b. February 5, 1919
d. March 21, 1943
US Army Air Forces
Sarah Lawrence College 1939
“As long as our planes fly overhead, the skies of America are free and that’s what all of us everywhere are fighting for. And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known. I, for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge, flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That’s all the luck I ever hope to have.”
Cornelia Fort was born into one of the most influential families of Tennessee. Her father, Dr. Fort, was on the draft board for the greater Nashville area, which eventually led him to have his three sons swear on a bible to never become pilots. Cornelia at the time was 5 years old and as she listened to this going on, was intrigued she had already thought flying was fascinating. Instead of mainstreaming and attending social parties, Cornelia wanted to see the world. She had to beg her father to let her finish her education at progressive Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. The experience at Sarah Lawrence opened her eyes to the world; she attended the theater, sat in on lectures for women’s rights and wrote ferocious editorials on Hitler’s abuse of powers.
After the death of her father, and on a whim in 1940, Fort signed up for private flying lessons. By 1941, she was the first woman flight instructor in Tennessee. At the close of 1941, she was in the skies of Honolulu, that dreadful day of December 7. Seeing an unknown planed heading her way, she grabbed the controls from her student and quickly landed. Bullets flying around her, she was a witness to the first Japanese attack on America and eventually portrayed in the move Tora! Tora! Tora! Forced back to the mainland, she started to give flying lessons again.
As soon as the war began, thousands of planes were being rolled off the factory lines each month. With the men overseas, the War Department announced the organization of the (WAFS) Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, a military sponsored program for women to ferry the planes to different parts of the country. On September 6, 1941, Cornelia received a telegram from the War Department and was the second woman enrolled. These women would be equal to second lieutenants, yet they had to pay for their uniforms, pay rent to live at the barracks and would not be eligible for veteran benefits or the GI Bill.
By March 21, 1943, Cornelia was one of the most accomplished pilots of the WAFS and had spent 1,100 hours ferrying planes for the military. On one such mission, 10 miles south of Merkel, Texas, Cornelia Fort lost her life in an airplane accident. The BT-13A collided in mid-air with another plane. Some accounts say that the other pilot was horsing around and Cornelia was either playing along or trying to avoid the plane. Either way, the other male pilot survived.
In 1977 the U.S. Congress declared that members of WAFS and its subsequent group, WASP, were active members of the military. This made Cornelia Fort the first woman to die on active duty.