My previous blog, about women pilots in World War II, mentioned a young and daring pilot, Cornelia Fort. When it came to flying, she was on the fast track. Money was no problem, and it cleared the way for her to rack up the lessons she needed to solo, which she did April 20, 1940. By June of that year she had her private pilot’s license.
In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Pilots Training Program to help expand the aviation industry in response to the German problem in Europe. Fort applied for and got a job as an instructor in Colorado. Six months later, in October 1941, she left for a warm and sunny airport where she could spend more time in the air. Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was perfect. Cornelia described the view from above when she wrote an article for the June 1943 Woman’s Companion:
I can’t say exactly why I fly. . . . I knew it when I saw my plane sillouetted against the clouds framed by a circular rainbow. I knew it when I flew up into the extinct volcano Haleakala on the island of Maui and saw the gray-green pineapple fields slope down to the cloud-dappled blueness of the Pacific.
It was another perfect day when Cornelia took a student for a lesson. Sun, a blue sky, and being wrapped in the arms of a Piper Cub was all Cornelia wanted. She got more. It was December 7, 1941. Cornelia, the only woman in the air above Pearl Harbor, told Woman’s Companion that:
[c]oming in just before the last landing, I looked casually around and saw a military plane coming directly toward me. I jerked the controls away from my student and jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane. He passed so close under us that our celluloid windows rattled violently and I looked down to see what kind of plane it was. The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes. I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke . . . it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God . . .
As Cornelia saw a bomb explode in the harbor, she shoved the Cub into a dive and landed at the civilian airport. A shadow passed over her as she scrambled for the hanger amidst bullets that “spattered all around me.” The pilots counted the civilian planes as they came in, but two never made it. Those planes washed ashore weeks later full of bullet holes. Cornelia’s war-time career had begun.
Haley Elizabeth Garwood has penned four historical novels on women warriors. Learn more at her Web site.