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.
Baymates sat around the room getting dressed, lace trimmed underwear in sharp contrast to the rough coverall flight suits - Zoot suits - that were too big, man sized, Army Air Force issue. Their lithe young bodies were soon engulfed by the oil stained cloth. They tried rolling up sleeves and tightening belts to emphasize their slim waists, to no avail. They looked like rag dolls.
It was like "hiding diamonds in a laundry bag" one of the new recruits said the first time she tried on the Army issue jump suit. Instant ugly! They had all arrived looking like movie stars, and were given man sized overalls to fly in. With a needle and thread, a nip and tuck, the ugly military suits could be made bearable, wearable , but never attractive. They felt like hicks forced to wear cloths to hide what they were. No more expensive nylon stockings; a forbidden luxury because of the war effort.
Nylon was for the important parachutes. The older classmates soon set them straight about nylon stockings that might cause a static electrical spark to ignite a fire in the cockpit. Crestfallen they were reduced to standing on a chair while a friend would draw a line down the back of their legs with a mascara pencil. The artist with the steadiest hand was popular and could earn a pack of cigarettes every weekend doing this service. They soon discovered that the sun gave their legs a nylon colored tan if they rolled their jump suits up.
Sunlight was harsh in West Texas; it burned tender flesh, turning white soft skin into red or brown tans. Neve cream was in great demand. You either were naturally tan or you slathered all kinds of cream on your self. Nivea cream was in short supply, and high demand. Pale skinned beauties, and red heads suffered horrible burns. There were other beauty obstacles. The mandatory aviator cap crushed your hair down, destroying any hair styling, buffoon or page boy, and in the open cockpit, long hair would stream out into the face of the flight instructor. Rayban aviator glasses were de regur, hiding made up eyes which took hours to do, but essential for flying in the glaring sunlight. All in all, it was a never ending battle to stay pretty. Some almost gave up.
Why bother? Why? In a word; men!
Because their flight instructor was handsome, a bronzed god, and unmarried. And even if he was married, who would know? He seemed to spend a lot of time shaving and making sure his cloths were clean, his shoes spit polished. His eyes were kind behind his aviator sun glasses. He responded to the admiration of women, even if they were all dressed like rag muffins, hiding their best attributes.
Flight Instructor Jack
They were sequestered in Cochran's Nunnery! Watched every moment to see they did not give the WASPs a bad name. They were off limits, the best looking, most intelligent women in the war and they were forbidden to see men. As if they were the enemy. The few lucky men they encountered were eye balled and flirted with, till they walked away or took a woman pilot up and cooled her off. What was girl to do?
There were the other military air bases, all filled with pilots who were dying to meet them. They would buzz the field in their fighters and bombers, sometimes faking mechanical problems to land. One day they would meet those men on their own equal terms, and then who knows...
Most of the time, they felt they were in a Shangri La, where everything was perfect. Or almost. All the bay mates knew that one day, they would leave this place. Women did not want to loose touch with reality. Even if they only had other women to look at them, they wanted to look good. They were practicing their charms, not wanting to forget they were desirable. They shared a bay with six other women who judged you in subtile ways.
Bay mates competed in more ways than one. If you didn't look good in the air, you could look good on the ground. That lasted until you soloed then they all looked a mess after being dunked in the wishing well. No one forgot they were here to solo, not to look for the men, who were everywhere because of the war.
Sweetwater lake weekend party
Hunky men, men seeking the opposite sex, who became predators in packs. Individually you could handle them but in groups they were more insistent, braver, and anonymous; one sailor or soldier looked like another. Mama keep your daughters locked up unless you want them knocked up! And here they were in the middle of the wolf pack, women competing on equal footing. They had changed the rules of the game. Men and women, like fire and gasoline.
Men did not know how to take women pilots. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, for women, and they all knew it. It was not easy. It was back to the kitchen or work in a factory if they failed. No one wanted to fail. It was so hard.
The ground school classes were endless. So much to learn, meteorology, navigation, military regulations, military flying and tests were given which you had to pass, and to top it all airplane engines had to be broken down, the grease got under your nails, and stayed there forever, like a black glue. As if the sand and dust, the sun was not bad enough. The cloths they had to wear were military, sacks. Even their dress khaki pants showed your bum, not to your advantage; many of the girls had large ones that looked better in skirts, but they looked like elephants in pants.
2 zoot suits
And how were you supposed to go on the rag in pants? Men hated it, any sight of blood made them faint. And you were not allowed special privileges in this man's army. The week before, when you felt like hell, all your baymates knew. Of course the big question was how and where to go during a cross country flight; I mean how do you? No privacy, nowhere to hide in the Texas desert. Do you land for a pit stop? If you did not drink water, you would faint from dehydration, if you drank too much, nature took its course. Maybe that was why they chose the name of Sweetwater; sometimes you could almost taste it, you had to go so bad! Some of the girls warned them about peeing at hight altitudes and then getting stuck because of the cold.
Sweetwater. What a hole after New York or Chicago. Some girls admitted coming from even smaller places! Imagine that. Maybe one day someone would discover oil under the sage brush but now it was the end of the earth. West Texas. But what a flying paradise! Great flying weather! Sunny, hot and not a cloud in the sky. Skies that begged to be flown in. They dreamed of flying, even the thought of death was did not deter them.
When you are alive and young. doing what you want to, death is a minor inconvenience. So many men were dying overseas. Death had become routine. It did not seem like a difficult thing. Just a passing into another life. They were all pilots, they all knew the risks. They had all seen it already. They were not naive young things. They had lost friends, they had seen airplanes crash, burn, and had help collect the broken bodies. Even in civilian flying, death is no stranger. They had learned how to fly in whatever they could find, not the most air worthy.
All lot of them were used to flying Piper cubs, the beginner's plane, the cheapest and easiest one to fly. Now they had to go on to the next level. They flew the AT-17, an open cockpit monoplane, with good manners, but it was an introduction to the big stuff. More horse power, more speed, more weight, more instruments, more to go wrong right when it meant life and death. They longed to fly the pursuit trainer, the AT-6 also called the Harvard trainer by the Brits, and the Texas Trainer here. If you could master it, then that would qualify you for single engine fighters. Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Cobras. The names evoked power, danger, the best and fastest airplanes ever built. And you could fly them if you soloed in the AT-6.
The AT-6 is a flight trainer, like the British Gypsy moth and the Navy Stearman. Except it was not a little docile plane to fly. No, it wanted to kill you. It had a powerful engine, as powerful as any of the big airplanes. It was prone to ground looping. Even as you taxied around the air field, if the pilot made one false move, the torque of the engine would turn the airplane over. If you could master the AT-6, the Army Air Force would let you fly anything. You had to fly it by yourself to graduate. It separated the men from the boys. Or women from girls here in Sweetwater.
After the solo - a dip in wishing well
A lot of men had argued that women were not strong or quick enough to fly powerful airplanes, except for a few exceptions like Emilia Erhart and Cohran. Jacqueline Cochran had convinced the government that women pilots could help the war effort. Nancy Love had gone to the UK to fly with the Brits and had started her own group of exclusive flying ladies. Ladies were considered too delicate. Men had more upper body strength. Or so the pundits said and wrote. Meanwhile, the women did their exercises, trained and flew. And the ones who did no wash out, flew big powerful planes, without any problem. They did not become he men, nor muscular. So the pundits kept on writing and saying things while women kept flying over them, proving them wrong.
continue on...A typical day
ęStephen McDonnell 2000, 2001, 2002. 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008
Baymates with primary flight instructor