The Second World War was the first in which women played a role in aviation. Russian women flew combat missions as bomber and fighter pilots, but in Great Britain and the United States the role of women pilots was supportive rather than direct. The similarities and contrasts between the British and American experience are, however, striking. Below is a summary taken from my comparative study published 15 years ago.
American woman pilot in the cockpit of a B-17 (above)
(Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, No 342-FH-4A05339)
An British woman pilot preparing to fly a Spitfire (below)
(Photo courtesy of Diana Barnato Walker)
In the U.K. women flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was founded almost immediately after the start of WWII by senior executives of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to employ pilots not fit for military service in supporting roles for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA). Although it became the sole ferrying organization of the British armed forces, it responded flexibly to other requests and also provided air ambulance, VIP transport and cargo service on an ad hoc basis.
From the start, the ATA was an organization dedicated to providing services, not proving a point, and it was open to both men and women. Indeed, through out its existence, men pilots out-numbered women pilots by a significant margin. For example, the first pilots of the organization were 30 men and 8 women. At it’s peak in 1944, the ATA employed nearly 700 pilots of which only a little over 100 were women. (Source: The Forgotten Pilots. Lettice Curtis (who was herself an ATA pilot). Appendix 1.)
In the United States, in contrast, women flew with the WAFS and/or WASP. Both of the organizations were established as women-only organizations, and the WASP was established more to demonstrate that women could be taught to fly as well as men as to fill any explicit need or shortage identified by the USAAF. Indeed, the USAAF consistently denied the need for training women pilots at all.
WASP in classroom training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX (Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, No 342-FH-4A05376)
The ATA was established by aviation professionals, and initially only accepted pilots with 500 hours of solo time. By the end of 1940, the needs of the organization were so great that the recruiting requirements were reduced to just 50 hours solo, and by 1942 the first candidates without any flying experience were accepted into the organization’s training program. The latter had started in 1941, when the reduction in flying hours required for application had been instituted. Pilots with just 50 hours solo needed additional training to fulfill the tasks assigned.
Rather than duplicating RAF or airline training, however, the ATA inventively developed a pilot training program designed to train pilots precisely for the tasks required by the ATA in a minimum amount of time. Pilots were first trained only on light, training aircraft and then put to work ferrying these aircraft to RAF training establishments. In doing the work, the pilots were already earning their keep, contributing directly to the war effort (relieving RAF pilots from ferrying), and also gaining flying time, experience and confidence.
An ATA pilot in a training aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Michael Fahie)
Once they had fully mastered these aircraft, the ATA pilots (whether men or women) advanced to more powerful single-engine aircraft including fighters, and step-by-step at their own pace to twin-engine aircraft and eventually heavy bombers. At no time were ATA pilots trained on aerobatics, air gunnery, formation flying or other military training irrelevant to ferrying and transport service. Indeed, they were given only minimal training on instrument flying, as ATA pilots were expected to fly “visual.” By keeping the topics of training to the minimum, training time was significantly reduced.
Furthermore, by allowing the pilots to progress at their own pace, no pilots were forced beyond their capabilities. There was no need for all pilots to qualify on all classes of aircraft, a policy that ensured all pilots contributed according to their abilities, reducing accidents and losses. Notably this training scheme was evolved and initially managed by some of the world's finest flying instructors -- instructors that had previously been with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).
An British woman pilot in cockpit of a Sterling four-engine bomber (Photo courtesy of Maidenhead Heritage Centre)
The WASP, in contrast, singularly failed to develop a satisfying training program. Training was put in the hands of a civilian contractor of dubious quality, and two separate USAAF inspections of the WASP training facility identified and catalogued myriad inadequacies in the WASP training program, but no corrective actions were undertaken.
Furthermore, the contractor responsible for training rigidly and mindlessly followed the standard USAAF training program (probably at the insistence of the WASP leadership or the USAAF itself). As a result, American women pilot-candidates were subjected to a lengthy course cluttered with utterly superfluous training elements such as mathematics, aerobatics, and use of the Norton Bomb Site -- although no one ever envisaged the women graduates serving as bombadiers on USAAF combat missions.
Above WASP training on the bombsite (Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, No 342-FH-4A05355)
At great expense to the American taxpayer, the WASP training institution at Avenger Field in Texas turned out pilots who on graduation had their wings yet still needed further training before they could contribute to the war effort. Thus while British women pilots were contributing to the war effort after only a few months, the WASP pilots took nine to ten months just to earn their wings. At that point, they still needed specialized training on service aircraft. "Pursuit" training was four weeks long, B-26 training nine weeks and B-17 training twelve weeks long. In short, even the best women pilots were in training for a year or more before starting to contribute to the war effort.
However, because of the substandard level of training offered at Avenger Field, most graduates failed to live up to expectations, fueling rather than diminishing existing prejudices against the concept of women military pilots. Overall, only a tiny percentage of the 1,074 women who passed through WASP training saw active service in any capacity before the decision was made to disband the organization altogether.
WASP pilot and copilot in the cockpit of a B-17 (Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, No 342-FH-4A05519)
PLEASE NOTE! I am NOT suggesting that the American women were in any way inherently less capable or less dedicated than the British women. On the contrary, many American women flew very successfully with the ATA. Women pilots on both sides of the Atlantic consistently demonstrated high levels of competence at least equal to that of male pilots of comparable experience. Indeed, their service record with respect to patience and reliability was notably better than that of male pilots. The women in both countries demonstrated that women could fly the most modern aircraft of their age, (including the first jets in the UK), and their flying safety record was above average in both the U.K. and the U.S.
However, in the course of the war, the women with the ATA steadily won the same privileges and status as their male counterparts. They wore the same uniforms, underwent the same training at the same centralized flying school, and performed the same duties as their male colleagues as they qualified successively on the classes of aircraft from training bi-planes to four-engine bombers. From 1943 onwards, they broke ground by being awarded equal pay for equal work at a time when other women's auxiliaries (such as the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)) were not. Last but not least, women in the ATA were promoted on merit and could exercise command authority over male colleagues.
Women pilots of the ATA (Photo courtesy of Ann Wood Kelly)
The American women pilots, in contrast, were segregated in an exclusively women's organization. They trained separately at a training base set up exclusively for them and managed, as noted above, by a sub-standard civilian contractor. Even on completing training, they were expressly denied the same uniform, status, rank, privileges, pay and benefits of male pilots engaged in the same activities — whether ferrying aircraft, towing targets or gliders. (The male pilots were all members of the USAAF.) Indeed, the WASP were not even entitled to disability, pension or death benefits in the event of an accident, resulting in the absurd situation in which women killed in the same aircraft as male crew members were denied the military honors accorded the men who had died with them. Separate is NOT equal!
The illusion of militarization: they could march, but not get a pension, disability or military funeral. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, No 342-FH-4A05676)
Throughout the war, the women in the ATA were recognized and praised both officially and publicly for their contribution to the war effort. Five women and 31 male ATA pilots won the MBE. Four women ATA pilots and two male colleagues earned the BEM. One woman Flight Captain received a Commendation alongside five male ATA officers, and two women ATA pilots along with 16 male ATA pilots received the King’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
The WASP, in contrast, were first glamorized and then demonized. The women could not and did not receive any form or honors. On the contrary, they were sent home before the war was even over, and treated like an embarrassment by the government and nation that had recruited them.
Even more shocking, because of the incompetence of the WASP management, women were sometimes left without pay for months on end. Members were arbitrarily shifted from one assignment to another, preventing the women from gaining experience, competence and confidence in any particular job. They had no uniform for most of their existence, and when a uniform was eventually issued, it highlighted their "otherness" rather than furthering integration and acceptance by the USAAF.
Worst of all, however, the real contributions of competent women pilots were over-shadowed by the bureaucratic back-biting and games played by the WASP leadership. Even USAAF commanders who valued the contributions of individual American women pilots, viewed the organization as a headache. When the WASP became the target of a hostile Congressional investigation, the women pilots found few supporters and so the WASP was rapidly scrapped because it had become a public embarrassment.
A comprehensive comparison of the experiences of women pilots in the U.S. and the U.K. was the subject of my book Sisters in Arms: The Women who Flew in WWII [Pen & Sword, 2006]