Thursday, April 7, 2016

F is for Cornelia Fort - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Cornelia Fort (1919-1943)
Cornelia Fort grew up in a spacious 24-room house built in 1815, on 365 acres overlooking Tennessee's beautiful Cumberland River. Her parents were members of Nashville's wealthy elite. Cornelia and her younger 4 siblings were well educated; a chauffeur drove them to a private school.  

When Cornelia turned 19, a debutante ball was held, as was the custom for a Southern belle. Hundreds attended the event, and it's easy to imagine that more than one Southern gentleman sought her hand. 

But after completing her studies at Sarah Lawrence College in 1939 (she was 20),  Cornelia chose a path that was quite the opposite of her privileged upbringing.

 Cornelia wanted to fly and she was passionate about it. She was “a great rebel of her time,” her sister Louise later commented. Everything happened fast. Cornelia soloed in Nashville in April 1940, earning her pilot's license in June, and nine months later her instructor's rating, becoming Nashville's first female flight instructor. 

Eager to get started, she accepted a flight instructor position at Massey and Rawson Flying Service in Fort Collins, Colorado, as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), a program established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But destiny had another plan in mind for Cornelia. In the fall of 1941, she was hired again as a civilian flight instructor in Hawaii to teach defense workers, soldiers and sailors how to fly. Pumped up and overjoyed, she wrote home to her mother, "If I leave here I will leave the best job that I can have (unless the national emergency creates a still better one), a very pleasant atmosphere, a good salary, but far the best of all are the planes I fly. Big and fast and better suited for advanced flying." 

Sunday, December 7, 1941, Cornelia was in the air working in her dream job, instructing an advanced student as he practiced some takeoffs and landings. It was a bright beautiful sky and her student appeared ready to solo. Cornelia glanced ahead and noticed a military plane approaching fast on what appeared to be a collision course. Grabbing the controls, she pulled the plane up just in time, but she had recognized the Red Sun insignia on the
plane's wings. It was a Japanese Zero! Then she saw the billowing smoke below and more bombers flying in. Pearl Harbor was under attack! She quickly landed the plane, amid machine gun fire, and ran for cover with her student. Two civilian planes and their pilots were lost in the attack, including the airport manager. 

Pearl Harbor under attack, December 1941
Cornelia returned to the mainland in 1942 to regroup. America was officially in WWII and she was eager to do her part. She began by making a short movie about War Bonds, promoting the financing of  the war and gave talks on the subject. She then joined the newly established Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), which was a forerunner of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots later, known as the WASP. In WAFS, Cornelia's job was to fly military planes from the factories to air bases throughout the U.S. She was excited the Army had finally given women a role in the war. Since women were not allowed in combat, the WAFS helped free up more male pilots for combat missions......although male pilots also ferried planes. 

Cornelia, 2nd on left. Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS)

Flying conditions were challenging. The women pilots often had to fly in open cockpits cross-country in poor weather, which made finding the camouflaged bases difficult. Further, there was a lack of respect shown for the women by the male pilots. "Any girl who has flown at all," Cornelia wrote, "grows used to the prejudice of most men pilots who will trot out any number of reasons why women can't possibly be good pilots . . . The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hanger pilots," she concluded, "is to show them." The women proved their worth times over in their professionalism, capabilities and work records. Unfortunately, the 38 women who died delivering military planes during the war were "civilians" and therefore never received military recognition (until much later). 

BT-13. Type of plane Cornelia flew while ferrying planes in Texas.

Cornelia was one of them. In March 1943, while ferrying planes south of Merkel, Texas for WAFS, another plane clipped the wing of her BT-13 aircraft, resulting in a mid-air collision. Cornelia's plane crashed to the ground, taking her life. She was 25. The other (male) pilot was unhurt. Cornelia was one of the most accomplished WAFS pilots (logging more than 1,100 hours flying time) and the first WAFS fatality. Military recognition came later in 1977, when the WAFS merged into the WASP, which was granted military status retroactively. Thus, Cornelia became the first American woman pilot to die while on war duty. In her own words, as written on a historical marker at Cornelia Fort Airport in Tennessee, she was proud of her contribution: "I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country."

(Although not in this trailer, Cornelia Fort was 
portrayed in the movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!


Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. Great reading Sharon, another fine lady.

  2. I live in Nashville and I'm ashamed I'm just now learning of this amazing woman!

    1. I'm glad you learned about her :) I keep thinking about that beautiful river estate she was raised on.

  3. Another very good story. Thanks for sharing :-)

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  4. What an exciting life she led, and she could have just married and lived in luxury. I love these kinds of stories.

    1. Interesting the choices people make! She really enjoyed her life as a pilot.

  5. Wasn't there a movie made about the WAFS? I'll have to Google that as I seem to recall this story.

  6. Oh, there has to be more, certainly on the WASP, which WAFS became. Thanks for commenting!

  7. Great story, she died so young, but doing what she loved. Interesting to hear she was at Pearl Harbor. It's not far from where I grew up. Did not know any women were pilots during WWII. I think it's still difficult for women in the military, but getting better every day.
    Maui Jungalow

    1. Pilots yes but not allowed to fight. I was surprised they could instruct the men.

  8. Gosh she died so young. These women do deserve more recognition.

  9. One reason I felt it important to get their stories out. Carnelia was not afraid to follow her dream and loved what she was doing. I think I admire that most of all.


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.