It's been heartening to see some overdue light shone on the exemplary World War II service of the women aviators of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), notes Dave Higdon. But what's their story and why has it been so long coming?
In total, 1,074 American women answered their country's call for pilots. Initially two organizations – the Women's Flying Training Detachment and Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron – started separately in September of 1942. Eleven months later the government merged the two groups into the WASPs we celebrate today.
Come next month's NBAA-BACE in Orlando, the WASPs will receive another accolade for their sacrifices in wartime: the NBAA Meritorious Service to Aviation Award, which is one of the organization's highest honors recognizing “lifelong contributions to aviation.”
The NBAA recognition is the most-recent kudos belatedly bestowed on these pioneering women.
Gratitude Started Slowly
Between its creation and its deactivation in December 1944 each WASP freed a male pilot for military combat or other duties. These women flew more than 60 million miles fulfilling their missions (which involved transporting every type of military aircraft); towing targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice; flying simulated strafing missions; and transporting cargo.
In the course of performing their duties 38 WASP members lost their lives and one went missing.
Because they weren't technically military (they were civil-service employees), the families were responsible for retrieving the remains of their relatives killed in service. Often their colleagues took up a collection to spare the grieving families of the expense.
Thirty-three years after the WASP pilots ended their World War II service, the members received overdue veteran status. That was in 1977.
Another 32 years would pass before the women received the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service, in 2009.
Finally, in 2016 WASP veterans received the ultimate recognition of their sacrifices: The right to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery, in large part due to the efforts of one WASP's granddaughter, Erin Miller, whose grandmother Elaine Harmon had passed away.
Erin will accept the NBAA award on behalf of the WASPs.
Few Remain, but Their Honor Stands
One of the privileges of my work includes serving as an on-air host for the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In's volunteer radio station, WPEP. One of the high points has been the annual visit of a few surviving WASP pilots and hearing their first-hand stories of service and sacrifice.
These ladies tell of their efforts to continue flying after their WASP years; how some became aviation company owners or executives, and how they became flight instructors and corporate pilots.
They will also explain that they didn't set out to topple barriers or gain recognition for their service.
Just like millions of men, they joined to serve their country – as pilots, something they aspired to be before, during and after the war.
The NBAA's recognition serves to shine another spotlight on the service of aviators who happened to be women. They paved the way for every woman in every cockpit job represented at NBAA-BACE.
Ladies of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, it's never too late to thank you for your service – and remember your sacrifices. Your efforts and sacrifices remain close to our hearts.