Academic journal article Film & History

Fly Girls: The WWII Women's Airforce Service Pilots

Academic journal article Film & History

Fly Girls: The WWII Women's Airforce Service Pilots

Article excerpt

Fly Girls: The WWII Women's Airforce Service Pilots (1999)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Laurel Ladevich

Silverlining Productions for WGBH and the American Experience

56 minutes


During World War Two, the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) ferried military aircraft around the U.S., trained male pilots, towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice, and flight-tested aircraft. More than a thousand women flew for the WASP, and thirty-eight died while doing so. Yet they had civilian--not military--status, and their contributions and sacrifices were long obscured from public memory. The documentary film Fly Girls, which appeared on PBS television in 1999, lifts some of that obscurity. Woven together with the story of Jacqueline Cochran's struggle to form and command the WASP are personal experiences related by six of its surviving veterans. Cochran, the one-time beautician who had reinvented herself as a world class racing pilot, was able to establish rapport with General H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces. Arnold ordered a competing plane ferrying service to merge with Cochran's group and train at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Following successful graduation at "Cochran's Convent," as the airfield became commonly known (she soon forbade "emergency" landings at the all-woman base by male pilots), the women received their silver wings and were assigned to various Army Air Corps bases. The WASP pilots put in long hours in the air, often not knowing when or where a particular task would end. Once, expecting a one-day trip, Teresa James recounts that she was gone for a month without a change of clothing.

Male pilots were often hostile to their female counterparts, and men sometimes would not ground planes that needed maintenance if they knew that women would be flying them. Investigating a series of engine failures and two fatalities at Camp Davis, North Carolina, Jackie Cochran discovered sugar in one fuel tank. But she declined to force an official investigation because she feared it would threaten her program. And there were accidents. One woman burned to death in a crash landing. Cornelia Fort was killed when a male pilot accidentally clipped the wing of her aircraft. Often, antiaircraft fire came dangerously close to--or actually hit--planes in which the women were towing targets, resulting in one fatality.

Of the WASP veterans who spoke on camera, Ann Baumgartner perhaps pushed the envelope furthest. She served as a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, flying the first U.S. experimental jet fighter--the Bell WP59A--in 1943. Another, Dora Daugherty, learned to fly the B-29 Superfortress bomber and then trained men to operate the aircraft. At the time, the B-29 had a bad reputation for safety among bomber pilots, many of whom feared flying it. On her first training flight in a B-29, Daugherty had taken control of the plane from her instructor, Paul Tibbetts (who would command the Enola Gay and drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima), when she was confronted with the loss of one engine and smoke in the cockpit. …

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