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Debbie Douglas on: Jackie Cochran's First Proposal
Debbie Douglas As early as 1939, Jacquelyn Cochran has a conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt about the idea of using about women pilots. She writes a letter in fact to Eleanor, where she uses the terms "I believe in a future conflict the bottleneck will be skilled pilots, and perhaps we can make use of the women who have those skills in this conflict."

This was phenomenally unusual! Think about a world where women flying was unthinkable. There were 800, 900 women who had a pilot's license in the late 1930s. And if you were to ask the American public "Can women fly airplanes?" the response would be "No." And they would say "Well, what Amelia Earhart, or Jacquelyn Cochran" and they'd say "Well, yes, they can do it, but they're anomalies, they're unusual. They're not average American women." Remember, these are years when few women even had driver's licenses! So it's not a time where little girls growing up thought "One day I'll fly military airplanes!" In fact, the idea of growing up and flying airplanes at all would be absurd!

Cochran writes to Eleanor Roosevelt, proposes this idea, Eleanor is intrigued by the idea - in fact she writes a column about it in her famous My Day column series. She writes about the idea of using women pilots, of using women in the military. Eleanor - like Earhart, like other women in that time period - is very much an advocate of women's equal participation in the workplace. And so she sees this as a splendid idea and begins to put some weight behind it. Eleanor Roosevelt is also a really good friend of Earhart's, loves Earhart and so part of that was a way of continuing a legacy of Earhart for Eleanor. But nothing happens in the interim. Jackie comes up with some proposals for using women pilots in 1941 and in particular the conversation is stimulated by a luncheon for the Collier Trophy. The Collier Trophy is the most prestigious award given in American aviation every year; it's for the most outstanding achievement in aviation in the United States in the preceding year. Cochran had been on that Awards Committee, the award was presented at the White House every year, she's attending the ceremony that year. At that meeting she hooks up with Hap Arnold and Clayton Knight. Clayton Knight is the director of the British ferry command; Hap Arnold is the leading aviation officer in the United States at the time. And they have a general conversation about the idea of using women pilots, of Britain's use of women pilots, of whether or not such an idea might be a good one in the United States. And there's enough positive reaction to that conversation that Cochran goes out and begins to do a little survey of women who are commercially rated pilots; tries to find out how many there are. It turns out there's between 130 and 150 according to her count, and she prepares a proposal which she sends to Arnold, outlining a plan for making use of these women.

He says "Thanks but no thanks." This is precisely the moment when actually the ferrying command in the United States Air Force, at that time the Army Air Corp, becomes the Army Air Forces of World War II and we now have the Air Transport Command. There's a complete re-organization. That re-organization brings in new people into Washington who have the responsibility for ferrying airplanes, not just around the United States but now around the world. So there's a domestic division, ferrying division, and six foreign divisions that are created at this time. This is the group that's going to transport people and airplanes and supplies all over the world in support of the American war effort. Domestically their responsibility is to get the aircraft from the factory to the bases and to the points of embarkation, and that is the group that is under the command of William Tunner.

William Tunner of course is assisted by Bob Love, and through him he meets Nancy Love. Nancy Love is an active pilot and she has asked by William Tunner to come up with an idea - a plan, if you will - of how to recruit some women to support the ferrying command's shortage. The ferrying division is lowest of low priority. The pilot need is largely in the Eighth Air in England, then in the Pacific for military pilots - so at the bottom of the feeding chain is the ferrying divisions, the people that have to get the planes from the factory to the air fields. And because they're so low priority, Tunner has to look to alternatives that he would not necessarily consider in normal, peace time circumstances, and that's why the idea that Nancy Love proposes gets a hearing. Two years earlier it wouldn't get a hearing.

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