Cornelia Fort was born into a wealthy Tennessee family in 1919. She grew up on an estate of almost 400 acres, in a home with 24 rooms. She attended private schools, was driven around by a chauffeur, and at 19, had a coming out party with hundreds of guests. Her parents expected her to marry a southern gentleman and settle down as mistress of her own grand home and, perhaps, that’s even what Cornelia expected her life to be, but at the age of 21, she took a flying lesson, and any ideas she may have had about living the life of the stereotypical genteel southern woman flew out the window. The southern belle had given up her fancy gowns for a jumpsuit.Cornelia loved planes, and she loved to fly. There was nothing better, as far as she was concerned. In less than a year, she became the first female flight instructor in Nashville, and shortly after, moved on to Colorado as an instructor for the Civilian Pilots Training Program.
But it was 1941, and a great deal of the world was at war. The US, while helping the allies with supplies, had not officially entered the fray. Still, many people assumed it was only a matter of time, and the government was preparing for the possibility. They asked Cornelia to go to Hawaii to teach servicemen how to fly. They didn’t care that she was a woman. They were looking for people who could do the job, and Cornelia was one of the best.Cornelia saw this as a great opportunity and packed her bags. Her mother probably didn’t feel the same, and may have asked her to reconsider and come home. In a letter to her mother, Cornelia wrote, “If I leave here I will leave the best job I can have (unless the national emergency creates a still better one) a very pleasant atmosphere, a good salary, but far the best of all are the planes I fly.” Cornelia stayed and taught men to fly.
But there was one lesson that was not like any other. On December 7, 1941, the day started out as usual. Cornelia awoke, had her breakfast, and headed out to Rodgers Airport in Honolulu, to give a student flying lessons. They got in the plane and the student took it up into the air. He knew what he was doing. He had been taking lessons for some time and this one was his last. The next time he flew, it would be solo. Cornelia had little to do but enjoy the scenery.As they flew over the picturesque Hawaiian Islands, she noticed something on the horizon. Upon closer examination, she discovered it was a plane coming in from the sea. Not terribly unusual. There were several military bases in Hawaii, and army planes were a common sight. But still . . . .
Something about that plane niggled at her. She stared and stared, wondering what it could be, and suddenly realized the plane was flying straight at them, guns blazing! She grabbed the controls from the student and pulled the plane up, just avoiding the strafing as well as being smashed into bits. The other plane zipped past and Fortin noticed the round red ball on its wing that signified the rising sun. The plane flew off and she and her student caught sight of great plumes of black smoke darkening the sky over Pearl Harbor, just a short distance away. America had been attacked. The war had come home.
Now, Cornelia was asked to go to Delaware to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service. She was thrilled. Her job would be to fly newly built planes from the factory to military bases around the country. But while her government believed in her abilities, the male pilots she encountered along the way didn’t. She wrote, “Any girl who has flown at all grows used to the prejudice of most men pilots who will trot out any number of reasons why women can’t possibly be good pilots . . . .”
Flying those planes was not as easy as it seemed. The navigation equipment was often a map and a look out the window. They flew in open cockpits which was bad enough when the weather was good. When it was bad, the cold, wind and rain was unbearable. Fingers would stiffen, goggles would fog and the fog would freeze, visibility would become non-existent. And then, it was a new airplane. If there were any bugs or faults in it, the pilot would have to deal with them while flying.
On March 23, 1943, while making one of these flights to Love Field in Texas, Cornelia was flying her plane in a group of other pilots, both male and female. One of the male pilots clipped Cornelia’s plane with its landing gear and her plane spun out of control and crashed to the ground so swiftly, there was no time to use a parachute. Cornelia died in the crash.
Was it an accident, or did the male pilot try to rattle her a bit, to frighten the girl who thought she could be a pilot? We don’t know. But we do know that neither Cornelia, nor any of the other women pilots who died flying military airplanes were recognized for their services. The military didn’t even pick up the cost of their burials. The women were, after all, civilians.
Cornelia was the first American woman to lose her life while on active military service. It’s not the kind of distinction one strives for, especially not at the age of 24. Her commanding officer, Nancy Love, wrote to Cornelia’s mother, “I can only say that I miss her terribly, and loved her. If there can be any comforting thought, it is that she died as she wanted to – in an Army airplane, and in the service of her country.”