Dedicated to my mother and aunt; classes W-6 & W-7
Photographs taken of and by Helen Gorum McDonnell
ęStephen McDonnell 2000, 2001, 2002. 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
About 1000 women trained as military pilots during WWII, flying high perfomance fighters and bombers - the WASP - this is a fictional story about them.
WASP relaxed and ready to fly and The WASP patch insignia Fifonella was designed by Walt Disney
Who was that girl who thought she was Glenn Miller?
Pile out of bed, line up for the wash room, put on culottes, brush teeth, bitch, and complain to bay mates. One would start singing, maybe a raunchy song if it was Monday, or Friday. More would start singing. Then everyone would sing, and spirits would lift.
Mess Hall and a military meal. Cold as the devil outside, the desert night still cool, and the sun just breaking the horizon. Old glory flapping in the breeze. The mechanics had been up way before them, fueling and working on the planes making them ship shape.
Windy Day, dress uniform
Do calisthenics, too damn cold, but a way to get the blood flowing. The older girls did have this chore, they were with the advanced instructors, leather jackets looked good on them. Some lucky gal was going on a cross country, all smiles and nervous laugh to hide her fear. No one showed fear, or cried, except in lonely corners of the base. Letters came with good and bad news. Some censored, because they were from overseas, from the front, from husbands or boyfriend or fathers. You never knew if you would get the official one, the official letter from the President you dreaded, with great full thanks for a life given for the country. Hope to God, no, not him, so young...
There was no time for sadness. Song and laughter was everywhere, infectious. Not a real military base, but one filled with women, women pilots. Avenger field.
They came in all sizes
Some of the girls were off to ground school, with tons of books tucked under their arms. Others were in the Link trainer; the little simulator could make you dizzy, it was great for instrument flying. The lucky ones were doing flight checks. They had to pack their own parachutes, put them on, over their flight suits. The fleece lining was a killer in the hot afternoon, but at altitude, the leather kept you from freezing.
Out of the instructor's ready room strode the civilian pilots. Handsome, for the most part, indulgent, probably pinching themselves at getting such a job; teaching beautiful women how to fly. Until they got upstairs and the women became students, who had to be encourage, pushed, and even cursed at.
But the women had such enthusiasm! More driven than men. They were desperate to fly. And look at them; tall, short, some knock outs, all intelligent. They looked liked angels. Angels who could fly. And who wore pants.
"Clear "was shouted, and the engine turned over, revved up to red line, coughing and back firing, under the watchful eye of the crew chief. The all clear signal was given, the wood chocks pulled from the wheels and they were off. Taxing down to the take off spot. Past other eager trainers, all to fly this morning, each plane blazing silver in the morning sun. Each cockpit with a male and female pilot. The radio chatter was easy, loose, and high pitched.
In the air, they were galvanized. They had to do the normal stuff, and then they would let loose, acrobatics. The women loved it, they all had flying experience, all certified pilots, and were not afraid of trying new things. They lived for the adrenaline rush of near death experiences. The instructors had to reign the women in to keep them both from an early death.
Some washed out, no matter how they tried, and they tried hard. What was amazing was the tenacity they showed. They would not give up. And some were incredible. Great pilots, with an easy touch, a delicate touch. No macho antics, just business. It was noted in their records. Male pilots could not deny what they saw, how good they were. The instructors wanted their "girls" to be the best. They were going to fly every plane in this man's army. How they flew reflected on their teachers.
Into the wild blue yonder
In the air, the women were equal. No one knew who was at the controls, the man or the woman. And they wanted to fly bigger airplanes, the fast pursuit fighters and the big bombers. Why not? In the war years, anything was possible. Women were doing men's jobs in the factories. Women were taking care of everything it seemed, with the men gone to war. It was a woman's war at home. Why not flying?
Doing touch and goes was the worst. Flying was easy, but landing was hard. You did not want to bounce all over the run way, in front of everyone. And embarrass yourself and your friends. A "hard" landing was noted. Your instructor would curse, and take the controls away from you. And then you would do it again, and again. It was nerve wracking, bone cracking, 'knock the piss out of you' flying.
When you got out of the plane, you were exhausted, your suit was drenched with sweat, and maybe something else. Perfume helped to mask it, but the rank stink of fear was there for everyone to smell. Then you had the lecture, the instructor telling you what you had done wrong. Everyone was there. Listening.
A quick shower and a scream would release the tension of the day. There were screams of joy if they got a good check ride, or if one of them soloed. Some of the women would cry, silently or in big sobs. But then they put the mascara and rouge back on and made a happy face. Their friends would cheer them up, pull pranks on them. Women can be kind to each other, if men are not around. Sisters, they were like sisters. They were a unique sorority.
Yes, it was great to be here, no matter how bad it got. No matter what happened, it was something special. It was history, it was a new chapter in civilization. Women were proving they were the equal of men, and maybe better. And they looked good. Even in the baggy "zoot" suits. They looked like a million dollars. They felt like a million dollars. Because they were doing something money could not buy, only guts and will power.
One day the world would look back in wonder that they had done this. The thousand or so of them had gone where no one thought they could go, where no man would let them go before. They had taken control of the most powerful machines ever built up to that time, and they had proven they could do it without help, without a man saying, "little lady, you are too weak or dumb or small or too feminine to fly big airplanes. This is no place for you."
With their quiet courage, their songs, their hearts, their heads and their flying, they had shown the world what women were made of.
At the end of the day, you could let your hair down as everyone was washing the dust and oil out of their locks. All wore turbans, like harem girls, half naked, and not caring, the aches and pains in their young limbs finally slowing them down, but not much. Cigarettes came out, even a hidden bottle of hooch was passed around. Giggles, and horse play. Women, in private, can be as rowdy as men.
Like all pilots they began to show how they flew during the day, acrobatics and spins, exaggerating of course, but filled with the thrill of it. They were young, buxom and hot for men. Magazines with film stars came out and big sighs gushed from them. A lot of girls had fiances, boyfriends and even some were married. The married ones were pumped for information about "it". They did not want to get "in the family way". Especially if they were going to keep flying.
The books came out and they studied, or tried too. Some kept talking to the wee hours, the excitement of the day too much. Some of them had it easy, they were college educated, others struggled with the math. In the sisterhood, they were helped or hassled. Like anywhere, good and bad existed, helpful and hateful. Yet after awhile a sister hood took hold, a bond and trust forged at hight altitude, and repeated landings; they all commiserated the bad and glowed in the good. Life and death were so close together, any second you could do a ground loop as you taxied, and end up dead or washed out.
In the clear Texas night, a few would go outside and look at the stars, wondering. Dreaming. Singing. They could see the lights in the other bays, half dressed women doing the same thing as them. Thank goodness the guards kept the wolfs away, so many beautiful women, so many lonely nights. Corcoran's Nunnery. If she only knew how the girls got around the rules.
There were a few sneaks, animal lust taking over their good sense. Most of them looked the other way, but some did not like the ones who were trading sex for good marks. They usually came back to beds that were short sheeted, or woke with their hands in a water bucket.
Sex was there with death is an aphrodisiac. And so was power, the power and skill that male pilots had attracted women pilots. They knew who was good. Who was hot. They felt they were special, and they were the first, it would never be like this again. They were living on the edge of life. No one before or after would be like them. At the same time they were no different from other women.
Women usually used more subtle tactics than men, less physical, more social. A glance, a word, an attitude, a movement, a whispered comment to a mutual friend. They live in a different world, where emotions are to be used and abused, a world cut off from men. Almost like the language that Japanese women use, the language of women is different, only understood by them.
And here they were competing with men, and soon would be flying with them. Could they do it? Yes! But would men let them? Just watch the WASPS, they would blaze a trail across the sky, opening up new horizons for women to follow, even if they might be ignored, hated, even killed, they were pioneers. They were going where no woman had gone before and they would prove they could do it, even do it better.
ęStephen McDonnell 2000, 2001, 2002. 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008