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Flashback: Women in the Air

PHOTO: WASP Shirley Slade

January 4, 1944: The numbers are in, and the women who pilot military aircraft have now proven themselves to have a better safety record than the men. According to a report issued by the War Department today, the fatality rate for Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) is .05 per 1,000 flying hours, compared to .07 for Army Air Forces pilots flying in the continental U.S.

These 900 women pilots are now flying almost 5 million miles a month, and have flown a total of over 30 million miles. Originally a very small group, limited to ferrying light planes from factories to air fields, they are now flying every type of plane used in the U.S. and Canada, including the biggest bombers. In addition, they do risky target-towing duty, as well as act as couriers, and do tracking, testing and experimental work on our newest, fastest and most sophisticated aircraft.

The idea for the WASPs originated even before the U.S. entered the war. Jacqueline Cochran sent a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt the day after the fall of Warsaw in September, 1939, suggesting a corps of women flyers, and Nancy Harkness Love wrote the Ferry Division of the Army Air Forces with a similar proposal in May, 1940. General "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, failed to see the need for such a unit while this country was still at peace, so Cochran went to England to fly for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, where she got the chance to ferry top-of-the-line British military aircraft. Though not able to engage in combat missions, doing any flying over England in a military aircraft after the outbreak of war would have to be considered flying under potential combat conditions.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the idea of a corps of women pilots that General Arnold once thought unnecessary got his enthusiastic approval, and the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron was created in September, 1942, headed by Nancy Harkness Love. A few days later, the Women's Flying Training Detachment was launched with Jacqueline Cochran in charge. In July of 1943, Arnold ordered the two programs merged, with Cochran as director of the new group, to be called the Women Airforce Service Pilots beginning on August 5th.

Despite the military work they perform, WASPs are considered civil service employees, and not a part of the military. But a bill to give them full military status and benefits was introduced into the House of Representatives on September 30th. At present, they are denied military insurance coverage, hospitalization benefits, and when their lives are lost in the line of duty, their friends and families must come up with private funds to ship their caskets home, and then pay all funeral costs.

These brave and patriotic women are doing every job they are legally allowed to do to help the country's war effort, and many have already made the ultimate sacrifice in the course of doing their duty. The very least the country should do in return is to recognize the military nature of their work by granting them full military status and benefits as soon as possible, so the bill introduced by Representative John Costello, Democrat of California, deserves our strong support.