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Fly Girls

Fly Girls women in the military, aviation, World War II, U.S. military history.

During WWII, more than a thousand women signed up to fly with the US military. Wives, mothers, actresses and debutantes who joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) test-piloted aircraft, ferried planes and logged 60 million miles in the air. Thirty eight women died in service. But the opportunity to play a critical role in the war effort was abruptly canceled by politics and resentment, and it would be thirty years before women would again break the sex barrier in the skies.

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In the midst of World War II, the call went out: women with flight experience were needed to fly for the military. All over the country, young women postponed their weddings, put their educations on hold, and quit their jobs to respond. From 1942 to 1944, more than 1,000 women were trained to ferry aircraft, test planes, instruct male pilots, even tow targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice. Despite serving with grit and determination, women pilots often encountered disbelief and resentment. Thirty-eight would give their lives.

THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Fly Girls, the largely unknown story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The show features a remarkable group of former WASPs who recall the planes they flew, the challenges they met, and the pride they felt in playing a role in the American war effort. As women's place in the US military continues to evolve -- including conducting bombing missions for the first time during the recent Desert Fox campaign -- the story of these female pioneers is more relevant than ever.

The idea for a women's pilot corps came from Jacqueline Cochran, America's foremost female aviator and an ambitious businesswoman with her own cosmetics company. Raised in poverty in Florida, Cochran made her way to New York, where she married a Wall Street tycoon and developed a passion for racing airplanes. By 1941, Cochran held seventeen world records. That year, she became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. After recruiting twenty-four American women to fly for the British Air Transport, Cochran convinced Hap Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, to start an American training program.

Lured by the opportunity to fly for their country, 25,000 women applied. "We have no hopes of replacing men pilots," Cornelia Fort wrote. "But we can each release a man to combat, to faster ships, to overseas work."

The 1,830 who were accepted received pilot training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas -- the only all-female Air Force base in history, which became known as "Cochran's Convent." They received the same training as men pilots, then moved on to ferry aircraft from factories and airfields to points of embarkation. Teresa James left her base one morning on a routine ferry trip that was to return her home the same day. She returned 17,000 miles, six airplanes, and thirty days later. "We did the same thing that any other ferry command guy would have done," says Barbara Erickson London. "In the Ferry Command you had to fly whatever was out there and had to be moved, so we did get a terrific variety."

As the program proved successful, WASP assignments expanded beyond ferrying. Ann Baumgartner Carl was the only female test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, flying alongside the Air Force's finest. In 1943, she became the first woman to pilot the new jet fighter, the Bell YP-59A.

Women pilots were also used to encourage men to fly airplanes with dangerous reputations. Colonel Paul Tibbetts, who later piloted the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, trained Dora Dougherty Strother and Dorothea Johnson Moorman to fly the B-29, the largest long-range bomber ever built. Male pilots were reluctant to fly the plane after Boeing's top pilot was killed testing it. "I really didn't think I was big enough to fly a four-engine airplane," says Strother. "I was five-foot-five. I didn't think I had a four-engine hand." After training the women, Tibbets sent them to heavy-bomber bases to demonstrate that the plane was safe to fly. "They took the B-29 out of the doldrums," says Tibbetts. "They dispelled the myth about the airplane failing if you lost an engine."

Through their ability and courage, the women won over many skeptics. But WASPs did not have military status. When a WASP died, her family received no benefits, no flag, no gold star to hang in the window. The government made no provision for returning the body back home because the women had no official military status. The other women pilots would contribute money for transportation and burial.

Some began to fear sabotage. After one fatal crash involving a WASP, Jackie Cochran investigated personally. She later claimed to have found sugar in the downed plane's gas tank. But fearing an adverse reaction to her program, Cochran decided not to launch an official inquiry.

In 1944, as the European war drew to a close and male pilots began returning from combat, the adverse reaction Cochran feared materialized. Now subject to being drafted into the infantry, male civilian pilots launched a campaign to claim the jobs held by WASPs. Public sentiment turned against women pilots as the homefront returned to 1940s normalcy. "People wanted to go back to an America of work, of family, of friends, of home," notes historian Debbie Douglas. "It didn't include Mom going off to fly military planes."

Cochran, a tough perfectionist, refused a compromise offer to merge her WASP program with the Women's Army Corps (WACS). In December, the WASP program was disbanded. It would be more than thirty years before women would fly again for the US military.

Written, Produced, and Directed by

Laurel Ladevich

Edited by

Kathleen Korth

Associate Producer

Bunny Alsup

Narrated by

Mary McDonnell

Music by

Mark Adler

Assistant Editor/Researcher

Cat McGrath

Historical Consultant

Deborah G. Douglas


Mitch Wilson

Aerial Cinematography

Jack Tankard

Jack Combs; Scott Herring

Aerial Coordinator

Tom Danaher

Aerial Pilots

Charles Screws
Leroy Lakey
Willie Walker
Don Malm

Sound Design/Rerecording

Michael McDonough Sound Editing

Scott Sandstrom

Foley Artist

Ryan Purcell

Special Sound Effects

Ben Burtt

Voice Casting

Barbara Harris

Voice of Cornelia Fort

Kath Soucie

Production Assistant

Will Zavala

Travel Provided by

Southwest Airlines
David Shepherd, Berkeley's Northside Travel

Film Processing


Photo Animation

Video Arts

Video Post-Production

Western Images

Online Editor

Greg Gilmore


Gary Coates

Research Support

Dawn Letson
Nancy Marshall Durr
The Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University

Special Thanks:

Robert and Lorraine Ladevich
Robin Lee
Ann Wood-Kelly
Lt. Col. Betty Jane Williams
Yvonne H. Smith
Maryann Bucknum Brinley
Sura Wood
Phil Paul
Joe Cowan, Chief of Staff, Confederate Air Force
B-29/B-24 Squadron of the Confederate Air Force
Big Country Squadron of the Confederate Air Force
National Park Service, National Capital Region
Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Virginia Air and Space Center

Archival Footage

Alberta Kinney
National Archives
National Air and Space Museum
ABC News Videosource
America by Air
Archive Films
EAA Sport Aviation Association
Energy Film Library
Grinberg Film Libraries
Hot Shots Cool Cuts Inc.
University of South Carolina
The WPA Film Library

Archival Photographs

The Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University
National Air and Space Museum
National Archives
Air Force Museum
Eisenhower Library
Women's Air and Space Museum
Peter Stackpole/Life Magazine (c) Time Inc.
Individual Collections


Frank Capria
Maureen Barden


James Dunford


Larry LeCain
Bob McCausland
Chas Norton
Robert Tompkins


Alison Kennedy
Chris Pullman


Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.

Mark Steele

Charles Kuskin

Christine Larson

Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell


Danielle Dell'Olio


Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker


Susan Mottau

Joseph Tovares


Mark Samels


Margaret Drain

A Silverlining Productions film

for The American Experience
(c)1999 WGBH Educational Foundation All rights reserved

Fly Girls


Face Behind the File - Women on the Wing

Colorado Experience Fly Girl

The Original Fly Girls

Under Section 107 of The Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

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