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May 21, 2009

The Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew in World War II are still fighting for recognition.

By Amy Van Vechten

Jean Harman is not your typical grandmother. More than sixty years ago, she made history as one of the first women to fly for the U.S. military.
“I was always interested in aviation,” Harman says, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif. “As soon as the WASP—Women Airforce Service Pilots—formed, I knew it was what I wanted to do. This was my chance.”
In 1942, America’s leading female pilot, Jacqueline Cochran, convinced Gen. Hap Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Force, to bring women flyers into the military. Of the 25,000 who applied, only 1,830 were eventually accepted.
Harman, who had always loved to fly, was one of the chosen. She got her first taste of the skies in 1931 at the age of six when her uncle gave her a ride in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” two-seat biplane. By the time she was 19, she was a licensed pilot; by 20, she was a WASP.

Life in the WASP

Between 1942 and 1944, 1,078 women earned their wings in the WASP. Collectively, they flew more than 60 million miles during those years. They towed targets for air and ground gunnery practice, tested new and refurbished planes, ferried planes, transported personnel and cargo, led simulated strafing missions, and trained navigators and bombardiers on the ground.
What they didn’t do was fly combat missions. In fact, the U.S. military’s ban on women flying combat missions wasn’t lifted until 1993.
“These women were incredible,” says Margit Liesche, author of the recently published Hollywood Buzz, her second historical novel based in part on interviews with surviving WASP members. Their wartime involvement was, she says, “an amazing tribute to how extraordinary they were. Flying was extremely difficult and dangerous. But more so, it was very unusual.”
Nevertheless, the WASP flyers weren’t always treated as equals. Unlike the men, they had to pay their own way to the training base at Sweetwater, Texas, and their families had to pay the cost of retrieving the bodies of the 38 women who died during the war.
General Arnold recognized their contribution to the war effort on Dec. 7, 1944 when he said, “you have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. I salute you. We of the Army Air Force are proud of you. We will never forget our debt to you.”
“Never” passed quickly. Two weeks later, the WASP was suddenly disbanded, and the pilots dismissed without benefits or honors. Their military records were classified and locked away in archives for 33 years. (The records were declassified in 1977.)
“It was heartbreaking,” Harman remembers. “The some 900 of us who were left had to find something else to do.”

Looking to Congress

Although Harman briefly considered working for the Flying Tiger Line after the war ended, she never flew again. Now, she actively works with the 300 surviving WASP aviators as they continue their pursuit for some long overdue recognition. Their goal is the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest award for civilians.
“I like to think of it like this: George Washington, Mother Teresa and me,” Harman says with a laugh. “It hasn’t happened yet, but the Senate is in our favor. Now we have to hope for the House of Representatives…An answer is coming.”
Then what?
“I always liked a challenge,” Harman confides, with a grin. “You know what my next one is? I want to outlive them all. I’m going to try to be the last surviving WASP.”

Ready for Takeoff


Long before the term “glass ceiling” was coined, female aviators have been pushing boundaries.


1911: A License to Fly

Harriet Quimby, a farm-raised journalist and one-time aspiring actress, becomes America’s first licensed female pilot. Soon after, she makes the first female-piloted trip across the English Channel.

1914: Spy Princess

Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya flies reconnaissance missions over German lines for Russian Czar Nicolas II.

1941: Graphic Role Model

DC Comics’s “Wonder Woman” makes her debut, fighting the Axis powers with strength, speed and flight, and providing inspiration to little girls with fighter pilot dreams.

1953: Falling Barriers

Jacqueline Cochran surpasses the speed of sound near Rogers Dry Lake in California in a borrowed jet from the Royal Canadian Air Force, thus setting a new milestone for women in the air.

1974: In the Navy

The Navy admits six lady pilots for non-combat missions, making it the first branch of the military to do so. The Army gets on board in the same year, but the Air Force waits two years to open its doors.

1991: First Overseas Loss

At just age 32, Maj. Marie T. Rossi-Cayton crashes to her death in a combat zone over Northern Saudi Arabia. Her duties involved flying fuel and ammunition to airborne divisions in Desert Storm.

1993: Combat Hopes

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin revises policy to allow women to fly combat missions for the first time, and fighter pilot training programs for women open in July. Meanwhile, MIT’s Sheila E. Widnall becomes the first female Secretary of the Air Force.

2006: Demo Star

Maj. Nicole Malachowski, call sign “Fifi,” joins the Air Force Thunderbirds team, making her the first woman to gain entry to this elite demonstration squad.

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Great article on the WASPs! And Margit Liesche’s “Hollywood Buzz” is an excellent read – I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to get a feel for what those times were like for women pilots.

mark sloan
Jun 2, 2009