Pat the Pilot: American Aviatrix, WAFS Member, and Allied Liaison

Posted on Thu, April 2, 2020
  • by: Caroline Johnson
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Aline “Pat” Rhonie made a perfect three-point landing in her 125 hp Luscombe Phantom when she touched down in Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 6, 1940. Owned by Rhonie, the plane was a Warner-powered, high-wing, two-seat cabin monoplane that she flew as the American Liaison for the French Aero Club. Rhonie piloted civilian and military aircraft throughout the United States as an American aviatrix and eventual member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, yet her mission traversed international borders to support the Allied cause.  

woman standing by aircraft

Aline Rhonie and her Luscombe Phantom (NASM-9A12027).

Born Aline Rhonie Hofheimer in 1909, she often went by the nickname “Pat.” Prior to World War II, she amassed an impressive resume:

  • In 1931, she became one of the first American women to receive a U.S. transport pilot license.  
  • In 1934, she was the first woman to fly solo from New York to Mexico City, where she met with famous artist Diego Rivera.  She showed Rivera the tempera technique she learned from John Sloan and in return, Rivera taught her fresco mural painting. 
  • From 1934 to 1938, she completed a 126-foot long mural depicting the history of aviation at Roosevelt Field, Long Island. 
  • On a trip overseas in 1936, Rhonie earned her English Pilot’s License, and she was the first American woman to receive an Irish Commercial License in 1938.  

She did all this, earning the titles of global aviatrix and renowned artist before reaching her 30th birthday.  

Rhonie’s war work began in September 1939. Though highly qualified, she was turned away from flying in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the female auxiliary of the Royal Air Force, on account of not being a British subject. She instead assisted in organizing Red Cross units and ventured to France, where she worked with a society that supplied books to soldiers at the front. Eventually, she enlisted voluntarily as a lieutenant in the French Section Sanitaire, an ambulance unit for women.   

While in France, Rhonie witnessed the plight of Allied aviators. According to one report, she watched “the twisting of American-made Curtiss fighters when they tangled in dog-fights with the German Messerschmidts…” In her experience, she watched French aviators struggle to maintain canvas covers over aircraft in open fields in below-freezing temperatures. As an American Liaison for the French Aero Club, Rhonie saw an opportunity to help and embarked on a mission to raise funds for canteens to support the Allied aviators.   

American Liaison for the French Aero Club

When Rhonie compiled her list of aviation sponsors of 1940, the United States had not yet entered World War II. She knew she was treading on thin ice in requesting the support and sponsorship of Americans. In an interview with the New York Mirror, Rhonie explained, “I know I’ve got to watch myself. I know that I must not keep calling the Allies ‘we.’ I know that I must not tell Americans that this is the war we thought we were fighting last time… this time, Democracy is REALLY at stake… I know all that, but it’s so hard to keep my mouth shut…” 

The responses to Rhonie’s sponsor requests revealed an interesting assessment of American aviation attitudes toward the war effort prior to the United States’ entry. Some, for example, expressed vehement support. Among such supporters were George Chapline, VP of Sales at Wright Aeronautical Corporation; Harry F. Guggenheim; Richard H. Depew Jr. of Taylorcraft Aviation Corporation; and Clifford Henderson, the “Barnum of Aviation” and Managing Director of the U.S. National Air Races from 1928-1939. Rhonie also received overwhelming support from fellow women aviators, including Louise Thaden, who had won the Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, and Betty Gillies, original member and President of the Ninety-Nines from 1939-1941. (Betty, who married the Vice President of Grumman, Brewster Allison “Bud” Gillies, in 1930, was a talented aviatrix whose skills would earn her a spot as the first official member of the U.S. Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron).  

  • woman holding flowers in front of aircraft

    Rhonie on tour raising funds for Aviators’ Canteens, reproduced with permission from Telegram & Gazette

  • telegram

    Telegram from Betty Gillies to Aline Rhonie, National Air and Space Museum Archives (NASM-9A16527)

Others, however, denied Rhonie’s request for sponsorship. Some, such as the Vice Chairmen of the Air Safety Board for the Civil Aeronautics Authority, were morally opposed to supporting a war effort that did not involve the United States. Others, including C.R. Smith, President of American Airlines; J.S. Allard, VP of Curtiss-Wright Corporation;  and Clarence M. Young, Pan American World Airways executive and holder of U.S. Civil Air License No. 2., simply felt they did not have the time or that their professional position prevented them from outwardly supporting the cause. 

Regardless, the fundraising tour received enough support, and Rhonie arrived in New York on April 3, 1940. Throughout May and June of 1940, she flew around New England, and on July 4, she left for Denver to continue her cross-country tour. Rhonie provided a fresh perspective on the needs and experiences of Allied airmen overseas. In her numerous interviews throughout her tour, she promoted the Allied cause to American audiences and received financial support for Allied aviators’ canteens. 

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Pilot Aline Rhonie holds her flight goggles. (NASM-9A16530)

Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron

Once the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rhonie partook in the formation of a U.S. women’s air corps. Citing English women pilots who had been used to ferry military planes across the channel to the French airdrome, women flyers such as Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love believed their efforts could be used to free up male pilots for front line duty. Rhonie supported their vision and agreed that, in addition to ferrying aircraft, women would make excellent teachers for the first seventy-five hours of instruction before releasing men to military flyers for tactical instruction.  

Rhonie submitted a letter to the Secretary of the Navy in support of the initiative and offered her services as a pilot to the United States’ war effort. In a response dated April 15, 1942, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, Artemus L. Gates, explained they had carefully considered employing civilian ferry pilots and ensured, “In the event that this policy should be modified to include pilots with your qualifications, you will be notified forthwith.”

Five months later, Rhonie received a telegram from General “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces. The telegram informed Rhonie of the plan to establish a women’s ferrying squadron and asked her to report to Wilmington at her own expense for an interview and flight check. Under the leadership of Nancy Harkness Love, Rhonie became one of the original nine qualified women selected as a part of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).  

  • woman in uniform

    Aline Rhonie as one of the original WAFS. Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, College Park, Maryland (Image 4A-05393, Record Group 342)

  • telegram

    Telegram from General Arnold to Aline Rhonie, National Air and Space Museum Archives (NASM-9A16528)

On October 22, 1942, under the direction of Betty Gillies, Rhonie flew one of six L-4B Cubs from the Piper factory in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to Mitchel Field on Long Island for the WAFS first official ferrying mission. Though she was the fourth to join behind Nancy Love, Betty Gillies, and Cornelia Fort, Rhonie was the first to leave the WAFS. She ferried aircraft until December 31, 1942, when she was discharged through normal civil service procedures. 

With a shortage of Allied ferrying pilots across the globe, Rhonie went back to England on her own accord where, from November 1943 through November 1944, she served in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). After the war, Rhonie was appointed a member of the French national association of the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance française (Medal of French Gratitude), and was made a Companion of the Ordre de la Libération (Order of Liberation). She died January 7, 1963, at the age of 54. 

Whether raising funds by piloting her Luscombe Phantom across the U.S. as a French Aero Club Liaison or ferrying military aircraft across the U.S. and England as a member of the WAFS and ATA, Rhonie’s overall enthusiasm for the Allied cause highlights the global efforts of aviators in World War II. Even before the U.S. entered the war, Rhonie emphasized how American aircraft, French aviators, and all Allied supporters played an important role in the war effort. In pursuing her passion, American aviatrix Pat the Pilot is but one example of women’s global influence during World War II both on the ground and in the air.