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Women in Aviation in the Second World War

A Guest Post by Helena P. Schrader

The Second World War was the first conflict in which women played a role in aviation. In the Soviet Union, women’s squadrons were formed, and female aviators flew combat missions as both bomber and fighter pilots.

In Great Britain and the United States, in contrast, the role of women pilots was supportive rather than direct yet important nevertheless significant.

An American woman pilot in the cockpit of a B-17 (left) and a British woman pilot in cockpit of a Sterling. Both aircraft were four-engine heavy bombers.

Because RAF and USAAF chose not to employ women pilots directly, women pilots in both the U.S. and the U.K. were organized in auxiliary organizations. In Great Britain, women pilots served in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and in the United States initially in the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and later in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). While already qualified women pilots were the first to serve in both countries, later training schemes evolved to train women with no previous flying experience. As a result, hundreds of women in both countries learned to fly during the war.

An ATA pilot in a training aircraft. WASP at their training base, Avenger Field, TX.

Although the women who joined the ATA and WASP often faced scepticism and in some cases encountered outright hostility, women pilots on both sides of the Atlantic rapidly proved capable of performing the tasks assigned. Indeed, women pilots in both the U.S. and the U.K. consistently demonstrated high levels of competence equal — or is some circumstances superior — to that of male pilots of comparable experience. Their service record with respect to patience and reliability was notably better than that of male pilots, and their flying safety record was above average in both the U.K. and the U.S. The women in both countries demonstrated that women could fly the most modern aircraft of their age, including the first jets in the UK.

The ATA pilots, both men and women, flew without instruments or radios (which meant without radio navigation aids) and in the notorious English weather. Furthermore, throughout the war, the Germans continued to penetrate British airspace and ATA pilots encountered the Luftwaffe more than once.

(Below ATA women in one of their messes)

Although the American women flew only in the Continental United States where they were safe from enemy action, they were trained to perform a wider variety of tasks. These included ferrying aircraft (especially fighters) across the country, target towing, glider towing (in the training context), collecting meteorological data, engine maintenance test flying, transportation of passengers and cargoes, and more.

(Below WASP at their training mess at Avenger Field)

In the course of the war, the women with the ATA steadily won the same privileges and status as their male counterparts. From 1943 onwards, they were granted equal pay for equal work. Furthermore, women in the ATA were promoted on merit and could exercise command authority over male colleagues. The women in the ATA were recognized and praised both officially and publicly for their contribution to the war effort, and by the end of the war many had received awards and honors.

(Below: the ATA commander of women pilots, Pauline Gower (left) with the Queen (center).

The American women pilots, in contrast, although initially glamorized in the press, did not enjoy the same status, rank, privileges, pay or benefits as their male counterparts. Furthermore, by 1944 political opposition to the WASP had formed in Congress. By the end of 1944, the WASP organization had been disbanded and the pilots were sent home — without recognition for their service. (Below WASP at their training base, Avenger Field, TX)

Helena P. Schrader’s Berlin Airlift Series, Bridge to Tomorrow, features two women pilots, one American and one British. The first book in the series, Cold Peace, won a “Highly Recommended” Five Star Review from the Historical Fiction Company and was also awarded Silver in the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards 2023. It is available in paperback or ebook format.

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