Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) soared to new heights

by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A.

March 4, 2019 – Rosie the Riveter is a well known icon representing millions of women who went to work at factories riveting airplanes and ships from 1942-1945 during World War II. Rosie quickly proved she could do it. Lesser known are the more than 1,000 women who trained and served as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) ferrying military planes on the home front. For a glimpse into the wartime contributions of these women who soared to new heights despite societal flak, read BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot by Sarah Byrn Rickman (2018).

Women in the cockpit
Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, paved the way for women to sit in the cockpit and the cabin. Amelia tragically disappeared in 1937 when she was attempting to fly around the world with Fred Noonan, her navigator. But her glamorous, adventurous life inspired hundreds of young women to pursue and realize their dream to fly.

In 1939, Congress approved a program to provide flying lessons for college students. One of every ten students admitted could be a woman. Barbara Jane “BJ” Erickson was a University of Washington student when she was accepted into the program. One of four women in a class of 40 student aviators, BJ took to the skies like a duck to water.

Her first lesson was in a single engine seaplane outfitted with pontoon floats.

“For the first time, she felt the thrill of an aircraft taking off under her control. She flew straight out over the water of Lake Union, gaining altitude. She was hooked.” (p. 4, BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot)

Soon she was in the airplane by herself earning her wings after a solo flight.

Rickman quotes BJ about her first solo flight:
“After I got my first eight hours in, I was eligible to solo. It was December 21, during Christmas vacation 1939. I was working at Marshall Field in the glove department – fifty-nine cents an hour. I was paying my college expenses. I remember leaving on my lunch hour, driving out to Lake Union and soloing.” (p. 4)

America enters World War II
In Europe, Adolf Hitler had just invaded Poland and had his sights set on western Europe next. With this burgeoning threat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) urged the nation to begin building an “arsenal of democracy.”

Should America join England in fighting Nazi Germany’s aggression or just support the British by exporting military hardware? Debate raged until Dec. 7, 1941 when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. America entered WWII in alliance with England, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

America urgently needed pilots. In late summer 1942, BJ and 27 other female pilots volunteered to ferry planes within the United States, the home front, to free up male pilots for combat duties overseas. Ferrying planes meant the planes carried neither cargo nor passengers. Often flying solo for the sole purpose of positioning aircraft (warbirds) for wartime use would be BJ’s world for the next two and a half years.

WASP formally established
In November 1942, the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was formally established within the U.S. Army Air Force but was never given military status. From November 1942 until December 1944 when it was officially disbanded, 1,074 women were trained as WASP flying every aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. Thirty-eight WASP died while serving.

BJ eventually qualified to fly the B-17, the Flying Fortress, and the C-47, a cargo and transport behemoth adapted from the DC-3, a passenger plane in the 1940s.

In 2014, Whiskey 7, a C-47 that flew during World War II, is ready to take off to fly to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Its home base is in Geneseo, New York. (Photo: Student News Net)

The Liberty Jump Team travels to Normandy for each D-Day anniversary where paratroopers drop into WWII drop zones. They will be in Normandy for the 75th anniversary.

BJ is named Squadron Commander

With aviation and management skills, BJ was named the Squadron Commander for the 6th Ferry Command based in Long Beach, California. On March 11, 1944, BJ was awarded the Air Medal, the only female pilot to be so honored during World War II although BJ accepted it on behalf of all WASP.

The official end for WASP was Dec. 20, 1944.

This photo is on page 37 of BJ Erickson: WASP Pilot by Sarah Bryn Rickman. Caption: BJ, right, ready to deliver the 10,000th BT-13 built by Vultee, signs an autograph for a Rosie the Riveter who helped build it. (Photo: Courtesy of the B.J. Erickson London Personal Collection)

On June 5, 1944, one day before D-Day, a report highly critical of WASP was released, reflecting a bias against women serving as military pilots.

A WASP Bill introduced in Congress to at least give existing WASP military status failed.

Rickman quotes BJ about those last days.
“It was coming to an end and we felt helpless to do anything about it,” BJ recalled. “Everybody was flying as much as they possibly could and delivering every airplane they’d give us.” (p. 130)

BJ moved back to Seattle.

“Back in Seattle, BJ tried to cope with boredom and discontent. Many WASP described those days after December 20 as akin to being in a black hole.” (p.131)

Rickman quotes BJ about those dark days.
“I was driving my parents nuts. I tried to go back to work at Marshall Field where I had worked in college. That lasted about a week. There was nothing for me to do in Seattle.” (p. 131)

BJ moved to California, settled in Long Beach and with her husband and some friends, started a flight school at the Long Beach Airport. She remained active in aviation her entire life.

In 1977, WASP were finally granted military veteran status. In 2010, surviving WASP (about 300) were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a White House ceremony. BJ was there, a long deserved moment of recognition for BJ and all WASP. BJ died in 2013 at the age of 93.

They DID it!
Rosie riveted millions of rivets into planes ferried by BJ and her fellow WASP as women from coast to coast valiantly covered the WWII home front from land and in the air. Learning new skills, taking risks, breaking stereotypes, pursuing dreams, and facing flak to support the war effort, these women DID it!

For more information, visit the National WASP Museum at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

For more information, visit the Liberty Jump Team.

Copyright © 2019 Judith Stanford Miller/Student News Net. No portion of this article can be copied, disseminated, or distributed without the author’s permission.