Women Guided the Way in the [Simulated] Sky During WWII

Posted on Fri, March 31, 2017

The U.S. Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) were a notable legacy of World War II’s influence on the evolving gender norms of the later 20th century. Though American women had a long history of service in wartime, the World War II years offered women greater access to technical positions that had once been closed to them by in peacetime. Air navigation was one of the most prominent examples. While in the years preceding World War II, several women, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Amy Johnson, demonstrated a degree of proficiency in air navigation that was matched by only a handful of their male peers, none had the degree of professional success enjoyed by the cadre of professional air navigators like Harold Gatty or Fred Noonan.

Wartime opened the door slightly for women in the field, including civilians like Mary Tornich, who taught basic navigation to Army aviators, and for a segment of the women in the new Navy auxiliary service – the WAVES. Unlike the Army’s WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the WAVES did not ferry aircraft as pilots, but they did take on a variety of aviation roles to “free” males for overseas combat service (interestingly, the WASPs in turn, did not serve as air navigators). These included serving as aircraft maintainers, technical instructors, and as air navigators on “homefront”’ Naval Air Transport Service flights. However, if WAVE navigators did not have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in the most challenging operational environments, they did have the pride of operating one of the most sophisticated training devices developed up to that point – the Link Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT). The April 1944 issue of Popular Science contains an excellent depiction of how this complex device functioned.

The Link Celestial Navigation Trainer came out of an Army Air Forces requirement for a realistic crew trainer for long-range bombers and transports. Given that the Army Air Corps had a mere 50 or so dedicated air navigators on hand in 1940, the rapidly changing geopolitical situation (aggressive Japanese deployments and the German invasion of the Soviet Union) of the following year quickly made Air Corps leaders realize that their force was not only inadequate for operations, but that it was unable to even provide a core cadre for the training schools needed for the anticipated tens of thousands of specialist air navigators. Attempts to use civilian schools, notably the Pan American Airways School of Navigation at Dinner Key in Miami, were found to be quickly inadequate, especially as the British also began sending their navigation students to America and Canada for training. Even if there had been enough instructors, then there still were not enough airplanes to use for the complex process of training celestial air navigators. Those planes, even if available, would then consume valuable fuel and maintenance resources.