We have WASPs in our hangar…and we are happy to have them!
Your Champaign Aviation Museum invites you to come out and see a wonderful exhibit dedicated to the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots of World War II. This colorful, expansive display fills our reception area; it even (and appropriately) spills into the hangar space.
The WASP exhibit is the work of Ohio artist Sherry A. Ringler. It provides details as to why the WASPs were organized and features a large map detailing all the bases where WASPs trained and operated. In case you don’t know, WASPs were civilian, female pilots who provided ferrying service for training, and later, combat aircraft across the nation and over to various theaters of war. This was done in order to free male pilots for combat duty.
It was not an easy task and the creation of the program and its ongoing administration were fraught with difficulties and divergent perspectives. It was regarded as an experiment as to whether women could fly military airplanes, even though Germany, Russia, England and France already had female pilots That the WASPs were formed during a time of war only added to the difficulties.
In America, WASPs had to overcome chauvinism, stereotypes, disdain, and doubts just to become an organized unit. They had to be licensed pilots before being considered for the program. Then they had to prove themselves capable of handling training airplanes such as the PT-17 and AT-6. They passed such early tests with flying colors. So, OK…maybe these gals can handle trainers. But how about pursuit ships? Can they fly the P-40 Tomahawk, P-38 Lightning, and even the P-51 Mustang? No problem. How about bombers? Near the end of the program, they were beginning to fly the B-17 and B-24 as readily as any male pilot. They turned the fraternity of the sky into sorority as well.
But military aviation was far from an equal opportunity employer. Doubts continued as to their viability and ability, even in the face of the success…and for the WASPs, success was not in the form of any accolades, it was just simply getting the job done: ferrying airplanes from point A to point B. Their story is one of perseverance, skill, and sacrifice. Of the 1,074 WASPs, 38 lost their lives in service to their country. Gertrude Tompkins was the last WASP to lose her life and she has not yet returned home. She remains in the wreckage of her P-51, most likely off the southern California coast. Two expeditions have been mounted and a third is contemplated, to try to recover her remains, and to try to determine what happened on October 30, 1944.
Though the WASPs flew every type of military airplane, they remained civilians and never truly received the recognition, nor the benefits available to men, that their service earned. The debate over militarizing this unit sparked great controversy in the Army Air Corps and in Congress. These remarkable, pioneering women served their country with valor and completed the task as they began, as civilians. Despite their contributions, on December 20, 1944, their units were disbanded, they were unceremoniously dismissed, and told to find their own way home.
WASPs…unsung, unappreciated, and largely unkown. The Champaign Aviation Museum is proud to have a part in helping illuminate the path they took. The display, (including Fifinella, of course) is a wonderful way to share their story and to tell visitors of the tremendous contribution they made to the war effort. Interestingly, the display includes lifesize cardboard cutouts of the WASPs holding their service pictures. These cutouts spill out into our hangar space and as you walk around our airplanes, you’ll probably bump into a WASP as well. This might be the most significant aspect of the display. It is truly fitting and helps cement the idea that these women flew these airplanes and helped our nation win the largest war in history.
Today, the place and accomplishments of women in aviation are found throughout the world…and above it. Eileen Collins commanded the space shuttle, twice. Kathryn Sullivan flew aboard it three times. Nicole Malachowski was an USAF Thunderbird pilot and was an F15 instructor pilot. Indeed, Captain Malachowski says seeing a WASP display when she was twelve years old validated her dream to be a fighter pilot. Women fly crop dusters, airliners, helicopters, general aviation airplanes, and the space shuttle.
Yet, we cannot consider their accomplishments without having other names in the conversation; names such as Jacqueline Cochran, Betty Blake, Vi Cowden, Caro (sic) Bailey Bosca, Gertrude Tompkins and all the other WASPs. Their accomplishments in aviation proved they were the equal of men and could fly high performance airplanes.
So, come out to our museum and help us celebrate this little known, but extremely significant, group of women aviators. Join us in saluting the WASPs: the first generation of American women, who climbed into their country’s most elite military airplanes, ran the throttles up, and changed the course of history.