women in aviation and space history

Cornelia Fort

Cornelia Clark Fort
U.S. Air Force Photo

Cornelia Fort

World War II (205)

Cornelia Fort was flying with a student pilot on the morning of December 7, 1941, when they nearly collided with a Japanese aircraft leaving the scene at Pearl Habor. Thus she became one of the few airborne eyewitnesses to the attack. Fort learned to fly after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and she became a flight insturctor in Colorado, and then, in Hawaii. In January 1942, Jacqueline Cochran invited her to join the group of women flying for the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary. Fort, however, was still awaiting evacuation from Hawaii. When she finally arrived back in Nashville to begin instructing for the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), she was in demand as a speaker and was even featured in a short war movie. She was the second woman to volunteer for the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (the WAFS, which later merged into the WASPs, or Women Airforce Service Pilots), whose members logged millions of miles ferrying aircraft to points of embarkation and towing targets for training exercises. On a routine ferrying flight in 1943, Fort died at the controls of an aircraft when another plane struck hers. She was the first woman pilot to die in the line of duty for the U.S. military (the WASPs were granted retroactive military status in 1977.) A marker at the Cornelia Fort Airport in Tennessee bears this quote from the pilot: "I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country."

(information compiled by D. Cochrane and P. Ramirez)