The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cornelia Fort: From Debutante to Airwoman

Have you ever heard of Cornelia Fort? She was an original member of the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) in WWII who later became known as the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (the WASPS).

Today those women, at least the few who survivewere finally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal honoring their service in WWII.

Fort didn't survive. In fact, PBS's the "American Experience" website says that "a mid-air collision would tragically make her the first American woman to die on active military duty." That was in 1943 in Texas where she was on a mission ferrying a BT13 to Love Field . See a pic of a BT13 below (I realize this plane could be the similar but different engined BT15). The BT13's and 15's wer built by the Vultee corporation and were known among the pilots who flew them as Vultee Vibrators, a nickname indicating their most pronounced characteristic in flight). 

Cornelia Fort was born in 1919, the same year as my mother. Mom, who died last year at the age of 89, had many fears. Flying was one of them. She was was terrified of flying (she never flew during her entire lifetime) and the idea of piloting a plane was not even in her universe.

Mom's brother (my uncle), however, flew Corsairs in the Pacific in WWII. Needless to say, she worried constantly about him, and later, about my Dad who was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1944.

According to PBS, the idea "that Fort should one day put on a flight suit, live in army barracks and fly some of the largest and fastest military aircraft of the day, would probably have raised more than a few eyebrows in the genteel circles in which she was raised. Dr. Rufus Fort and his wife Louise had brought up their oldest daughter to be the demure wife of a Southern gentleman. Their five children grew up in an opulent 24-room house originally built in 1815. It stood on 365 acres of land along the Cumberland River in Davidson County, Tennessee. A chauffeur drove the children to their exclusive private schools. And after Cornelia turned 19 her father presented her to society in an elaborate debutante ball, attended by hundreds."

As this picture shows, she was a beautiful young woman, and, as a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she could easily have moved into the social circles her father had opened for her. But Cornelia had other ideas. After her father took her flying one day, she was hooked. And, according to Rainey, "Within two years, Cornelia had earned both her pilot and instructor licenses. She soloed for the first time on April 27, 1940 [For What It's Worth Dept: her solo took place in Nashville on the exact day yours truly was born in Baptist Hospital there], 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."

PBS's American Experience picks up the story. "On December 7th, 1941 Cornelia Fort, a young civilian flight instructor from Tennessee, and her regular Sunday-morning student took off from John Rodgers Airport in Honolulu. Fort's apprentice was advanced enough to fly regular take-offs and landings and this was to have been his last lesson before going solo. With the novice at the controls, Fort noticed a military aircraft approaching from the sea. At first that didn't strike her as unusual; Army planes were a common sight in the skies above Hawaii. But at the last moment, she realized this aircraft was different and that it had set itself on a collision course with her plane. She wrenched the controls from her student's grasp and managed to pull the plane up just in time to avoid a mid-air crash. As she looked around she saw the red sun symbol on the wings of the disappearing plane and in the distance, probably not more than a quarter mile away, billowing smoke was rising over Pearl Harbor. The disbelieving Fort had just unwittingly witnessed the U.S. entry into World War II."

Rainey says, "This scene is immortalized in Jeff Donell's epic movie Tora Tora Tora."

A little over a year later, in 1943, Fort was dead, killed in that tragic crash near Love Field in Texas.

Later in 1945, a small airport was opened near her family's estate. The airport was named in her honor. This airport is less than a mile from where my Mom and Dad made their home in the 1970's and 80's.

Mom knew about Cornelia Fort, had read about her in the newspaper. As I said, Mom never flew, but she knew about courage and she admired what Fort had done. And several times on a warm Sunday afternoon when my family was visiting, we'd ride down to the little airport to read the historical marker honoring Fort's service and to watch the private aircraft landing and taking off.


  1. George, Thanks for stopping by. Cornelia was a very brave woman. Looking forward to those Montana stories.

  2. When I saw the WASPs being honored yesterday on the news, I was all ready to get teary but Pelosi ruined the moment for me.

  3. Pat, You are so right. Pelosi's sour puss can ruin anything.