Cornelia Fort – Her Life for Her Country

Read an excerpt from Cornelia Fort WAFS Pilot


The heroine dies in the end, but you already know that. So read on – walk, run, fly with this extraordinary young woman who, during her short life, used her gifts to try to better the world in which she lived. The story of Cornelia Clark Fort soars. Cornelia herself soared every time she stepped into the cockpit of the aircraft she was flying that day, from takeoff to landing – including her last flight. While doing her sworn duty to the best of her ability, she gave her life for her country when it was at war fighting for democracy and the right to live free. Principles she fervently believed in.

Know that in reading her story you will experience the best of what humanity has to offer. Flying along with this fine young pilot, who died too soon, you will learn what it feels like to dance with birds, chase clouds, and fly the wild blue yonder.

December 7, 1941 —“A Date Which Will Live In Infamy”

MORNING BROKE as it always does in Hawaii, when the big red ball that is the sun rises from the middle of the Pacific Ocean east of the islands. Cornelia Fort nudged the control stick to the left, touched her foot to the left rudder pedal and put the small, single-engine airplane into a shallow bank. The right wing lifted and traced an invisible arc across the sky as the aircraft, its left wing now pointing down, swung through a 180-degree turn.

The early morning mist had vanished from the green valleys between the rugged mountains that looked down on the calm waters of Pearl Harbor. In the two-plus months she had been here, Cornelia had learned that the seasons in Hawaii did not change like they did in Tennessee. Back home, by early December, the trees on the gentle, rounded Green Hills south of Nashville were bare, and the sky took on that slate gray monochrome that comes in mid-November and stays until March. Here, in this tropical paradise, the world brimmed with sunshine; gloriously brilliant blossoms of red, purple, orange, and yellow; and smiling people.

She bit back a yawn. Cornelia had been up since before six. Her first student was scheduled to fly at 7:30 this Sunday morning at Honolulu’s John Rodgers Airport. It was a busy time. Boys in a hurry to become men were flocking to the airport to learn how to fly. They all had their eyes on the growing threat of a war. All gung-ho to learn how to fly the military’s basic training aircraft, which could lead them up the ladder to pilot the U.S. Army Air Forces’ faster, more powerful warplanes.

Flying for Her Country

Ernest Suomala, the young man who sat in front of her in the enclosed, two-seat cockpit – one seat in front of the other – was her first student today. They had flown together before. She was finding him to be an apt student.

Cornelia had a full schedule ahead of her that Sunday, as did all the instructors. Most were booked from dawn until dusk. The winter solstice was but two weeks away. Sunset came earlier these days.

Sunday again, Cornelia thought and smiled to herself. Her dear mother would have apoplexy if she knew her darling daughter was flying on a Sunday – very much against the Fort family’s strict Episcopal upbringing. But her mother was back home, far across the ocean in distant Tennessee, and Cornelia kept her mother carefully sheltered from the knowledge that her no-longer-little girl was flying on, heaven forbid, Sundays!

When a scan of the sky told her no other airplanes were in the practice area, she tapped her student on the shoulder. “Let’s try some power stalls,” she yelled over the noise of the engine. “Your airplane,” she said, his clue to take the controls. “I have the airplane,” he said, the required response. Carburetor heat on, power off, stick back, nose up, back pressure, back, back some more. Suomala knew the drill well by now.

The Nose Climbed Higher

Cornelia watched as the nose of the plane climbed higher in the sky, her hands and feet resting lightly on her own set of controls, ready to take over in an instant if the young man failed to perform the maneuver correctly.

There it was, the “mushy” controls, the eerie silence. The little airplane hung, suspended. Then it kicked over to the right. Suomala did as Cornelia had taught him to do. Stick forward to neutral, power back on, carburetor heat off. All gentle but firm. Back to level flying.

You never could tell with students the first couple of times you took them up. The ones you expected to be bold often turned out to be the most timid once in the air, whereas the poor soul you thought was afraid of his own shadow might turn out to be a roughneck who tended to jerk the plane around all over the sky.

Teaching Young Men Her Age to Fly

Cornelia, twenty-two, was teaching young men her own age and younger how to fly. And she loved flying the little Interstate Cadet, a high-wing, single-engine trainer aircraft. Like many of the small training airplanes of the day, it was made of heavy cotton fabric stretched taut over an aluminum skeleton of fuselage and wings and painted a distinctive blue and yellow. She thought it the spiffiest airplane around.

“Very nice,” she called out when Suomala completed three successful stalls. Then she put him to work negotiating 360-degree turns, first to the right and then to the left, to be accomplished without gaining or losing altitude. “And keep your eye on the altimeter,” she reminded him.

Below lay the rainforest – so dense, so verdant, so intense in the early morning sun that it almost hurt to look at it. Lulled by the drone of the engine, mesmerized into a momentary complacency no flight instructor could afford, Cornelia forced herself to look past her student’s broad back and beyond the windscreen. She could see the crests of the hills and farther out, the brilliant gem-blue of the Pacific Ocean.

Moving Specks in the Distance!

Then in the distance she saw moving specks. What were they? A flock of birds? Too big. Airplanes? She squinted through the windscreen. The specks – yes, airplanes – and they were coming toward her.

“What’s that, Miss Fort?” Suomala asked. He, too, had spotted them.

Now she could make out a formation – dozens of planes. They resembled a swarm of angry bees. Seconds later, the lead aircraft banked right and turned south. She caught sight of a large, red circle on the wings. The other airplanes followed the leader. All but one. The last plane peeled off and flew toward them. Alarm bells went off in her brain. Her thoughts raced: The red ball. The Rising Sun? Japanese? Why?

That sleek, silver airplane was heading right toward them. They were on a collision course, and their much smaller, slower aircraft was the vulnerable one. “Let’s get outta here,” she yelled, grabbing the controls from her student.

Cornelia Fort WAFS Pilot is available on Buy it here

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