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Winged Auxiliaries:
Women Pilots in the UK and US during World War Two

by Dr. Helena P. Schrader
Originally published in " THE JOURNAL OF NAVIGATION" (2006), 59, 1-13. © The Royal Institute of Navigation
doi:10.1017/S0373463306003651 Printed in the United Kingdom
(Reprinted with permission)

During World War II women in the US and the UK were given the then unprecedented opportunity to fly military aircraft.  Yet while the women flying in the UK soon gained the privileges and status enjoyed by their male colleagues, the American women pilots were expressly denied the same status, rank, pay, and benefits as USAAF pilots.  In fact, after an ugly slander campaign against the women pilots' organization, the US programme was discontinued and the women were sent home before their job was done.  The American women pilots were not less dedicated or inherently less capable than the women flying in Britain.  Rather, key environmental and organizational differences and above all a failure of leadership accounts for their fate.  This paper summarizes the differences and their impact.

The complete findings of the comparative research on the experiences of women pilots in the US and the UK during WWII was published by Pen & Sword Books Inc. early in 2006 under the title Sisters in Arms.


Read the whole article or select a subject heading below to get to a section directly.



The British organization in which women flew, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), was conceived during the Munich Crisis and launched shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War under the auspices of the Director General of Civil Aviation and headed by the originator of the idea, Gerard d'Erlanger.  It was designed to employ pilots not eligible for service in the RAF or FAA in support capacities.  The assumption was that a massive bombing campaign would follow the outbreak of the war causing an estimated 40,000 civilian casualties in the first week and completely disrupting land lines of communication.  It was therefore initially envisaged that the ATA would fly light civilian aircraft to carry dispatches, VIPs, wounded or vital supplies.

In the event, the massive air raids failed to materialize and there was no need for the above services.  However, the RAF found itself short of pilots for ferrying aircraft from factories to squadrons.  The ATA pilots were asked to assist and agreed.  This meant flying Service aircraft rather than the light aircraft with which the pilots were familiar, so short "conversion" courses at RAF Central Flying School were introduced.  Within months the ATA pilots proved so successful at this task that from May 1, 1940 until almost the end of the war the ATA held a virtual monopoly on this function for both the RAF and FAA.  Thus, although ATA remained a separate and civilian organization, the ATA became the ferrying arm of the RAF for the greater portion of the war.

The ATA started in 1939 with just 30 pilots and seven non flying support staff, and its strength peaked in early 1945 with 637 pilots, 127 flight engineers and 2,633 ground staff.  As manpower requirements grew, the ATA created its own training programme and establishment.  It had as many as 143 training aircraft, roughly a dozen instructors and ran over 6,000 training courses, including ab initio training for pilots starting in 1942.  In addition to ferrying and training, the ATA operated its own fleet of "taxi aircraft" (218 taxi strong in early 1945), and an "Air Movements Flight," which provided charter services for both passengers and freight at government/service request.  By the end of the war, the ATA had ferried 309,011 aircraft of 147 types, flown 742,614 hours, and carried 3,430 passengers and 883 tons of freight.  It did all that with pilots considered "sub-standard"  i.e. unfit for service with the RAF/FAA.

ATAThere were a number of unique aspects about the flying required of ATA pilots.  First and foremost, with the help only of the so-called "Pilot's Notes" contained on 4x6 cards, they were required to fly any aircraft of those classes on which they were qualified after a short course.  In short, they were expected to fly aircraft they had never seen - much less flown before - without any additional training.  Second, with a few exceptions later in the war, ATA pilots flew without radios and were expected to fly contact only.

The decision to employ women in the ATA was taken before the outbreak of the war and implemented by January 1, 1940, with the hiring of the first eight women and the appointment of Pauline Gower as Director of Women Personnel.  Although initially confined to light, training aircraft and hired at a pay rate 20% below that of men, by 1942 the women pilots had achieved equality of opportunity with respect to flying and from June 1943 onwards were granted equal pay for equal work.  Women made up on average 16% of pilot strength in the ATA, and served as instructors of both men and women, as Operations Officers and as Pool Commanders.  By the end of the war, women had qualified on virtually every type of aircraft flown by the ATA - including the first jets - with the exception of the large flying boats.  Altogether 162 women pilots and four women flight engineers flew with the ATA.

On the other side of the Atlantic the utilization of women pilots got off to a much later start, and a complicated beginning with two separate organizations.  As late as July 1941, the C-in-C of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), General Henry "Hap" Arnold, had categorically denied the need to employ women pilots in any capacity in or with the USAAF.  At American entry into the war, however, the Ferrying Division (FERD) of the USAAF discovered that it alone needed more pilots than existed in the entire Army Air Forces of the United States.  FERD therefore started hiring civilians - 3,500 of them within six months.  These were mostly men who failed to meet USAAF fitness/age requirements.  FERD also proposed hiring qualified women pilots and submitted a proposal to this effect in June 1942.  Although Arnold still hesitated to employ women, by September 1942 mounting pilot shortfalls forced his hand; the establishment of an "experimental" Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was authorized and announced.

Nancy LoveMembership in the squadron was restricted to women with a minimum of 500 flying hours and with a 200 hp rating.  The Commander was Nancy Love, a professional pilot with 1,200 hours and 600 hp rating.  Altogether 28 women with an average of 1,000 flying hours were sworn into the WAFS.  Organizationally the WAFS was treated as an integral part of FERD until it was absorbed into the WASP programme in August 1943.

A proposal for the USAAF to train women, who did not meet the requirements of FERD, had also been put forward in 1941 by the celebrity woman pilot, Jacqueline Cochran - and likewise rejected by Arnold.  Instead, Arnold encouraged Cochran to recruit American women pilots for the ATA, but apparently promised her command of any future organization for women pilots associated with the USAAF.  While still in England with her 25 recruits, Cochran received word of the formation of the WAFS, flew back to Washington and confronted Arnold.  Arnold agreed to establish a "Women's Flying Training Detachment" (WFTD) and appointed Cochran the director of women pilot training.  The objective of this programme was to see if it was possible to train women up to USAAF standards and, if so, to employ them in non combat capacities which would enable male pilots to be redeployed to combat missions.  After a slow start, an entire training facility, Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, was put at the disposal of the WFTD and successive classes of women with 35 hours pervious flying experience went through an average of seven months of training here.  A total of 1,830 women entered the programme and 1,074 completed training successfully.

In August 1943, the WAFS and WFTD were fused into a new organization, the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP.  Almost at once Cochran began pushing for the "militarization" of her new organization.  Since this required Congressional approval, a bill was sponsored and introduced in the House in late 1943.  Throughout the spring of 1944, while the WASP bill was before Congress, an increasingly virulent lobbying campaign against the WASP unfolded.  In June 1944, the WASP militarization bill was defeated in the House.  Just six weeks later, however, Cochran issued a report to the press in which she insisted that without militarization the organization ought to be disbanded.  Cochran's press release was widely interpreted as an ultimatum, and Air Force Staff responded by recommending de-activation of the WASP, effective December 20, 1944.


WWII plane bulletOrganizational Objectives and Structure

A comparison of the two organizations must start with a brief look at the organizational objectives and structures.

The ATA had one and only one objective:
to help the war effort in any conceivable way with a minimum of bureaucracy.

Although the direct commissioning of ATA pilots into the RAF was briefly considered, it was decided within just three months that the ATA should remain an independent, civilian organization with its own professional management, recruitment, training, command structure and support infrastructure.  In contrast, while the objective of the WAFS was likewise to provide qualified women pilots to the Ferrying Division of the USAAF, the objective of the WFTD and subsequently the WASP was to prove that women could fly as well as men.  It is fair to say that from the perspective of the WFTD/WASP's founder and commander, Jacqueline Cochran, helping the war effort was of secondary importance, and Cochran was careful not to let the war "interfere" with her experiment.  All three women's organizations in the US were nominally civilian (the women were never inducted into the U.S. Army), but the organizations lacked independence, infrastructure, resources and management.

WWII plane bulletRecruiting Requirements and Composition

Turning to a comparison of recruiting requirements it is notable that whereas the flying requirements of the ATA changed over time, throughout its short history, those requirements were identical for men and women. They were as follows:

bullet1939: minimum of an "A" license and 200 hours flying experience.
bullet1941: "A" license and 50 hours flying.
bulletMid-1942: any flying experience at all, even if it had not resulted in a license.
bulletMid-1943: no flying experience at all - start of ab initio training.

Age requirements in the ATA were 28-50 for men and 22-45 for women.  While there were no physical requirements for experienced pilots, female candidates for ab initio training had to be 5'6" tall and have an aptitude for sport.

In contrast, in the US great emphasis was placed on physical fitness and particularly the fact that the women pilot trainees had to meet the same physical requirements as male cadets entering the USAAF's training programme.  Otherwise, the requirements for women were consistently higher for women than for men.  In addition to being US citizens between the ages of 18-and-a-half and 35 years of age, women pilots had to have a high school diploma and two character references; male cadets were not required to be high school graduates or to name references.  Flying requirements were highest for the WAFS, where 500 flying hours and 200 hp rating were expected - although males flying for FERD only needed between 200 and 300 flying hours and no particular hp rating.  The flying requirements for the WFTD were reduced from 200 hours in November 1942, to 100 hours in December 1942, to 75 hours from January to March 1943, and then finally to 35 hours from April 1943 onwards.  Male air force cadets did not have to have any flying experience whatsoever.

As a result of the decidedly different recruiting policies, the composition of the WASP was distinctly different from that of the ATA.  Not only did ATA encompass male and female pilots aged anywhere from 20 to 55, it also recruited from 28 different countries.  WASP were all comparatively young (nearly a third were 21 or younger) and all were white American females.  Significantly, while ATA accepted pilots with severe physical disabilities from missing limbs to short-sightedness, WASP were expected to be in and stay in top physical condition.

WWII plane bulletTerms of Service

In few areas were the contrasts between the women flying with the ATA and the women with the WAFS/WASP greater than with regard to Terms of Service.  ATA women received the same training, wore the same uniform and held the same ranks as their male colleagues.  Furthermore, they received the same health and death benefits, and - most significantly in an age where the Treasury insisted on paying women roughly 20% less for equal work in all the other women's services - ATA women pilots received equal pay for equal work starting June 1943.  Furthermore, ATA women pilots were allowed - even encouraged - to advance as far as their abilities allowed, and the women in the ATA - as in the WAAF and WRENs - could hold command positions over men as well as women.

In contrast, WASP received training at a segregated establishment, and uniforms were not introduced until early 1944.  These were, furthermore, markedly dissimilar to anything worn by USAAF personnel.  More important, WASP received no health or death benefits whatsoever. Throughout the war, WASP pay was 14% below that of a 2nd Lieutenant and 35% below civilian males flying with FERD.  Significantly, pay did not increase with experience, duties or length of service.  Finally, WASP could not hold command positions over men.

WWII plane bulletTraining

A closer look at the training provided by the respective organizations is particularly revealing.  ATA training was designed specifically for ATA by BOAC's chief flying instructor, A.R.O Macmillan.  Instructors were initially experienced BOAC instructors and later senior ATA pilots with years of experience doing the kind of flying for which they were training pilots.  The key characteristics of ATA training were:

bulletTraining by 'class' of aircraft.
bulletGradual progression from light to heavy aircraft.
bulletHeavy emphasis on cross-country experience and navigation.
bulletThe absence of training in extraneous skills such as blind flying, aerobatics, formation flying or RT use.

Training was structured to provide maximum "on-the-job" training, using operational aircraft for training and alternating periods of training with periods of actual ferrying.  It was also designed to enable pilots to progress at their own pace after gaining confidence.  The objective was to pass out as many candidates as possible; only 12% of all women and an even smaller percentage of male candidates (2%) washed out.  In short, ATA training rapidly produced pilots capable of flying a vast variety of aircraft in wartime conditions without radios despite frequently having severe physical handicaps.

WFTD training, in contrast, was intended to replicate of USAAF cadet training exactly. As with the cadets, training was carried out by a civilian contractor.  However, in the case of the WFTD, the contractor had previously been engaged only in civilian training, and none of the instructors had actually performed the kind of flying duties the graduates of the WFTD would later be expected to perform.  In addition, instructor qualifications were very uneven - in some case instructors had less flying experience than the women trainees.  The training curriculum was, on the -other hand, extremely comprehensive. It included

bulletAcademic subjects such as physics and maths,.
bulletMilitary law, courtesy and arms.
bulletAerobatics and formation flying.
bulletRoughly 30 hours instrument flying.
bulletA great deal of physical education, i.e. callisthenics and drill.

Notably underrepresented in the programme was navigational training or any kind of "on-the-job" training.  On the contrary, all training was conducted at a single, isolated facility and on training aircraft only.  Nor were trainees allowed to progress at their own pace after gaining confidence step by step.  Each member of a class had to pass out the various stages of training within very narrow time limits.  Altogether, WFTD training took five to seven months after which the graduates generally required further training in navigation and on operational aircraft before they could go on active duty.  Despite the high entry requirements and the comprehensiveness and length of training, only 58% of all candidates completed training successfully.

WWII plane bulletDuties

Once pilots had passed out of training, the duties assigned varied greatly.  In the ATA pilots were primarily assigned to ferrying duties, although there were some other duties such as flying the taxi aircraft, instructing or transporting passengers and freight as part of the Air Movements Flight.  A limited number of pilots rose to command positions, including the women who commanded the three "women's" Ferry Pools.  Altogether, ATA women pilots flew 145 different types of aircraft, while individual pilots who were with the organization for several years generally flew between 70-90 types.

Keeping in mind that more than half of all WASP were still in training at the time the programme was deactivated, the largest number of WASP on active duty were also engaged in ferrying.  However, WASP pilots were also employed in a wide variety of other tasks.  These included:

bulletTarget towing.
bulletRadar calibration.
bulletSmoke laying.
bulletEngine and maintenance testing.
bulletFlying as co-pilots at training facilities for aircrew.
bulletThe transportation of supplies and personnel.

Although WASP trained as instructors, they were not employed as such.  Furthermore, although some WASP were given nominal authority over other WASP, they were not part of the USAAF command structure.  WASP flew a total of 77 different types of aircraft ; but individual pilots generally only flew a handful of types each.  The WASP in FERD were initially confined to light training aircraft and subsequently funnelled into fighters because a command decision had prohibited women from making deliveries across the Atlantic.

WWII plane bulletFlying Conditions

Finally, no comparison of the objective factors determining the experiences of women pilots in WWII would be complete without looking at the conditions under which they flew.  ATA pilots, male and female, had to cope with very wet, changeable weather without the benefit of radios or instrument training. WASP pilots usually had radios and generally more stable weather conditions, but did occasionally have to face thunderstorms, sandstorms, blizzards and extremes of temperature unknown in the UK.  Another key difference in flying conditions was that while flights of more than a couple hundred miles were rare for pilots flying in the UK, WASP flying for the Ferrying Division considered trips of 200-300 hundred miles a "short hop" and often had to undertake trans-continental flights.

Perhaps the most striking difference between flying conditions in the UK and the US was the fact that the UK was a war zone. ATA pilots were subject to enemy action both while in the air or on the ground, and there is more than one recorded incident of encounters with the Luftwaffe.  The risks of being in a war zone were not confined to those caused by the enemy either.  ATA pilots faced hazards from barrage balloons, over-eager anti-aircraft batteries and a highly sensitive Fighter Command.  In contrast, WASP were employed exclusively in the Continental United States, where neither enemy action nor defensive measures inhibited flying safety.  Throughout most of the US there was not even a blackout in effect.



WWII plane bulletMilitary Traditions

Important as the above described objective differences were, subjective factors also had a great impact on the failure of the WASP as an organization.  Turning first to the issue of tradition, it is significant that in the UK women's services had demonstrated their utility and efficiency during WWI.  Furthermore, as a result of the acute manpower shortage in World War II, female conscription was introduced in Great Britain by February 1942.  In short, the nation as a whole had no choice but to become accustomed to the notion of women taking an active part in the war.  Yet it was very much to the credit of the RAF - the Service of most relevance to the women flying for the ATA - that it was a leader in opening opportunities up to women via the WAAF.

In the US, women had not served in the military in WWI on any significant scale.  Equally significant, American women never faced any kind of conscription during WWII.  Those women who did join the Women's Army Corps (WAC) were consistently employed below their level of qualification and WAC officers were prohibited from exercising authority over men by Act of Congress.

WWII plane bulletMale Attitudes

Given these different traditions, it is hardly surprising that on the whole the attitudes of male superiors and colleagues toward women pilots was more positive in the UK than in the US.  The founders of the ATA and it's senior officers insisted on equality of opportunity for the women right from the start, and the attitude of most fellow pilots within the organization can be described as initially sceptical but not outright hostile.  Likewise, after a little hesitancy, the RAF responded very positively to the employment of women pilots.  As generally happens, prejudice was defeated by equality of opportunity, which enabled women to demonstrate their competence.

The situation in the US was quite different.  The attitude of the USAAF's senior officers towards the women pilots was ambiguous and inconsistent.  The C-in-C of the USAAF, General Arnold, vehemently opposed the employment of women until September 1942.  He then ordered them to be given a chance to replace men in all non combat capacities, but as soon as two women were ready to ferry a B-17 across the Atlantic, he personally stopped them at take-off.  Likewise women pilots who were successfully demonstrating the docility of the feared B-29 were rapidly kicked out of the cockpit.  Women were also trained to be instructors and then prohibited from serving as such.  Clearly the Air Force Staff was not completely comfortable with women pilots and unwilling to grant them equality of opportunity.  At command level the message to women was equally ambiguous.  The principle of equal status was discarded in favour of "special status" from the start.  While FERD advocated the employment of qualified women pilots, it rejected many graduates of the WFTD as incompetent.  While some base commanders welcomed the WASP and found them better than hoped for, others felt they failed to live up to expectations.

As for the attitude of their colleagues, many American male pilots openly resented the women pilots.  Instructors told female trainees that they were washed out because:

"I don't like your face today and I won't like it any more tomorrow."
Granger, 1991. p247

Army check pilots admitted to coming to the WASP training establishment with the intention of seeing "how many of you women I could wash out." (Cole, 1992. p75)  At Camp Davis, hostility to the deployment of WASP had been so intense that the ground crews had requested transfers en masse when told they would be servicing WASP aircraft.  The male pilots at the base also threatened to strike.  The CO told the WASP they could fly aircraft long over-due for maintenance because they were "expendable."  Notably, it was at this base that a number of crashes involving WASP occurred; two were fatal.  In one of these crashes traces of sugar were found in the fuel tanks.

WWII plane bulletOrganizational Ethos

Almost as important as national traditions and general male attitudes was the ability of an organization to give its members a sense of identity and pride through a strong "corporate culture."  It is therefore significant that ATA soon evolved an esprit de corps, which contemporaries compared to "a crack squadron of the RAF." (Phelps, 1946. p8) In contrast, the WASP singularly failed to develop a comprehensive organizational ethos.  Despite the homogeneity of the WASP, the women pilots were engaged in too many diverse tasks and assigned to too many different bases - usually in small numbers among tens of thousands of males - for the women to develop a coherent identity.  Morale varied greatly from unit to unit and was notoriously poor in several key bases.

Only during training at Avenger Field were the women together long enough and in sufficient numbers while doing exactly the same things for an organizational ethos to evolve.  Not surprisingly for young women (86% of the WASP were younger than 27), living on an isolated installation and subject to military discipline for the first time in their lives, the dominant ethos appears to have been a yearning to conform and be "part of the Army."  In part that desire was patriotic, WASP Theresa James wrote in her diary for October 12, 1942:

"The mud doesn't matter. The continuous rain and cold don't matter. I'm just so proud to be here, to be part of this Army.  There is something a little difficult to describe about soloing a plane with a big star on it." (Rickman, 2001, p67)

marchingThe women at the WFTD wanted to march and fly with the Army - just like their brothers, boy friends and husbands were doing. The tone at Avenger was thus set by young women striving to prove themselves by imitating male cadets - including irresponsible behaviour.  This was characterized by pillow fights and pranks, by "hazing" lower-classmen and, tragically, by "buzzing," mock dog-fighting, and dare-devil aerobatics that ended in several fatal crashes.

The ATA organizational ethos, in contrast, was set by the mature and experienced airmen and women, who had been the first recruits.  The dominant characteristics were mature self-reliance combined with a certain disdain for formal hierarchies.  Discipline was understated and informal, because the organizational ethos of performing to the absolute limit of one's ability was so strong that discipline was not necessary. As one ATA member put it : ...the almost unspoken hint that misbehaviour or dangerous flying might mean exclusion from the privilege of being in the ATA was quite enough" to keep every one in line. (Bergel, 1982, p75).  The ATA was also pointedly non-conformist and tolerant of diversity.  This applied not only to non regulation uniforms or the diversity of accents and customs, but to levels of competency as well.  This was highly beneficial for young or inexperienced pilots in the early stages of service since, as one woman who flew with the ATA stressed, "you were never, ever criticized for turning back - no mater how inconvenient for the taxi pilot or anyone else." (Welch, 1998.)

The ultimate evidence for the impact of organizational ethos upon the experiences of the women pilots is, however, the following incident.  WASP Marion Toevs killed herself trying to roll an aircraft at 300 feet.  Her Commanding Officer was a returned combat pilot from the US 8th Airforce.  "He [knew] American women serving in England with the ATA.  They [were] safe pilots, all of them.  They would never [have] buzz[ed], much less [tried] a slow roll at 300k." (Granger, 1991, p290.)  The difference in behaviour between the women of the ATA and the WASP was not a function of nationality but organizational ethos.



Despite the differences in external environment and internal culture, the deactivation of the WASP was triggered by the intensely hostile publicity campaign that surrounded the Congressional debate on legislation to militarize the WASP.  It is therefore appropriate to look more closely at the press and public relations of both ATA and WASP before examining the crucial role played by key personalities.

WWII plane bulletPress Relations

Turning first to the press treatment of the women in the ATA, it is interesting to note that reporting was quite hostile in early 1940.  Many commentators, particularly from the public, objected to women "taking jobs away" from presumably better qualified men. The tone is captured by one lengthy editorial published in The Aeroplane on 5 January, 1940 in which a male pilot, Harold Collings, argued indignantly :

"Women are not seeking this job for the sake of doing something for their country, but for
the sake of publicity ...Women who are anxious to serve their country should take on work
more befitting their sex instead of encroaching on a man's occupation." (Collings, 1940)

The tone changed abruptly in May 1940 when the "Phoney War" ended and every man and woman in the UK felt themselves to be on the "Front Line."  From that point forward, the portrayal of the women pilots of the ATA was consistently positive.  As early as August 1940, they were even the recipients of the ultimate accolade of the day: being associated with the "Fighter Boys." ("... the women are now allowed to fly the Miles Master, the monoplane with which the RAF trains their fighter pilots in the last stages before putting them in Hurricanes and Spitfires." Evening Standard, August 23, 1940)  Women ATA pilots were generally described as a component part of a vital organization, and while many contemporaries felt that the press lavished too much attention on the women, it seldom did so in isolation.  The only film about the ATA produced during the war, what we would now call a docu-drama, followed a day-in-the-life of two (real) male ferry pilots, while the women were given only a brief introduction.  In summary, the press coverage of the ATA can be characterized as positive to flattering, with the women receiving perhaps a disproportionate but not an overwhelming proportion of the attention.  What strikes the modern reader is the consistent focus on what a good job the ATA was doing in helping the RAF.  The ATA managed the extremely difficult task of turning not having adventures into a news story, with a rigorous focus on successful deliveries and low accident rates.  This is masterful messaging, to say the least, and something very few organizations succeed at doing even in our more media conscious world today.

The contrast to the press coverage accorded the WASP could hardly be more striking.  First, the initial response to the creation of a women's squadron in the US was to make them instant celebrities - and the emphasis was from the start on glamour rather than accomplishments.  The (admittedly very attractive) commander of the WAFS, Nancy Love, appeared on the front page of New York Times Magazine, in Cosmopolitan and in a full page, close-up in Life - and she was selected as one of the six American women in public life with "the most beautiful legs." (Verges, 1991, p51)  Love herself objected strenuously to this treatment and started to refuse interviews.  The C-in-C of the Ferry Division, General Tunner (later famous as the architect of the Berlin Airlift 1948-1949) protested vigorously to the War Department's Bureau of PR, complaining both that the publicity was interfering with the operations of the squadron and that it was often grossly inaccurate.  His protests had no effect.  On the contrary, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and started to produce a film - not a docu-drama like Ferry Pilot in the UK - but a full-fledged Hollywood film using professional actors and a fictionalized story line.  The film focused on the emotional lives of the women pilots and portrayed them as irresponsible and emotional.

WASP Sun bathingPress coverage of the women pilots consistently focused on their physical characteristics and the photographic coverage preferred to show them "lightly clad" - i.e. at physical education or sunbathing off duty - rather than doing their jobs.  Likewise, WASP marriages and crashes were reported avidly in the press, as was the alleged power struggle between Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran.  By early 1944 the press had turned hostile.  Thereafter the press sent a predominantly negative message about the WASP, namely that they were incompetent, spoilt, and superfluous.  Their training was allegedly excessively expensive, their uniforms extravagant, and their contribution to the war effort nil.  Suddenly they were accused of taking jobs away from competent males - namely the civilian instructors at the hundreds of flying schools that were being closed down as the war effort wound down.  These male pilots were suddenly out of a job and out of a draft exemption.  The response of the organization to this hostile press campaign was silence.  No effort was made by Cochran to counter the negative press.  On the contrary, she forbade her  "girls" from giving interviews or even writing to their Congressmen to set the record right.  Only after the Bill had been defeated in Congress did Cochran go on the offensive - by releasing a report in which she reiterated the arguments for militarization and insisted that without it the WASP should be disbanded.  Since the Air Force Staff could not over-rule Congress, it had only two choices: ignoring Cochran or following her suggestion to disband.  Since the hostility of the media and Congress to the WASP made the entire programme a liability to a service with more important battles to fight (such as winning the war and winning independence from the Army), the Air Force Staff moved rapidly to disband the WASP.   In short, the WAFS/WASP leadership failed to provide a consistent message regards WASP duties, competence and contribution to the war effort.  The image of the WASP was the creation of the press rather than the organization - an utter failure of PR.

WWII plane bulletLeadership

The role Cochran played in the de-activation of the WASP brings us to the final factor with a major impact on the fate of women pilots in World War Two: leadership.  In the UK, the highest ranking woman pilot was Pauline Gower, the daughter of a Member of Parliament, who had established and run her own modest but successful joy riding aviation company.  She is remembered for her low profile leadership style, her professionalism and fairness.  Yet the really remarkable thing about Gower was that she consistently got what she wanted without making any apparent fuss.  Contemporaries felt that the women in the ATA "owed a great deal to her diplomacy and sense of timing, for she had to know when to fight and when to give ground." (de Bunsen, 1960, p103) One example:

"She waited for the right moment, and instead of bludgeoning her way in, she asked the
Commanding Officer of the Training Flight if he thought his instructors, who were known to
be the best in the world, would take on the challenge of training her women ATA pilots up to
the standard?  It worked! " (Fahie, 1995, p149)

Cochran US stampThe senior woman on the American side of the Atlantic was of completely different calibre.  Jacqueline Cochran was the epitome of a self-made woman - in more ways than one.  She rose from abject poverty to extreme wealth, from nameless obscurity to fame, from utter helplessness to power.  She also invented and re-invented herself as she went along, changing her date of birth, name and CV at whim.  Her leadership style was the opposite of "low profile" and "diplomatic."  She was obsessed with publicity and self-aggrandizement. She considered herself - and made sure everyone knew that she considered herself - "the greatest woman pilot in aviation history."  (The sub-title of her autobiography.)  In fact, she never qualified on heavy aircraft, never pioneered new routes or aircraft, and never flew in a war zone much less in combat.

The following incident provides insight into Cochran's character.  Although she had never flown a twin-engined aircraft, Cochran became convinced that flying a lend-lease bomber across the Atlantic would be "good publicity."  With her husband's money she chartered a Lockheed Lodestar and hired Northeast Airlines pilots to train her.  After just 25 hours in the cockpit, she believed she "knew as much as a Northeast Airlines pilot." (Cochran & Brinley, 1987, p176)  The check pilots of the Atlantic Ferry organization did not agree, but her husband, a major contributor to Roosevelt's presidential campaign, used his political connections to induce the Ministry of Aircraft Production to insist on letting Cochran fly the Atlantic.

The role Cochran played in the ATA - and her portrayal of it - are even more revealing.  Cochran recruited 25 American women for the ATA and accompanied them to England.  By the time Cochran arrived in the summer of 1942 the ATA was already a highly efficient organization with an excellent training programme.  There was no need in any administrative capacity for an uneducated, American woman who had never worked in the aviation industry - much less in ferrying - either as an administrator, instructor or pilot.  Nor was Cochran prepared to do what Admirals and RAF Group Captains had done before her: go through ATA training.  As a result, she was not permitted to fly with the ATA.  Yet when she returned to the US in September 1942, she immediately gave a press conference where she implied she had established and run the ATA's training programme. (Verges, 1991, p65)

Yet with regard to the flying training programme for which she was in fact responsible, the WFTD, she took no interest in the curriculum whatsoever. She did not even live on the training facility; she preferred an office in the Pentagon.  The actual work of her command was delegated to a woman she personally selected and whose sole qualifications for the job were being a wife and mother and Red Cross swimming instructor; she was not even a pilot.

As Director of the WASP, Cochran concerned herself primarily with gaining militarization, handling PR and personnel assignments. Her success at the former two tasks has already been outlined above.  With regard to the latter, she ordered WASP between commands, bases and squadrons without regard for the USAAF standard operating procedures and without informing the Commanders of either the units from which they were taken away or to which they were assigned.  Commands were sometimes asked to pay for women whose services they did not have, and in some cases WASP went without pay for months.  Furthermore, in her zeal to prove all that women could do, women were frequently sent on "temporary duty" for additional training with no relevance to their official duties.  As a result, Officers Commanding WASP never knew if, when or for how long the WASP assigned to their unit would be available for duty.  The extent of the problem can be judged by the fact that at any one time as much as 66% of the WASP in any one command might be on temporary duty somewhere else. (Granger, 1991. P. 409) The WASP themselves had no say over assignment or transfers, and protests led to dismissal.  Cochran's concern for her subordinates is best summarized by saying that she preferred to order the cover-up of a possible case of sabotage than to risk "poor publicity" for her programme by investigating the allegations.

In short, while the women in the ATA were in the hands of a modest, competent and politically savvy commander, the WASP were commanded by a woman who consistently over-estimated herself and viewed command as a platform for fulfilling her own agenda rather than a responsibility to those in her care.


While the individual women pilots flying in the US and the UK demonstrated courage and competence, the ATA was notably much more successful than the WASP as an organization.  The ATA both fulfilled its organizational mission, rapidly made itself indispensable to the RAF, and - as an unintentional side effect - gave women equality of treatment and opportunity.  The WASP, in contrast, was a dismal failure both on the basis of its own stated objectives and in terms of providing its members with equal opportunity, status, and benefits.

By the time the ATA was disbanded it had demonstrated a remarkable ability to transform "sub-standard" pilots into highly effective ferry pilots in a short time and at low cost.  In contrast, WASP training was characterized by being long, expensive and ineffective.  While the ATA contributed substantially to the war effort, the WASP role was marginal.  The ATA left a significant legacy to post-war aviation, while the WASP was disbanded, its record classified and its story forgotten for thirty years.

The reasons for the greater effectiveness of the ATA include a flexible and efficient organization, effective utilization of resources and evolution of a superb training programme - not to mention brilliant manipulation of the press.  In short, ATA's successes can for the most part be attributed to ATA leadership, notably Gerard d'Erlanger and Pauline Gower, but a mention should also be made of the organizational ethos and the positive environment, particularly that provided by an open-minded and progressive RAF.

The WASP's failure was in corollary essentially a failure of leadership.  Certainly, the negative traditions of the US Army, and the hostile attitudes of colleagues, superiors and the press played their part.  But it was the arbitrary, amateurish and capricious leadership of Cochran that was responsible for the low quality of training, the excessive emphasis on experiments, the alienation of USAAF commanders and the mismanagement of the press.



bulletBergel, Hugh (1982). Fly and Deliver. Airlife Publishing.
bulletBrinley, Maryann Bucknum and Cochran, Jacqueline (1987). Jackie Cochran, An Autobiography: The Story of the Greatest Woman Pilot in Aviation History. Bantam Books.
bulletCole, Jean Hascall (1992). Women Pilots of World War II. University of Utah Press.
bulletCollings, Harold (1940). Letter to the Editor of Aeroplane, dated Jan. 5, 1940.
bulletDe Bunsen, Mary (1960). Mount up with Wings. Hutchinson.
bulletEvening Standard. August 23, 1940.
bulletFahie, Michael (1995). A Harvest of Memories: The Life of Pauline Gower M.B.E. GMS Enterprises.
bulletGranger, Byrd Howell (1991). On Final Approach: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.  Falconer Publishing Company.
bulletPhelps, Anthony (1946). I Couldn't Care Less. The Harborough Publishing Company Ltd.
bulletRickman, Sarah Byrn (2001). The Originals: The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II.  Disc-Us Books Inc.
bulletVerges, Marianne (1991). On Silver Wings: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. 1942-1944.  Ballantine Books.
bulletWelch, Ann (1998). Talk before the Royal Institute of Navigation: History of Air Navigation Group, Sept. 23, 1998.


bulletCheeseman, E. C. (1946), Brief Glory: The Story of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Anthony Rowe Ltd.
bulletCurtis, Lettice (1971), The Forgotten Pilots. G.T. Foulis & Co. Ltd.
bulletKeil, Sally Van Wagenen (1979), Those Wonderful Women In Their Flying Machines: The UnknownHeroines of World War II. Four Directions Press.
bulletMerryman, Molly (1998). Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York University Press.




NOTE: In building this site, I thought about many things - such as what spelling standard I should use in referring to World War II, and what keyword spelling people might use in a search engine to find this page.  I found it interesting to note the following numbers of page listings for the various ways one might type World War II into a search engine. 

bullet  6,050,000 for world war two
bullet  5,860,000 for world war 2
bullet  134,000,000 for world war II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  83,900 for world war ll (using the lower case L for the 2)
bullet  26,200,000 for second world war
bullet  310,000 for 2nd world war

bullet  21,600 for ww two
bullet  804,000 for ww 2
bullet  7,130,000 for ww ii (using the i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for ww ll (using the lower case L for the 2)

bullet  21,600 for w.w. two
bullet  804,000 for W.W.2
bullet  7,130,000 for w.w.II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for w.w.ll (using the lower case l for the 2)

Note that capitalization, punctuation and spacing changes introduced no differences.  So if you are looking for information on a particular subject, remember to use all variations of the wrods related to the subject.  The pages a search engine will give you to look at will vary with each method. Also in general, I have referred to World War II on these pages using WWII (using the capital i for the 2).


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