During World War II, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew military aircraft for the US Army Air Force (belatedly following the example of the British). Organized and commanded by already-famous women pilots Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, the WASPs flew 60 million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo. They flew nearly every type of military aircraft used during the war, including bombers and fighters. Between September 1942 and December 1944, WASP pilots delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types, to destinations both domestic and overseas. Their service freed many male pilots for active combat flying, something for which many WASPs themselves were qualified, even though they were denied combat training.
Of approximately 1900 pilots, 38 WASPs lost their lives while serving during the war -- 11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be military pilots under existing guidelines, fallen WASPs were sent home at family expense without military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow an American flag to be placed on a fallen WASP pilot's coffin.
The PBS series The American Experience televised an excellent series called Fly Girls, documenting the WASP experience. It is highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in aviation, in history, or in the ludicrous limits imposed by social gender roles.
And now, 65 years after being disbanded, the WASPs are finally receiving the recognition they so richly deserve. AOPA writer Alton K. Marsh reports that WASP pilots will be honored for their service on March 10, 2010, with the Congressional Gold Medal (which, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest civilian medal awarded in the United States). More than 1100 former members will receive replicas of the medal, as will the families of 11 pilots killed in training.
Recognition for service to community and nation has always come slowly for women, as it has for members of racial minorities. Still, 65 years -- it's about time, don't you think?