My mother still smiles out at me from a small black-and-white photo on my bookshelf. In the picture, she is a prim young woman in a crisp white shirt and smart pinafore. You can just make out a set of wings—her first—pinned to her chest. It is 1939, and she is only 17 years old. That gleam of silver over her heart and her grand smile say it all: She had achieved her dream. She could fly.
From This Story
My mother, Geraldine “Jerry” Hardman Jordan, was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. She knew she wanted to be a pilot from the time she was five years old, and she could pinpoint the moment she made that decision: May 22, 1927. On that day, she was at her grandparents’ farm outside the tiny town of Ontario, Oregon. The farmhouse had no radio or telephone; when major news broke, a neighbor simply saddled up his horse and rode from farm to farm to spread the word. The news he brought that day: Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic and landed in France. As my mother would tell us again and again, when the neighbor rode away, she looked up and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
With encouragement from her father and brother, Mom began flying when she was 15. Her uncle, a larger-than-life character named Casey Jones, was a pilot; he ran the small airport in Ontario, and let Mom work at the field. Her first paycheck went to buy a pair of jodhpurs and riding boots, so she could be decked out like her hero, Lindbergh, but after that, every dime of her pay went toward flight time. She did all the airport scut work imaginable: sweeping the enormous hangar, washing airplanes, and—in a demonstration of true dedication—cleaning the inside of Casey’s airplane after he’d taken passengers with fragile stomachs up for their first flights. In return, Casey gave her flying lessons. “I took my time however I could,” she told me. “Fifteen minutes here, 20 minutes there—whatever I could scrounge up the money for.”
Casey had spent some time barnstorming and had a surplus Curtiss Jenny that he used to teach her the basics. “We’d pick out a straight line on the ground, like a road, and fly back and forth making S turns across the road,” my mother explained. “Our favorite entertainment was to fly over the mountains of Idaho and look for landing spots.” On one of these trips, her pocket change hadn’t bought quite enough to fill the tank, and she and Casey had to make an unscheduled landing in a farmer’s field. She told me about chasing away cows, eager to lick the Jenny’s fabric skin, while Casey hiked to the nearest town for gas.
In 1939, the University of Nevada at Reno was granted 20 slots for Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) trainees. Ostensibly established to increase general aviation opportunities, the unspoken message of the CPTP was clear: As conditions deteriorated in Europe, the country needed a pool of well-trained pilots ready to take on military duties. My mother, who had graduated high school early, was working as secretary to the university president. Nineteen young men came forward for the training at the school that year, leaving one slot open, which Mom took. The program provided a 72-hour ground school and 35 to 50 hours of flight instruction. My mother earned her pilot’s license that year, but after war was declared in 1941, pilots had to prove their identity to get a wartime aviator’s ID. She couldn’t produce a birth certificate, and struggled for a year to get authorized to fly. At the same time, efforts were under way in Washington, D.C., to put America’s female pilots to work for the war effort.
Nancy Harkness Love and Jacqueline Cochran had both submitted plans to use female pilots in non-combat missions. Love established the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) with the support of Colonel William H. Tunner, commander of the Army Air Forces Air Transport Command. While Love oversaw the WAFS out of New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware, Cochran set up the 319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment at the Houston Municipal Airport in Texas. By mid-1943, the two groups were merged into the WASP, training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Eventually, 25,000 women would apply for WASP training. Just over 1,800 applicants were accepted; only 1,074 would complete the program.
In assembling the WASP program, Cochran and her staff scoured the records of the Civil Aeronautics Administration to find female aviators to participate. They discovered 2,733 licensed U.S. female pilots in the files, and sent them telegrams inviting them to apply for the WASP program.
Mom was assigned to Class 43-W-5, the fifth WASP training class and the first group to go through all of its training in Sweetwater. Arriving there, the women discovered the military was ill-prepared to accommodate female aviators. The WASPs were issued men’s surplus mechanics’ overalls—in sizes 44 and up—which the women quickly dubbed “zoot suits.” One of my favorite photos of my mother is her in her baggy zoot suit, soaking wet and grinning like crazy, after going through an Avenger Field ritual: a dunk in the field’s wishing well to celebrate a successful solo flight.
WASPs went through 22 1/2 weeks of training as rigorous as the training male Army Air Forces cadets received, but the women skipped gunnery and formation flying. Simply surviving training could be risky: 11 women died before reaching graduation. My mother told stories of near disaster, such as climbing into airplanes that were sometimes missing pieces of equipment here and there. Once, during a posting to New Castle Army Air Base, she tried to land an AT-6 at night. The whole flight had been beset by mechanical problems, and, on approach, neither my mother nor the tower could tell if the landing gear was down. Mom described flying that Texan in circles over the Atlantic Ocean for more than an hour to burn excess fuel. She was terrified upon landing, but to everyone’s relief, the gear was locked down and all was well.
Although the work carried significant risks, that time in my mother’s life created some of her most treasured memories. When she talked about her WASP days, she always said that she would not have traded the experience for anything. “I just loved it,” she would say. “If I had to pay them for the privilege, I still would have done it.” She talked not just about her love of flying but also about the satisfaction of carrying out a patriotic duty.