With time running out, Women Airforce Service Pilots, ace pilots and swell dames, may finally get their due.
Thanks to Night at the Museum 2, Amelia Earhart is apparently having a moment. Which is great. But even nicer than Amy Adams playing the great aviator is the possibility of some actual living pilots getting their due. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, founded in 1942, was designed to create a corps of female civilian pilots who could take over home front flying jobs while male fliers served overseas. Although many of them flew military aircraft - the first women in American history to do so - they were not considered part of the army, and are only now being considered for the highest civilian honor, the the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill is being pushed by Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski, and as in many such cases, it's a race against time: there are fewer than 300 surviving WASPs, all in their late 80s if not older.
The program was started largely at the urging of prominent pilot Jacqueline Cochran, who argued that women were more than capable of doing a civilian pilot's work with proper training. Standards were rigorous: of the 25,000 women who applied, only 1,830 were accepted, and of these about seven hundred dropped out of the arduous training course. Among other things, all pilots had to be over 21 and at least 5' 1/2" tall in order to man a cockpit. If they did make the grade the pilots were forced to pay their own way to the 21-27 week training camp, and were given only $250 a month. They flew everything from bombers to test planes, and their jobs ranged from helping with aircraft training to testing repaired planes, working as flying instructors, and transporting flyers and cargo - in short, all the work of a military pilot, with the risks to match: thirty-eight pilots died in the line of duty - at which time, their families were responsible for the transport of their bodies.
The women were summarily dismissed after the war without so much as a thank-you or any reorientation help, and did not receive veterans' benefits until 1977 (women had been accepted into the Air Force three years previously.) The attitude of many of the pilots was, however matter-of-fact; says one 89-year-old WASP, "We were proud of what we did, and the war was over. It was time to get on." Most of them speak of how pleased they are to serve as role models, and must be gratified at the growing number of female pilots. However, Deanie Parrish, who, with daughter Nancy, maintains the Wings Across America WASP website, is pleased to have received one form of official recognition; it always troubled her that those WASPs killed while on the job didn't qualify for the honors of a military funeral. Says she, "I didn't care for veteran status, but now I could have a flag on my coffin ... that is important to me."
Unsung Heroes Of World War II Finally Get Their Due [CNN]
Wings Across America
Amelia Earhart's Soaring Spirit [LA Times]
Congressional Gold Medal for My Hero! [Everyday Citizen via Daily Kos]
Ask the Pilot [Salon]
Alumna Leads Charge To Honor WWII's Female Pilots [Baylor]