We Represented All Women
During World War II, WASPs proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot.
- By Jonna Dootlittle Hoppes
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 22, 2009
Courtesy Jonna Hoppes
(Page 2 of 4)
I’d like to tell you that I knew exactly what I was getting into when I signed up for the WASP program. But I didn’t. You see, the fledgling organization grew out of a merger between Nancy Love’s Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Both Love and Cochran believed that there was a “sound, beneficial place for women in the air—not to compete with or displace the men pilots, but to supplement them.” Over 25,000 women applied for this program. Standards were set much higher for women pilots than for their male counterparts. The training was rigorous and only 1,830 applicants made the cut. By the time they finished, almost 50 percent of them had washed out, leaving 1,074 graduates.
But I didn’t know any of this when I borrowed money from my sister to pay for the train ticket to Sweetwater, Texas. The Army furnished transportation from the train station to Avenger Field. Two GIs picked me up in an open truck. I expected the passenger to give up his seat and allow me to ride in the cab. However, I found myself in one of two seats in the back, with my little suitcase tucked between my feet.
A thought came to me as we bumped along the dry, rutted road. I am not competing with women anymore: I am out there competing in the men’s world. I am asking for a man’s job, so I have to start thinking that I’m not the girl, I’m the person that has a job to do and I have to do it as well, or possibly better, than most men. In fact, starting at that exact moment, bouncing around in the back of an Army truck, I needed to prove to the world that I could do it.
My heart sank with that first look at my new home. Sweetwater, Texas, is the rattlesnake capital of the world. Dusty, dry, and hot, the landscape stretched for miles in every direction in an unvarying shade of sand punctuated with tumbleweeds. I took one look and wanted to turn around and go home. If I’d had any money left, I just might have done that.
Especially after I saw the planes! “They’re so big!” I said to myself. “I don’t think I can do this!”
I shared a room in the barracks with five other girls. I was lucky; my rickety metal single bed was next to the window, so I wasn’t cramped in the middle. A communal shower with four heads separated us from six other girls in an identical room on the opposite side. It was so hot, there were days when we showered with our clothes on and let the evaporation cool our overheated bodies.
I’d arrived a week late, and by the time I got there, size 40 jumpsuits were about the only thing left. I wrapped a belt around my middle and rolled up the sleeves of my khaki wardrobe. I knew I looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care; Uncle Sam was about to provide me with a steady supply of airplanes and lots of gas.
The male instructors made training very difficult and washed out students for unnecessary things. Some of the girls entered the program with thousands of hours of flying time and still washed out. Each day of training I knew would be my last. None of us believed we would make it through.
The program required check rides with male pilots. There were four of us in a flight and my friend Betty was a basket case.
“I don’t think I can take this anymore,” she said, gripping my hand. “I just can’t do it.”
“Sure you can, Betty,” I told her. “Look—I’ll go first.”
I went first and passed.
“Betty, it really isn’t hard,” I told her after landing. “All we did was what they taught us, nothing particularly difficult. The hardest part is the landing.”
“You didn’t think it was hard?” Parker, one of the check pilots asked. He towered over me with an expression that radiated displeasure.
“Well,” I said, “we just did the same things we do every day in our training.”
The next morning I showed up at the flight line and had a check ride.
I went out and did fairly well. I didn’t mess up the landing and I followed the check pilot’s instructions without any problems. He didn’t say one word.
I found myself scheduled for another check ride the following day and I thought, “Oh brother!”
The next day I had a check ride and the day after that. For a week solid, every morning began with a check ride. Not once did the check pilot comment on my flying. By the end of the week, I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach, not even water. And I was really upset.
“I am going to get through this,” I told myself. I dug deep inside that well of determination so carefully nurtured by my parents. “I have to do this! I am going to do this!”
I climbed up in that P-19 and flew the socks off that little plane. My check pilot remained silent. But he didn’t wash me out.
When Jacqueline Cochran pinned on my wings, I covered them with my hand and said, “No one is ever going to take them away from me.”
We represented all women. It always bothered me when women expected certain privileges just because they were women. The WASP competed in a man’s world and carved out a place in it for women. We proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot, only between a good one and a bad one.
But flying was still a man’s world. When I arrived at Avenger Field, male cadets still trained there. We weren’t allowed to talk to them or even recognize them. It seemed like a silly rule, but one I could keep.
On my way to the Post Exchange one dry, dusty afternoon, one of the cadets whistled at me. I turned and gave him a dirty look. About that time, Jackie Cochran spotted me and called me into her office.
“You aren’t supposed to talk to the cadets,” she said.
“I wasn’t talking to him. I just looked at him.”
“Well,” she said, with a touch of mischief in her eyes, “you’re not supposed to look at them either!”
* * *
Forty-five-mile-an-hour crosswinds swept Love Field. Grounded, we sat around the flight room waiting for the winds to change or the weather to improve. Groups of girls visited, laughter bubbling up from shared exploits.
“Let’s go flying.” A self-assured check pilot, with an overlarge chip on his shoulder, loomed over me.
“Nobody’s flying today!” I answered.
“Well, if you can’t fly in 45-mile-an-hour crosswinds, you can’t fly.”
Can you imagine? I think he looked around that room and picked me out because I’m tiny. But my spirit wasn’t tiny.
“I will show you!” I thought, my eyes never leaving his.