A Flight to Remember

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Amy Nathan
Stories that surprise and inspire

  On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Cornelia Fort was doing something few people expected a woman to do. This 22-year-old was in a small two-seater plane, flying over Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor, teaching a student to fly. At that time, most people felt that flying was a “man’s job.” 

      Cornelia had fallen in love with flying about two years earlier when, just for fun, she took a ride in a small plane. That ride changed her life. She took flying lessons and became such a good pilot that she was hired to teach others, one of the few flying jobs open to women in those days.

      On that sunny December 7 morning in 1941 in the skies over Pearl Harbor, something happened that changed her life yet again—and the lives of many others. Cornelia saw a military-type plane zoom straight at her. She pulled up on her plane’s controls to keep from being hit. She was accustomed to seeing military planes because there were U.S. Navy and Army bases nearby. But the plane that almost hit her wasn’t American. It had a big red circle on its wings—the symbol of Japan. Looking down, she saw smoke billow up from ships in Pearl Harbor. A squadron of foreign planes flew by. Something shiny dropped from one plane and exploded in the harbor.  As Japanese fighter planes sprayed her plane with bullets, she skillfully managed to land safely at a nearby airport,      

     She and her terrified student had just had a bird’s-eye view of Japan’s surprise attack on U.S. military ships and bases in Pearl Harbor, an attack that forced the U.S. to enter World War II. But the U.S. military wasn’t ready to fight air battles around the world. It didn’t have enough pilots. So it called on women to help. Cornelia joined the first women pilot’s unit to fly for the U.S. military, a group that became known as the WASPs–Women Airforce Service Pilots. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat overseas, but they handled much of the military flying in the U.S. Nevertheless, their missions were often dangerous. Sadly, through no fault of her own, in March 1943, Cornelia Fort became the first woman pilot to die flying for the U.S. military. The excellent job that she and the more than 1,100 other WASPs did showed that being a pilot could very well be a “woman’s job.”  

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Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, showing an explosion on the USS Shaw after being bombed. More than a dozen other U.S. ships were damaged, 188 aircraft were destroyed, and over 2,000 Americans were killed during this surprise attack. Courtesy Library of Congress
Cornelia Clark Fort was a civilian instructor pilot at an airfield near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Courtesy USAF
Japanese torpedo bomber Nakajima B5N2 Model 12 “Kate” over Hickam field, 7 December 1941.


 Amy Nathan’s book Yankee Doodle Gals tells the stories of many women who served as pilots from 1942 to 1944, including Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love, the true leaders of the WASPs. The history of the group, the hardships they faced, the obstacles they overcame, and what has transpired since the end of the war are supplemented by numerous photos that complement the text. 
For more information on the book, click here.


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