Libraries

The Training

WAFS and Nancy Harkness Love

Members of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) at Newcastle Army Air Base, Wilmington, Delaware, Winter 1943.

By the fall of 1942, Nancy Love was recruiting highly qualified, civilian women pilots with a commercial license and over 500 flying hours to serve in the Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.  The WAFS, as they were commonly referred to, were activated at New Castle Army Air Base near Wilmington, Delaware, where they trained for just a few weeks before being assigned to their posts. Thirty days later, Love had received responses from 23 women interested in the program including barnstormer Teresa James and Cornelia Fort. Of the first 13 accepted, most had a commercial license, were under the age of 35, and averaged more than 1000 hours of flight time. Ultimately, their numbers grew to 28 of the best, most qualified, and experienced female pilots the country had to offer.

Women’s Flying Training Detachment

General

Jackie Cochran requested she be allowed to establish a training program to recruit and train women for flying duties. On September 14th, 1942, General Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, approved the Women’s Flying Training Detachment that would recruit and train 500 licensed pilots to ferry planes. The 23-week training program, placed under the direction of Cochran, was based out of Houston.  Jackie’s goal was to prove that any healthy, stable young American woman could learn to fly just as well as her male counterparts.

Following Jacqueline Cochran’s call for women pilots to train to fly for the US Army Air Corps, 25,000 applications were received. Those who met the qualifications for training numbered only 1,830. Ultimately, 1,074 would graduate from the program earning their silver wings.

Initially, trainees had to have 200 flying hours and be between the ages of 21 and 35. They also had to be American citizens, high school graduates, and able to pass the written cadet exam, as well as an Army physical.

The first batch of applications were sent to 150 women, 130 of whom responded immediately. Each was personally interviewed by Cochran. Thirty were selected for the first class and notified by telegram to report to Houston at their own expense.

When they arrived at Houston Municipal Airport, Cochran was there to greet them. She explained that their training was classified, that there would be no publicity and no glory, just hard work and that the future of women in military aviation depended on their success. The commanding officer, a male captain, not too pleased with his new assignment told the group: “If you think you’re hot shots, I advise you to forget it. You are here to learn the way the Army flies.”

Up before dawn, the trainees spent nearly 12 hours a day at the airfield. Half their day was spent flying in very crowded airspaces doing stalls, spins, turns, take offs, and landings. While the other half of the day was spent in ground school studying navigation, flight training, physics, aerodynamics, electronics, mathematics, weather, communications, meteorology, Morse code, military law, and aircraft mechanics. By the time they graduated, the women had spent 560 hours in ground school and 210 hours in flight training.

 

Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas. WASP trainees in formation outside barracks.

They followed a strict military regimen. Barracks were six to a room and one bathroom for 12 girls. They marched everywhere, did calisthenics, and ended their day with taps. They took part in parades, infantry drills, barracks inspection, and oaths of allegiance just like the male cadets.

While the first classes of the Women’s Training Flying Detachment were making the best of the situation at Houston, Cochran was searching for a better location to conduct training. She looked for a facility with centralized housing on base, classrooms, repair hangars, a dining hall, increased air space, a fenced perimeter and the availability of BT-13s and AT-6s for advanced training. Eventually Cochran found exactly what she was looking for at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. By February 1943, the program had transitioned to Avenger Field. In the end, 18 classes would pass through the gates receiving training the Army way, before shipping off to other destinations throughout the country.

WASP

From the beginning, the two programs, the WAFS and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, operated independently and without much interaction between their two rival leaders, Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love, until the summer of 1943, when Jackie pushed aggressively for a single unit to control the activity of all women pilots. On August 5th, 1943, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment were merged and were re-designated the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots or WASP. Cochran was appointed the Director and Love named WASP executive with the Air Transport Command Ferrying Division.