In Part I we left Cornelia Fort, a flight instructor, near Pearl Harbor, dodging Japanese bullets on that fateful day in December 1941. Any sane female would’ve opted for a quick trip home, a pampered lifestyle – which by the way Cornelia was born into – and a weekly pedicure. Cornelia Fort was not a young woman who enjoyed passive activities.
Marianne Verges, author of On Silver Wings, said Fort knew women were ferrying planes for the Canadians and the Brits, and she wanted to ferry planes for the United States. After all, she’d witnessed the Japanese attack her beloved Hawaii. On September 6, 1942, Fort received a telegram from the War Department that ordered her to report within twenty-four hours to the new Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). She had to pay her own way to New Castle Army Air Base near Wilmington, Delaware. Fort left immediately to join an elite group of young women under the guidance of Nancy Harkness Love.
In spite of 1,200 hours of flying experience, most of it as instructors, the women had to do forty days of training before being turned loose with a military aircraft. According to Rob Simbeck in the May 30, 1996, Nashville Scene, many of the women “spent six weeks being instructed in piloting airplanes they had already flown . . . sat through lessons that many of them had already taught to their own students.”
The women believed that after their training they, like their male counterparts, would be a part of the Army Air Force. They were not. This meant that the women couldn’t hitch rides on military aircraft back to their bases after they had ferried a plane. They had to fly on civilian planes, take the train or find some other way back. After grueling flights, the women were tired, hungry, dirty, and poorly treated. Still, they needed to fly.
Fort was assigned to a Long Beach, California, base and immediately checked out on a powerful single Pratt-Whitney 450-horsepower, 9-cylinder radial engine called a BT-13. The plane was designated as a basic trainer with a wing span of 42 feet and a choppy 28-foot body. The fixed gear didn’t slow it down and speeds were around 150 knots per hour depending on altitude. Fort flew these planes to Dallas so often she didn’t have to use a radio more than a few times on the trips.
Cornelia Fort had a zest for life, for flying, for adventure that should’ve carried her into the future. One can imagine her after World War II fighting to be a commercial pilot or to continue as an instructor. Unfortunately, Fort died as she lived: at the controls of a BT-13.
As part of a group of ferry pilots on a mission to Texas, one BT-13 was too close and its fixed gear clipped Fort’s canopy. Out of control, she slammed into the Texas dirt at full speed. She lived her dream, but it ended too soon.
Haley Elizabeth Garwood has penned four historical novels on women warriors. Learn more at her Web site.