Before the WASP: American Women Pilot Service Organizations

Posted on Mon, March 30, 2020
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Women in the United States have long served their country, and women aviators have been no exception. Perhaps the best known efforts are those of the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP), formed in 1943, merging the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Squadron (WAFS) and Women’s Flying Training Detachment. But before the WASP, women pilots such as Ruth Law, Opal Kunz, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, and Mary Charles were determined to serve their country in whatever way they could.

Ruth Law in Military Uniform

Ruth Law, in a military uniform, poses beside her Curtiss Model D Headless. Law was the first woman permitted to wear a noncommissioned Army officer’s uniform during WWI. NASM A-5532

As the third American woman to receive her pilot’s license, Ruth Law had already been flying for five years by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. Having bought her first airplane from Orville Wright himself (although she had needed the “permission” of her husband to do so and had to seek lessons elsewhere), Law was also the first woman to fly at night and the first woman to loop the loop. She even set the American long distance non-stop flying record in 1916.

Law believed in her flying capabilities so strongly that she wrote an article published on the front page of the Chicago Sunday Herald Magazine. She declared that if President Wilson were to commission her at the front and tell her “Go get the Kaiser,” she would be more than willing and capable of bombing the enemy. Law did not extend this belief to all women, stating “I doubt if women can as a class be made successful flyers,” but she did think that women aviators could provide supply and messenger flights behind the lines and serve as instructors.

Although Law was not successful in her bid to fly in combat, she did go to France to review how women were used on the battlefield there. She was also the first American woman authorized to wear a noncommissioned Army officer’s uniform. Law used her fame to raise money for the Red Cross and liberty bond drives with exhibition flights.

Membership card with woman's photo in lower left hand corner

Manila Davis’s membership card in the Betsy Ross Corps, V Corps Area. NASM-9A06423-A 

The experiences of World War I remained with women pilots. Like Ruth Law, many believed that they could serve in times of national emergency on both the home front and overseas by piloting ambulance and auxiliary aircraft to free male pilots for combat duty. The mission of the Betsy Ross Corps, founded in May 1931 by Opal Kunz, was just to do that. Early members of the Betsy Ross Corps included Marjorie Stinson, Phoebe Omlie, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, and Manila Davis.

Scrapbook Page With Two articles

Page from Manila Davis Talley’s Scrapbook, featuring an article about the founding of the Betsy Ross Corps in 1931 and the leadership roster. NASM.XXXX.0041-M0000001-00870

Almost immediately, the leadership of the Betsy Ross Corps began to disagree about the direction the organization was to take. Florence “Pancho” Barnes wanted to take a more active role in training women pilots to serve as an auxiliary to the Army Air Corps. Mere months later in 1931, she founded the Women’s Air Reserve. Members included Mary Charles and Bobbi Trout. Barnes set up headquarters at Long Beach Army base and, calling herself “General,” set to drilling women pilots in marching, first aid, and aircraft mechanics. But as Barnes’ fortunes faded, so did the Women’s Air Reserve.

Fourteen women stand in a line in front of an aerial ambulance

Members of the Women’s Air Reserve train with their aerial ambulance. NASM.XXXX.0011-M0000005-00050

Mary Charles, a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, sought to continue the work and wrote a plan for a Women’s National Air Corps, “Peace by Preparedness,” in 1935. Despite the fact that her co-author was Lt. Col. Rutherford Hartz, a veteran of the 1919 “Round the Rim” flight, the proposal remained on paper only.

  • Membership Card with Woman's Photo on the right

    Mary Charles’ membership card for the Women’s Air Reserve (front). NASM.XXXX.0011-M0000010-00020

  • Membership card Back Text

    Mary Charles’ membership card for the Women’s Air Reserve (back). NASM.XXXX.0011-M0000010-00030

Although these women pilots' service organizations of the 1930s did not get off the ground, their ideals echoed in the missions of the Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASP), Women's Army Corps (WAC), and the Navy’s Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) as the United States entered World War II.

The personal collections of some of the women mentioned here can be found in the National Air and Space Museum Archives. (If you click on links with the “box” icon, you can see the actual digital contents of those files!)

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