AMELIA EARHART'S DAUGHTERS
By Leslie Haynsworth
and David Toomey
322 pp., $24
In the histories of how America churned out the aircraft necessary to fight World War II, one detail is conspicuously absent: How did those planes get from factory to front?
They were delivered by ferry pilots, specifically the women of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey have written an intriguing account of how a few pioneer women fliers were of great service to their country, and how, but for gender politics, the US might have been first to send a woman into space. (The Russians won when Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth for nearly three days in 1962.)
In the early days of World War II, Henry "Hap" Arnold, later commanding general of the Army Air Forces, was one of the visionaries who saw the future of air power. Events connected him with two pilots who saw the possibilities for women aviators: Jacqueline Cochran, a well-connected flier of cross-country races, and Nancy Harkness Love.
WASP evolved from the Women's Flying Training Detachment, headed by Cochran, and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Division, headed by Love. Before it was disbanded in 1994, more than 1,000 pilots had been trained by the WASP and flown more than 60 million air miles. Thirty-eight were killed.
By the end of 1944, the women had flown every aircraft in the American inventory, including the earliest jets. They flew P-51 Mustangs as ferry pilots months before men in combat; they ferried B-17s to Europe; they towed targets for gunnery practice.
In May 1944, when the B-29 was being developed as a long-range bomber for the Pacific war, design problems scared off male pilots. A smart lieutenant colonel named Paul Tibbetts enlisted two WASPs from Florida's Eglin Air Force Base to show the guys at Alamogordo, N.M., that the B-29 was flyable after all.
Flight instructors said women pilots learned quickly without being pushed, were not overtly competitive, and worked in a spirit of cooperation with each other and their machines.
But Air Force officials and politicians said the WASP should remain civil service, a status that denied its members all military benefits, including funerals.
In 1953, while many American women were relegated to Beaver Cleaver land, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier (in an F-86 with Chuck Yeager flying the chase plane).
But by then, aviation opportunities were in jets, and jet pilots were trained in military schools. Of course, those taxpayer-supported schools were only for men, so when President Eisenhower said in 1957 that to simplify the process the first applicants for the Mercury astronaut program should be military test pilots, women were effectively disqualified from the space program.
But in 1960 and '61, women were tested for the program, and some researchers said they made better potential astronauts (lighter weight, less likely to panic, better at coping with solitude). However, the national culture made the male military pilot what the authors call "the apotheosis of the masculine ideal," and that bias determined policy.
Only in 1995 did NASA, nominally a civilian agency, allow a woman to pilot a spaceflight: Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins was at the controls for the first rendezvous of the US space shuttle with the Russian space station Mir.
The authors are correct when they tell us their story may have a familiar resonance. It is indeed one of talented, resourceful, and willing women, promises reneged, and dreams deferred. We've heard it before in other venues, and we'll hear it again. Here, it's well told.
* Mary Grace Butler is a freelance writer in Appleton, Maine.