A Pearl Harbor Mystery
How a 1940s Interstate Cadet trainer sent a famous airshow pilot on a journey to find a kindred spirit.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
National Museum of the USAF; Texas Woman's University Libraries; Library of Congress; Photo Illustration by Theo
(Page 3 of 6)
Fort eventually escaped Hawaii. She was determined to get into the flying war effort on the mainland and show what was possible for women pilots, at a time when neither the military nor the general public took them seriously. She succeeded, but at great cost. In September 1942, she was one of the first 25 female pilots accepted into government service as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS). It was the forerunner of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which in August 1943 would absorb the WAFS. Fort didn’t live to see that day. She was killed in March 1943 while delivering a new BT-13 trainer to an Army base in Texas. She was 24, and the first woman pilot to die on war duty in American history.
Fort’s Pearl Harbor escape had been widely recounted by newspapers in 1942, broadcast by Fort herself on the family’s Nashville radio station, and reported in her own words posthumously in the June 1943 Woman’s Home Companion magazine. By the 1960s, Fort’s flying lesson was a standard anecdote in popular histories of Pearl Harbor, and it was recounted, loosely, in the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora. In the film, Fort, who was young, dark-haired, and thin, was played by a matronly, middle-aged actress in blonde curls. More critically, Fort’s closed-cabin Interstate Cadet monoplane was played by an open-cockpit Stearman Kaydet biplane, a gaffe that still galls aviation historians and Cadet collectors.
Today, the job of keeping Fort’s story fresh falls to Dudley Fort Jr., a retired Tennessee surgeon, avid pilot, and Fort’s nephew, and his cousin Chloe Frierson Fort. Through them, Fort’s story (and her papers, memorabilia, and anecdotes) caught the attention of Rob Simbeck, a Nashville writer who in 1999 published a wonderfully researched biography, Daughter of the Air.
Dr. Fort has clear memories of his glamorous aunt. He was almost seven, he recalls, when in February 1943 she came through Atlanta on a ferry flight and stopped to see his father, Dudley Fort Sr., the youngest of Fort’s three older brothers. “My father brought her to the house,” Dr. Fort recalls. “He had promised that she would bring her parachute for us to see, but she had left it in the airplane. What a disappointment. She brought my brother and me a Dick Tracy cap pistol, which we were only allowed to use under supervision.”
In Dr. Fort’s telling, Aunt Cornelia emerges as a feisty, very modern woman who drank scotch, smoked cigarettes, and fought with Dr. Fort’s father over politics, religion, and whether any member of the Fort family, let alone a woman, should be flying when their father (also a physician) had been so against it. In the 1920s, the first Dr. Fort had summoned his three sons into his study to take an oath that they would never fly. Soon after her father’s death, in 1940, Cornelia announced that, because she had been too young and a girl, she was exempt from the Fort family oath. She then revealed that she’d been taking flying lessons.
Also unburdened by the oath, the current Dr. Fort is today the enthusiastic owner of an Aermacchi SF.260 aerobatic and military trainer, which he considers the ultimate light aircraft. So he understands how a certain airplane can take hold of the imagination. When he heard last spring that an airshow pilot from North Dakota had bought an Interstate Cadet, believing it could be Cornelia’s, he wished the man well. But he could not verify that the airplane was indeed his aunt’s.
Last April the Hawaiian Cadet (well, its pieces) arrived in North Dakota. The logbooks that came with it went back only to the mid-1950s. So Pietsch did the next best thing: He got a disk containing all the data that the Federal Aviation Administration and its forerunners had collected on N37266. He learned that the airplane had been manufactured at Interstate’s El Segundo plant (now somewhere under Los Angeles International Airport) on June 9, 1941, and sold 21 days later to Andrew Flying Service of John Rodgers Airport, Honolulu, T.H. (Territory of Hawaii). On July 30, 1941, Olen Andrew, the proprietor of the flying service, sold N37266 to the nine partners of the Underground Flying Club at John Rodgers. So the setup for N37266 was perfect: a club aircraft parked at a flying school where it could earn some of its keep as a trainer for the proprietor’s Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. In September 1941, Andrew hired Cornelia Fort as a CPT instructor.
N37266 did not appear in the government records again until July 4, 1946, when the head of the aviation trades program at Honolulu Vocational School filed an Aircraft Inspection Report detailing a long list of repairs and manufacturer’s updates, concluding with the typed remark, “Aircraft has been in storage since December 1941.” (Nearly all private aircraft in Hawaii were grounded after the December 7 attack.)