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The Cornelia Fort Story

Updated on May 24, 2012

BT-13 “Vibrator”

When one thinks of famous women pilots in American history, the name Amelia Earhart usually springs to mind. But, there were other women pilots, many who risked their lives in the service of their country. The women, who flew during World War II for the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), were some of those.

Women were already flying combat missions in other countries, but the WAFS were the first to work as a civilian unit alongside the U.S. military. Their task was to ferry military planes to bases within the United States.

Fewer than 50 women became WAFS and all applicants were required to have 500 hours of flight time and possess a commercial pilot's license before being accepted. Their goal was to free male pilots for combat duty. The WAFS later merged with the famed Women Air Force Service Pilots or WASP for short. Perhaps the best known of these aviators was Cornelia Clark Fort of Nashville, Tennessee, who became the first female pilot in American history to die while on active duty.

Cornelia was born in February of 1919 and was the daughter of prominent Rufus Elijah Fort, founder of the well known National Life and Accident Insurance Company. While still a young girl, he insisted her three brothers swear they would never fly an air plane. Apparently, he didn’t think it necessary for her to make the same promise…he should have. Cornelia was born to fly and she fell in love with the prospect at an early age.

Shortly after graduating from college, she was awarded her pilot's license and became a flight instructor in Colorado. Later, she moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where she accepted another instructor position at Pearl Harbor. At the age of 23, it was a move that was to change the course of her life.

Fort, 2nd from left

On December 7th 1941, the Sunday morning Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, Cornelia was working with a student pilot perfecting his takeoffs and landings. Their plane was an Interstate Cadet monoplane. Hers and several other American planes were the only ones in the air at the time.

While her student practiced aerial maneuvers she observed from the back seat of the trainer. Suddenly, Cornelia spied a plane which seemingly came out of nowhere and was rapidly approaching on a collision course. It was silver and had the brilliant red, Japanese Rising Sun insignia displayed on its wings.

Instinctively she took control and climbed as steep and fast as the little plane could manage. The enemy plane made a strafing run at the underbelly of their craft, passing close enough for the wind to buffet it about. Fortunately, no serious damage was sustained. She and her charge turned and headed for the nearest landing facility, John Rodgers Airport, near the mouth of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Zero stayed on their tail. On the way back she and her student became two of the few civilians to get an aerial view of the carnage taking place below.

When their small plane landed, the occupants leapt out and raced for cover as the pursuing Zero strafed the plane and runway. Two other civilian planes never returned in addition to the airport manager being killed. She later learned another instructor and pupil had lost their lives.

The incident gained Cornelia a measure of fame and when she returned to Nashville in 1942 to be an instructor for the Civilian Pilot Training Program, (CPTP) she was asked to promote war bonds and make speaking engagements. It was at this time Cornelia became the second woman out of 29 to be recruited into the newly established WAFS. She was stationed at the 6th Ferrying Group base at Long Beach, CA and became one of their most skilled aviators.

It was March 21, 1943 when she and six male pilots were ferrying new BT-13 “Vibrator” planes to Dallas’ Love Field. The group was flying in close formation when the plane pilot Frank E. Stamme was ferrying, struck her left wing about ten miles south of Merkel, TX . Cornelia’s plane crashed in a vertical position with the engine being embedded two feet into the ground. She was dead at 25.

Her grave site is marked with the words “Killed in the Service of her Country.” Another commemorative marker at the Cornelia Fort Airport in Tennessee reads in part, "I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country."


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Sad, but that's the fortunes of war.

      Well, that's what I do aviannovice.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I had never heard of Cornelia until now. Thanks for taking the time to look into this topic and publish this wonderful piece. Awesome and up!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I loved this article. I would have liked to have been a Women's Air Force Auxiliary pilot, myself, had I been alive at that time.

      It's awesome she survived Pearl Harbor, and sad that she died so young.