We Represented All Women

During World War II, WASPs proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot.

Vi Cowden during her service with the WASPs in the 1940s. (Courtesy Jonna Hoppes)

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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.”

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