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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He looked at me. “I’ve never flown with a woman before. I just knew I couldn’t let you go. I would feel responsible if something happened to you.”

“Well, look,” I said, realizing that I had nothing to lose. “I’m here. I’m volunteering. And if I am stupid enough to make a mistake, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.”

“Well,” he said after a moment of silent contemplation, “you can fly again tomorrow.”

He was really surprised that I could fly. It never occurred to him that a woman would be able to fly a pursuit plane.

And that’s exactly what I did! My orders would have me taking a P-51 from Dallas, Texas, to Long Beach, California. In Long Beach, I would pick up a different plane and fly to Newark, New Jersey. Or we’d fly to Wichita, Kansas, to pick up a Bamboo Bomber. We’d kick the tires and if the wings didn’t fall off, we’d climb in. Once you got your orders, you checked out an airplane. I mean, what you really did was buy that airplane. It was yours. If you had to stop halfway to your delivery point, you sent a message back to the base so they would know where that airplane was and where you were.

One night I sent a message that said, “Delivered a P-51. Mother and plane doing fine.” The guy reading the messages at about four o’clock that morning got a kick out of it.

I was an eager beaver and would happily pass on my seven-dollar per diem and sleep overnight on an airliner so I could start another round of deliveries the next morning. The WASP had very high priority with the airlines. Only the presidential party could bump us. One time, I kept track of my meals: I didn’t eat two meals in the same state for three days.

I only experienced one close call. I flew from Dallas to Long Beach. I called in for my landing instructions and the tower called back.

“You’re on fire. You need to circle the field and we’ll clear the area for your landing.”

I couldn’t see the fire, but I circled as instructed, and set the plane down on the runway. My training taught me to evacuate as soon as possible, so I grabbed the plane’s papers, my sock full of make-up and scrambled out. I stood there about 10 feet away from my plane—its locked wheel on fire, spewing smoke from the friction—with my ship’s papers in one hand and my sock of make-up in the other. “Oh, my gosh!” I thought to myself. “I’m such a girl!”

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