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BellaOnline's Veterans Editor


First Woman Pilot to Die on Active Military Duty

Guest Author - Evelyn Rainey

"I knew I was going to join the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron before the organization was a reality, before it had a name, before it was anything but a radical idea in the minds of a few men who believed that women could fly airplanes. But I never knew it so surely as I did in Honolulu on December 7, 1941." by Cornelia Fort, Woman's Home Companion, June, 1943

Cornelia Fort was the first American woman to die while on active military duty (March 21, 1943). But she was also known for many other things. She was Nashville's first woman flight instructor. She was the first Tennessee service woman to die in World War II . She was also the first woman pilot to die in the line of duty for the U.S. military. And she was the second woman to volunteer for the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.

On March 21, 1943, with more than 1,100 hours of flying time (most of it as an instructor) Cornelia Fort was piloting a bomber (BT-13A, serial number 42-42432) from Long Beach, California. Ten miles south of Merkel, Texas, the plane of Frank E. Stamme (who had 267 flight hours) collided with Fort�s. Cornelia was killed instantly and her bomber was destroyed. Stamme was unhurt. Both pilots had been stationed with the Sixth Ferrying Group based at Long Beach.

Her epitaph reads "Killed in the Service of Her Country."

There was a long road winding through this very short life. Born in 1919, Cornelia was from a large and wealthy family in Nashville. She, her three older brothers and her younger sister were the children of Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort. Cornelia graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York in 1939 at the age of twenty.

Within two years, Cornelia had earned both her pilot and instructor licenses. She soloed for the first time on April 27, 1940, received a private pilot's license on June 19, 1940, and earned an instructor's rating on March 10, 1941. She became a flight instructor for the Massey and Rawson Flying Service, Fort Collins, Colorado, taking part in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) and later that year moved to Hawaii and continued working as a flight instructor there.

On December 7, 1941, she and her student, Sumala, took off in an Interstate Cadet from the John Rodgers Airport in Honolulu. Another plane intersected their path and she had to take the controls from her student in order to avoid a collision. To her great shock, her Cadet had nearly collided with a Japanese Zero as it retreated from the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor. This scene is immortalized in Jeff Donell's epic movie Tora Tora Tora.

All civilian flights were grounded in Hawaii, so Cornelia returned stateside. She was featured in a short war flick promoting War Bonds and asked to speak at many events.

In January of 1942, Jacqueline Cochran asked Cornelia to join the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary, but Nancy Love invited her to joined the newly forming Women's Auxilary Ferrying Squadron . The WAFS won Cornelia's heart, and she became the second of the original twenty-eight women pilots to join on October, 1942 at New Castle, Delaware.

The WAFS later became part of the Women's Air Service Pilots program. The WASPs were granted retroactive military status in 1977. A WAFS volunteer was required to have logged 500 hours and hold a commercial pilot's license in order to be accepted into the program. On March 21, 1943 the WAFS suffered their first fatal accident when Cornelia was killed.

Posthumously, Cornelia's encounter with the Japanese at Pearl Harbor was published in the Woman's Home Companion , June, 1943.

The best known and often-quoted biography of Cornelia Fort is by Rob Simbeck: Daughter of the Air The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort Grove Press (May 10, 2001). Cornelia is also mentioned in many of the books arising from the enduring interest in the WAFS, such as On Silver Wings: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, 1942-1944 (Ballantine, 1991), ISBN 0-345-36534-8 by Marianne Verges.

A marker at the Cornelia Fort Airport in East Nashville, Tennessee bears this quote from the pilot: "I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country."
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