The WASP – First American Women to Fly for their Country

By Donna K. Keesling

In the late summer of 1942, twenty-eight experienced civilian women pilots volunteered to ferry aircraft for the United States Army. Between November 1942 and December 1944, an additional 1074 women volunteered and were trained to fly aircraft for the Army. These women, part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), logged more than sixty million miles, flying every type of United States Army Air Forces plane in every type of mission except for combat.[1]Yet, many of us have never heard of the WASP. Who were the WASP and why is their service during World War II not better known?

Two women aviators were instrumental in the formation of the WASP. They recognized that there would be a shortage of military pilots when men were sent to fly combat during the war. In 1939, Jacqueline Cochran petitioned General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the chief of the Army Air Force, to add women to the nation’s armed forces. Separately, Nancy Harkness Love sent a plan to General Robert Olds, head of the Air Transport Command (ATC), outlining how women pilots could ferry planes for the ATC. In 1941, following the outbreak of World War II, Cochran and Love each submitted proposals to the US Army Air Force requesting that women be permitted to fly non-combat missions. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the military realized it needed additional pilots to ferry new planes from factories to military bases and departure points, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was formed under Love’s direction. In September of 1942, Cochran’s proposal was approved, and she was directed to train 500 women to ferry aircraft in a program named the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). After almost a year of operating separately, the two programs were merged in August 1943 and re-designated the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Cochran was named Director of the WASP and Love was named WASP Executive within the ATC Ferrying Division.[2]

The women recruited by Nancy Love for the WAFS were very experienced pilots between the ages of 21 and 35 with a commercial pilot’s license and a minimum of 500 hours of flight time. Cochran’s WFTD recruits were less experienced, so they were sent to a 23-week flight training program at Houston Municipal Airport. After the first few classes completed their training in Houston, Cochran found a better location for the WASP to train at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

The WASP recruits flew seventy hours each of primary and advanced training. The primary phase of training consisted of twenty-eight hours dual instruction and forty-two hours solo flying. The women trained on five different types of aircraft: North American AT-6 Texan, Vultee BT-13 Valiant, Boeing Stearman PT-17, Fairchild PT-19, and Cessna UC-78. There were ninety-one PT-19s, the primary training aircraft, at Avenger Field. Close to forty UC-78s, a twin-engine aircraft intended for use as transport or for bombing, were used for advanced training by the WASP.[3] In their training, they “practiced take-offs and landings, snap rolls, parachute bail-outs, night flying, cross-country flying, and aerobatics.”[4] In addition to flight training, the women attended ground school where they studied aerodynamics, hydraulics, meteorology, physics, Morse code, and airplane maintenance.

The WASP were featured in magazine and newspaper articles. As a result of this advertising and recruitment by Cochran and Love, approximately 25,000 women applied to the WASP program. Of the 1,820 who were accepted into the program, 1,074 graduated.[5] Thirty-eight of these women lost their lives serving their country.

After graduating from the training program, the women were ordered to report to one of 120 Army air bases or airfields where their missions included ferrying planes from factories, towing targets for ground and air gunner shooting training, and testing overhauled aircraft. They also provided instrument training to male cadets, and they trained male bombardiers.

The WASP were classified as civilians, even though they were assigned to U.S. military bases and flew U.S. Army Air Force aircraft. Jacqueline Cochran believed that militarization of the WASP would follow if the program was successful. In 1944, Representative John Costello of California sponsored a House bill to commission the WASP as miliary personnel. This bill failed to pass. According to author Dorothy Cochrane, the WASP were a “casualty of rancor over assimilation, jobs, and gender roles.”[6] After the bill failed, General Arnold ordered Cochran to deactivate the WASP program. The program was disbanded at the end of 1944 and WASP records were sealed, classified, and stored in government archives for over thirty years.

In her final speech on December 7, 1944, WASP Director Cochran said the following about the accomplishments of the WASP: “Happiness also swells within me from the knowledge that the WASP have successfully completed their twofold mission. By twofold, I mean we have flown scores of millions of miles in relieving the pilot shortage and we have proved that women can be trained as pilots easily and used in many ways in the air effectively. What the WASP have done is without precedent in the history of the world.”[7]

When the United States Air Force announced a “first” in 1976 – that women would be permitted to fly military aircraft – the women who had flown with the WASP united to “set the record straight.” They lobbied Congress for militarization of the WASP. In 1977, a bill was passed that authorized retroactive partial veteran status for the WASP.

The WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on March 10, 2010 by President Barrack Obama. Over two hundred WASP, all in their eighties and nineties, attended the ceremony and were presented a medal by a female member of the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Air Force Reserve.[8]

Sixty years after the WASP program was disbanded, the National WASP WWII Museum, located on Avenger Field where they trained in the 1940s, was opened. It was the vision of WASP Deanie Bishop Parrish and her daughter Nancy Parrish. After a presentation to community leaders in Sweetwater, TX in the fall of 2002, the museum was incorporated in July 2003. A two hundred-year lease with the city of Sweetwater includes fifty-five acres of land at Avenger Field and a hangar built in 1929. The hangar was renovated to house exhibits and was opened to the public in May 2005. The museum continues to expand its facilities and exhibits to meet its mission to “preserve the history of the WASP and its airfield and promote their legacy.”[9]



You might also enjoy our interview with author Elizabeth Cobbs – The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers – about the women who served in WWI and weren’t recognized as official military soldiers until the 1970s.



[1] “WASP History,” Texas Woman’s University Libraries,

[2] “Program Beginning,” Texas Woman’s University Libraries,

[3] “Aircraft,” National WASP WWII Museum,

[4] “Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP),” Bullock Texas State History Museum,

[5] Dorothy Cochrane, “Flying on the Homefront: Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP),” National Air and Space Museum, May 20, 2020,

[6] Dorothy Cochrane, “Flying on the Homefront: Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP),” National Air and Space Museum, May 20, 2020,

[7] “Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP),” Bullock Texas State History Museum,

[8] Katherine Sharp Landdeck, The Women with Silver Wings (New York: Crown, 2021), 329.

[9] “History,” National WASP WWII Museum,