WASP – a proud chapter in nation’s aviation history

  • Published
  • By Col. Paul Johnson
  • 71st Operations Group commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- You may have noticed many of Vance’s instructor and student pilots wearing an unusual patch on their left shoulder during March.

The wearing of a patch commemorating the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots was an idea born by the leadership of the 71st Student Squadron, and approved by Wing leadership. March was picked to wear such a historic and important piece of our Air Force history because it is National Women’s History Month.

The patch, like many that adorned the uniforms of World War II Airmen, features “Fifinella,” a flying female gremlin created by Walt Disney. She was proudly worn by the WASPs in World War II and again today by the 71st Flying Training Wing.

This year, the 71st Operations Group has the honor of educating Vance’s Airmen on the contributions of women throughout history. This year’s theme is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” But for this commentary, I prefer to highlight women in military aviation.

From late 1942 through December 1944, over 25,000 women applied to become WASPs. Fewer than 1,900 were accepted and approximately 1,100 finally became WASPs.

Those who received their wings were asked to fill critical roles that would have otherwise been filled by men, who unlike women, were not restricted from flying in combat.

According to WASP author and historian, Sarah Byrn Rickman, “WASPs flew every type of aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. In addition to ferrying, they towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and non-flying personnel, and flight-tested aircraft that had been repaired before the men were allowed to fly them again.”

In the execution of those missions, 38 WASPs lost their lives. The last WASP class graduated on Dec. 20, 1944. Soon after that the organization was disbanded. It wasn’t until 1977 that these American aviation pioneers were granted military status by then President Jimmy Carter.

It took more than 30 years for the U.S. Air Force to again recognize the capabilities and contributions of women as military pilots. While both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army graduated their first female aviators in 1974, it took the Air Force until 1976 to train female pilots.

In August of that year, 10 female Air Force officers entered Undergraduate Pilot Training at Williams AFB, Arizona, as part of Class 77-08. Forty-eight weeks later, all 10 graduated and followed in the footsteps of their WASP predecessors.

When these women graduated, there were still restrictions on females being allowed to fly in combat. As a result, none continued on to train in fighter aircraft.

In 1993, that restriction was lifted, paving the way for then 1st Lt. Jeannie Leavitt to begin formal training in the F-15E Strike Eagle, an all-weather multirole fighter aircraft.

In April of 1994, she became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. She went on to attend the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, command the 333rd Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing and currently commands the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

Now a brigadier general, Leavitt is a command pilot with 3,000 hours to include over 300 combat hours. I have no doubt we will continue to watch her rise through the general officer ranks.

As for Vance in 2017, it’s not unusual to see females serving their country in a flying capacity, either as an instructor or a student. In fact, this month when we’re reminded of women’s contributions throughout history, our last pilot training class to graduate, Class 17-06, boasted seven female pilots. That is far and away the most I’ve seen from one class since my arrival last summer. Coincidence or not, it was good to see that it happened in March.

In these last days of March, you will continue to see 71st FTW Airmen, both men and women, wearing the WASP’s “Fifinella” patch. Pride in what that patch commemorates should not be limited to the WASPs.

It should be extended to the 10 women of Class 77-08, to Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, to all female Air Force pilots before and after her, to the seven women of Class 17-06 and to every female flying an aircraft each and every day here at Vance.

And as the father of two girls, I extend that pride to them as well.