The Write Sisters: Women of Wednesday – Cornelia Fort
From: THE WRITE SISTERS
June 13, 2012 at 03:39PM
Cornelia loved planes, and she loved to fly. There was nothing better, as far as she was concerned. In less than a year, she became the first female flight instructor in Nashville, and shortly after, moved on to Colorado as an instructor for the Civilian Pilots Training Program.
Cornelia saw this as a great opportunity and packed her bags. Her mother probably didn’t feel the same, and may have asked her to reconsider and come home. In a letter to her mother, Cornelia wrote, “If I leave here I will leave the best job 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.” Cornelia stayed and taught men to fly.
As they flew over the picturesque Hawaiian Islands, she noticed something on the horizon. Upon closer examination, she discovered it was a plane coming in from the sea. Not terribly unusual. There were several military bases in Hawaii, and army planes were a common sight. But still . . . .
Something about that plane niggled at her. She stared and stared, wondering what it could be, and suddenly realized the plane was flying straight at them, guns blazing! She grabbed the controls from the student and pulled the plane up, just avoiding the strafing as well as being smashed into bits. The other plane zipped past and Fortin noticed the round red ball on its wing that signified the rising sun. The plane flew off and she and her student caught sight of great plumes of black smoke darkening the sky over Pearl Harbor, just a short distance away. America had been attacked. The war had come home.
Now, Cornelia was asked to go to Delaware to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service. She was thrilled. Her job would be to fly newly built planes from the factory to military bases around the country. But while her government believed in her abilities, the male pilots she encountered along the way didn’t. She wrote, “Any girl who has flown at all 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 . . . .”
On March 23, 1943, while making one of these flights to Love Field in Texas, Cornelia was flying her plane in a group of other pilots, both male and female. One of the male pilots clipped Cornelia’s plane with its landing gear and her plane spun out of control and crashed to the ground so swiftly, there was no time to use a parachute. Cornelia died in the crash.
Was it an accident, or did the male pilot try to rattle her a bit, to frighten the girl who thought she could be a pilot? We don’t know. But we do know that neither Cornelia, or any of the other women pilots who died flying military airplanes were never recognized for their services. The military didn’t even pick up the cost of their burials. The women were, after all, civilians.
Cornelia was the first American woman to lose her life while on active military service. It’s not the kind of distinction one strives for, especially not at the age of 24. Her commanding officer, Nancy Love, wrote to Cornelia’s mother, “I can only say that I miss her terribly, and loved her. If there can be any comforting thought, it is that she died as she wanted to – in an Army airplane, and in the service of her country.”