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Program Description

Fly Girls
(60 minutes)
program image In the midst of World War II, the call went out: women with flight experience were needed to fly for the military. All over the country, young women postponed their weddings, put their educations on hold, and quit their jobs to respond. From 1942 to 1944, more than 1,000 women were trained to ferry aircraft, test planes, instruct male pilots, even tow targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice. Despite serving with grit and determination, women pilots often encountered disbelief and resentment. Thirty-eight would give their lives.

THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Fly Girls, the largely unknown story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The show features a remarkable group of former WASPs who recall the planes they flew, the challenges they met, and the pride they felt in playing a role in the American war effort. As women's place in the US military continues to evolve -- including conducting bombing missions for the first time during the recent Desert Fox campaign -- the story of these female pioneers is more relevant than ever.

The idea for a women's pilot corps came from Jacqueline Cochran, America's foremost female aviator and an ambitious businesswoman with her own cosmetics company. Raised in poverty in Florida, Cochran made her way to New York, where she married a Wall Street tycoon and developed a passion for racing airplanes. By 1941, Cochran held seventeen world records. That year, she became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. After recruiting twenty-four American women to fly for the British Air Transport, Cochran convinced Hap Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, to start an American training program.

Lured by the opportunity to fly for their country, 25,000 women applied. "We have no hopes of replacing men pilots," Cornelia Fort wrote. "But we can each release a man to combat, to faster ships, to overseas work."

The 1,830 who were accepted received pilot training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas -- the only all-female Air Force base in history, which became known as "Cochran's Convent." They received the same training as men pilots, then moved on to ferry aircraft from factories and airfields to points of embarkation. Teresa James left her base one morning on a routine ferry trip that was to return her home the same day. She returned 17,000 miles, six airplanes, and thirty days later. "We did the same thing that any other ferry command guy would have done," says Barbara Erickson London. "In the Ferry Command you had to fly whatever was out there and had to be moved, so we did get a terrific variety."

As the program proved successful, WASP assignments expanded beyond ferrying. Ann Baumgartner Carl was the only female test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, flying alongside the Air Force's finest. In 1943, she became the first woman to pilot the new jet fighter, the Bell YP-59A.

Women pilots were also used to encourage men to fly airplanes with dangerous reputations. Colonel Paul Tibbetts, who later piloted the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, trained Dora Dougherty Strother and Dorothea Johnson Moorman to fly the B-29, the largest long-range bomber ever built. Male pilots were reluctant to fly the plane after Boeing's top pilot was killed testing it. "I really didn't think I was big enough to fly a four-engine airplane," says Strother. "I was five-foot-five. I didn't think I had a four-engine hand." After training the women, Tibbets sent them to heavy-bomber bases to demonstrate that the plane was safe to fly. "They took the B-29 out of the doldrums," says Tibbetts. "They dispelled the myth about the airplane failing if you lost an engine."

Through their ability and courage, the women won over many skeptics. But WASPs did not have military status. When a WASP died, her family received no benefits, no flag, no gold star to hang in the window. The government made no provision for returning the body back home because the women had no official military status. The other women pilots would contribute money for transportation and burial.

Some began to fear sabotage. After one fatal crash involving a WASP, Jackie Cochran investigated personally. She later claimed to have found sugar in the downed plane's gas tank. But fearing an adverse reaction to her program, Cochran decided not to launch an official inquiry.

In 1944, as the European war drew to a close and male pilots began returning from combat, the adverse reaction Cochran feared materialized. Now subject to being drafted into the infantry, male civilian pilots launched a campaign to claim the jobs held by WASPs. Public sentiment turned against women pilots as the homefront returned to 1940s normalcy. "People wanted to go back to an America of work, of family, of friends, of home," notes historian Debbie Douglas. "It didn't include Mom going off to fly military planes."

Cochran, a tough perfectionist, refused a compromise offer to merge her WASP program with the Women's Army Corps (WACS). In December, the WASP program was disbanded. It would be more than thirty years before women would fly again for the US military.

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