Nancy Love Breaks Military Barriers for Women Pilots
Nancy Harkness Love broke the military gender barrier when she led 303 civilian women pilots for the Army Air Forces’ (AAF) Ferrying Division in World War II. President Harry Truman awarded her the prestigious Air Medal for her job well done.
“Ferrying” means to fly the aircraft — not passengers or cargo — from one place to another
Love’s success, and that of the women who flew for her, began with the December 1941 decisions the U.S. military was forced to make after Pearl Harbor. We, as a nation, were not prepared for war. We lacked ships, aircraft, tanks, munitions — men. Case-in-point, we had too few pilots.
Love recognized the pilot shortage. She sold Ferrying Division Commander Colonel William H. Tunner on using experienced women pilots to pick up small training aircraft from the factories where they were built and deliver those trainers to flight schools. There, future male combat pilots would learn how to fly “the Army way.”
First WAFS Requirement: 500 Flying Hours
The first women Love recruited for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) had a minimum of 500 flight hours. Most had more — including a 35-year-old flight instructor and mother of three with 3500 hours [Lenore McElroy], and a 23-year-old barnstormer with 2900 [Evelyn Sharp]. Every woman pilot who could deliver an aircraft freed a male pilot to be assigned to — you guessed it — a more important job.
The women didn’t care. They wanted to fly. America was at war. Patriots to the core, they wanted to fly for their country.
Jacqueline Cochran, another woman pilot whose goal was to command a women’s air force, sold AAF Commanding General “Hap” Arnold on training women pilots to do what she called the Army’s “dishwashing” jobs. Jobs the men really didn’t want to do. The men wanted to fly fighters and bombers. Understandable. Arnold approved the first women’s flight training school in October 1942.
The first 275 graduates of that school were sent to fly for the Ferrying Division. Throughout 1943, Love’s ever increasing ranks of women pilots delivered trainer aircraft — mostly single-engine with 175 up to 600 horsepower.
Named Director of Women Pilots in July 1943, Cochran coined the name WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Love retained the leadership of the women ferry pilots, but the WAFS acronym was dropped.
By 1944, the emphasis had changed. America and its Allies were winning the war.
The crucial need now was not training planes but swift fighter aircraft called pursuits. These were complex, high-powered, single-engine, single-cockpit aircraft, (your training flight was a solo.) Desperately needed now were high-powered, long-range pursuits to escort and protect America’s four-engine B-17s and B-24s on bombing runs deep into Germany and — even more important — back to England and safety.
The Men Were Needed to Fly Bombers in Combat
By now, Tunner’s staff had learned that training men to fly pursuits was a waste of valuable transition time. The male pilots were urgently needed to fly bombers overseas.
Already, Nancy Love had flown the P-51. She was Tunner’s first woman pursuit pilot. Eight of her original WAFS has followed her lead. Tunner knew and trusted Nancy and he knew her women pilots could do the job.
Tunner was adamant. The women would ferry pursuits.
Fifteen of Love’s best women pilots graduated in the first two classes at the newly opened Pursuit School. Throughout 1944, up to 134 women ferried those newly built, high-powered aircraft to the docks at Newark, New Jersey. That included 926 critically needed P-51s in addition to the other pursuit aircraft. In Newark, the planes were loaded on to Liberty ships bound for England and the war.
Unlike Cochran, Love was never interested in command. She wanted to fly aircraft, not a desk. But a desk she got. She worked with the men of the Ferrying Division to prove the concept that men and women pilots should be under the same command, treated simply as pilots, judged on their capabilities, and allowed to transition into higher-performance aircraft as their skills permitted.
The airplane doesn’t “know” the sex of the pilot flying it.
Male/Female Pilots Given Equal Opportunity
Love had the full support and backing of the men she worked with in the Ferrying Division. Given her example and the record achieved by the women flying for her, Tunner saw to it that male and female pilots were given the same opportunities for advancement — an early model for what exists in today’s military.
But it wasn’t a done deal.
Sadly, on December 20, 1944, the WASP were disbanded and sent home, though the war wasn’t over. Out-of-work male flight instructors as well as combat veterans returning home wanted those “dishwashing” jobs the women were doing. The “brass” caved. Women were banned from the cockpits of military aircraft. It would be 34 years before they were allowed back in the cockpits of military aircraft.
The WASP’s performance — stellar and greatly appreciated by their commanding officers in WWII — was not the reason for the ban that lasted until the mid-1970s. The reason was gender politics at work. Is anyone surprised?
What exists in today’s military is what Nancy Love and the men of the Ferrying Division first achieved in WWII. Male and female pilots fly and advance based on individual skills and determination, not their gender. — Again, but it took nearly 40 years.