When World War II broke out, hundreds of women took to the skies in support of the war effort. Many contributed as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). However, women like Willa Brown who were barred from becoming a military pilot by both her race and gender, found other ways to contribute.  

These are the stories of five women who contributed to the war effort by flying. 

Jacqueline Cochran 

Cochran was a celebrated woman pilot whose career spanned four decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, SI-86-533)

As war in Europe approached, Cochran was one of several women who felt women should be utilized in wartime aviation. In 1941, Cochran selected a group of 27 highly qualified U.S. women pilots to ferry military aircraft in Great Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), as most male military pilots were flying in combat. In 1942, Cochran, at the request of Army General Henry "Hap" Arnold, organized the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) to train civilian women pilots in anticipation of a similar domestic shortage of American military pilots during World War II. Based first at Houston and then Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, the WFTD received primary flight training in military aircraft from military instructors.

Nancy Love

When World War II broke out, Nancy Love was already an accomplished pilot. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NASM-96-15604)

As World War II was approaching, Nancy Love also recognized the coming need for pilots to ferry aircraft and identified highly qualified women pilots in the U.S. who could perform such duties. In September 1942, the Army Air Corps' Air Transport Command approved the creation of a temporary, civilian women's flying corps, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), under the direction of Love.  

Love’s aviation career started long before the war. Nancy Harkness Love learned to fly in Houghton, Michigan, in 1930 at the age of 16. She was educated at Milton Academy and Vassar College and earned her commercial pilot's license while in college. In 1935 she was one of three women hired by the Bureau of Air Commerce to work on its air-marking project. Married to Robert Love in 1936, she discovered on her West Coast honeymoon that Beechcraft Company had entered her in the Amelia Earhart Trophy Race at the National Air Races in Los Angeles. With no experience in pylon flying, she managed to finish in fifth place. She also worked for Gwinn Aircar Company, a job that included flight testing a new tricycle landing gear. Love and her husband were running a successful aircraft sales business in 1940 when she began flying American airplanes to Canada, for shipment to France.  

After the war, Love continued to fly for business and pleasure. 

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

Members of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) are pictured at Lockbourne Army Air Field in World War II. From left to right are Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn. The WASP were civilian women pilots who flew in non-combat situations for the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, SI-91-1471)

In 1943, Cochran’s WFTD merged with Nancy Love's Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS, a group of experienced pilots) to form the civilian Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director; Love remained in charge of the WAFS unit, although under Cochran. From 1943 to 1944, over 1,000 women flew over 60 million miles ferrying aircraft and personnel, towing targets, and other transport duties. The WASP flew every military aircraft including Boeing B-17 and B-29 bombers. The WASP were disbanded in 1944, and Cochran was at the center of complications that prevented the group from being absorbed into the USAAF's Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The WASP finally received retroactive military status in 1977. 

Cornelia Fort

Cornelia Fort was eager to use her flying skills toward the war effort. (Cornelia Fort Papers, Special Collections Division of the Nashville Public Library)

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 Harbor. 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 instructor 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.  

Fort was the second woman to volunteer for Nancy Love’s Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (the WAFS).  

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. 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." 

Hazel Ying Lee

Hazel Ying Lee was eager to use her flying skills in a war effort, first hoping to become a military pilot in China, then America. (U.S. Air Force)

Hazel Ying Lee was one of two Chinese American women accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) when she joined class 43-W-4 in 1943.  

Her flying career had started a decade, and a war, before. Born in Portland, Oregon to parents who had immigrated from China, Lee went to work as an elevator operator to learn money towards flying lessons. In October 1932, thanks to the money saved from her work and support from the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society, Lee earned her pilot’s license. She was one of the first Chinese American women to do so.  

At this time, Japanese and Chinese forces were at war, and Lee traveled to China in hopes of becoming a military pilot there. However, she was denied a pilot job on the basis of her gender, and given a desk job instead. In China, Lee was able to fly for a private airline. By 1938, she returned to the United States, where she supported the Chinese government buying war material in New York.  

When the Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) began seeking applications for women pilots to ferry aircraft, freeing up male pilots for the front, Lee applied. When she was accepted in 1943, the WFTD had merged with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) creating the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Among the aircraft Lee flew as a WASP were the P-51 Mustang and P-63 Kingcobra. She was one of only 30 WASP to do so.  

Tragically, Lee died in the line of duty, when less than a month before the program was to be disbanded, she collided with another plane while delivering a P-63 to Great Falls, Montana. As the FAA notes, “Of the 1,012 women who [were] in the WASP program 38 died in service. Lee was the last.” 

Willa Brown

Willa Brown was barred from the WASPs due to her race, but contributed to the war effort in other ways. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

Not all women who contributed to the war effort through flight were members of the WASPs. In fact, African American women were kept from becoming WASPs due to their race. 

Willa Brown, an accomplished aviator, contributed to the war effort through other means. Brown and her husband Cornelius Coffey organized CAP Squadron 613 in conjunction with their school, the Coffey School of Aeronautics. She held the ranks of lieutenant and adjutant in the organization. She was the director of the Coffey School when it was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as one of several Black schools and colleges to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP — a program that trained thousands of pilots throughout the US). The success of the Coffey School and other Black aviation students led to the eventual admission of Black people into the Army Air Forces through the War Training Service Program (WTS) and provided a pool of instructors and trainees at Tuskegee Army Air Field.  

This content was adapted from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in the early 2000s. 

Related Topics Military aviation People Women War and Conflict World War II African American or Black people Asian American or Asian people
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