAF and received high praises from their commanders. In 1977, nearly thirty-five years after their deactivation, the United States government gave the WASPs honorable discharges and veterans' benefits.
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Jacqueline Cochran, The Stars at Noon (Boston: Little, Brown 1954). Sally V. W. Keil, Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines: The Unknown Heroines of World War II (New York: Rawson, Wade, 1979). Life, July 19, 1943. Anne Noggle, For God, Country, and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Women Airforce Service Pilots,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
September 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: