Atlantic pilots who “ferry” planes call it the safest job in the war.
By the summer of 1941, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love independently submitted proposals to the U.S. Army Air Forces to use women pilots in non-combat missions, to free male pilots for combat roles. Cochran had flown in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934, and in 1937 was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She also worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race to women. Harkness and her husband had their own Boston-based aviation company, Inter City Aviation, and she also flew as a test pilot of other airlines in the late 1930s.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the USAAF, had turned down both proposals, despite lobbying by Eleanor Roosevelt. As the US was not yet fighting in the war, Cochran went to England to volunteer to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which had been using female pilots since January 1940, and was starting to train new ones as well. Cochran was the first American women to fly military aircraft, and other soon followed, flying Spitfires, Typhoons, Hudsons, Mitchells, Blenheims, Oxfords, Walruses, and Sea Otters -in non-combat roles, but in combat-like conditions.
Cochran returned to the United States in September 1942, just as the The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) went into operation, with Mrs. Love in charge, and women began ferrying planes from factory to airfields. Cochran had been promised command of any women’s flying organisation by Arnold, and demanded an explanation. As the dcision couldn’t be reversed, he made Cochran the commander of the 319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) at the Municipal Airport (now Hobby Airport) in Houston, Texas.
In July 1943 the WAFS and the WFTD were combined to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Cochran in command.