There have been women pilots since the beginning of heavier than air flight. Before World War II some women pilots made their marks on aviation history. It was inevitable women pilots would be involved in every capacity in World War II. Women pilots made some interesting marks on aviation history in World War II.
The United States of America
On the morning of December 7, 1941 Marguerite Gambo was a flight instructor. A student pilot was at the controls of the Meyers OTW they were flying. Gambo saw some explosions in the distance and found they were among a sky full of Japanese military aircraft. She could feel the turbulence from the Japanese aircraft. Gambo immediately took control of the airplane and got the plane on ground as fast as she could. Cornelia Fort was also a flight instructor. She was flying in an Interstate S-1A Cadet with a student named Saumola at the controls. He was practicing touch and go landings. When Fort saw the Japanese aircraft she immediately took control of the aircraft and got it on the ground as soon as possible. The Japanese were strafing the airfield so Ford and Saumola dashed for cover. Cornelia Fort joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Service (WAFS). While in the WAFS she was killed in a flying accident in March 1943.[i]
The formation of the WAFS and later Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was not without controversy. The purpose of these organizations was to ferry military aircraft within the United States which would free up military pilots for military duties. Some retired military pilots complained there were ample numbers of retired military pilots who could do what these women pilots were going to do.
The WAFS was created in September 1942. Nancy Harkness Love commanded the WAFS. There were never more than 28 WAFS at any given time. The women were highly qualified with an average of 1,100 flight hours. They originally ferried trainers and light aircraft but eventually delivered fighters, bombers, and transports.
In August 1943 all women flying for the USAAF were consolidated into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and Jacqueline Cochran was the USAAF Director for Women Pilots and Nancy Harkness Love was named the WASP executive on the Air Transport Command Ferrying Division. Over 25,000 women applied for the WASP, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 graduated and 900 stayed with the WASP until it was disbanded on December 20, 1944.[ii] Besides ferrying aircraft WASP flew aircraft for target towing. WASP flew 60 million air miles and 38 died in flying accidents. Their accident rate was comparable to male pilots who flew similar flights.[iii]
The WASP also produced some interesting side benefits. Male pilots gave the B-26 Marauder nicknames such as “The Widow Maker” and “The Boston Prostitute”. Many male pilots believed the B-29 Superfortress too complex to safely fly. WASP pilots flew demonstration flights of these aircraft and convinced USAAF pilots these planes were airworthy. The USAAF led the WASP to believe they would be adopted into the USAAF. This didn’t happen. They didn’t have injury or death benefits. In 1977 President Carter signed a bill granting women who were in the WASP veterans’ status.[iv] In 2016 President Obama signed into law legislation allowing women who were in the WASP to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. The ashes of Former WASP member Elaine Harmon was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in September 2016.[v] Granting women who served in the WASP veteran status strengthened the argument for World War II Merchant Marines to get veteran status. On January 19, 1988 the Civilian Military Service Review Board granted most World War II Merchant Marines veteran status.[vi]
[i] Civilian Pilots Under Fire at Pearl Harbor, by Jim Moore, December 7, 2016, (https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2016/december/07/civilian-pilots-under-fire-at-pearl-harbor), last accessed 3/12/2017.
[ii]WASP Created, Published May 4, 2015, National Museum of the Air Force Web Site, (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196727/wasp-created.aspx) Last accessed 3/12/2017.
[iii] WASPs Demonstrate Their Abilities, published May 4, 2015, National Museum of the Air Force Web Site, (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196726/wasps-demonstrate-their-abilities.aspx), last accessed 3/12/2017.
[iv] WASP Disbanded, Published May 4, 2015, (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196725/wasp-disbanded.aspx), last accessed 3/12/2017.
[v] A Woman Pilot Received the Military Funeral the Army Denied Her, by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, The Atlantic Monthly,(https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/wasp-elaine-harmon-arlington-national-cemetery/499112/), last accessed 3/12/2017.
[vi] U.S. Merchant Marine.org, Frequently Asked Questions about the Merchant Marine (http://www.usmm.org/faq.html), last accessed 3/14/2017.
The Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was the only World War II combatant that sent women pilots, and other crew members, to fly combat missions. They had separate women’s units but some women flew in units with men.
One women’s unit was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The unit flew Polikarpov Po-2s. These were wooden biplane 2 seat trainers. The women used them for night bombardment. The planes had no guns and the women had no parachutes. The Germans nicknamed them “Night Witches”.[i] They flew their first mission on the night of June 8, 1942. They bombed a German division headquarters with 3 Po-2s. They lost one plane on this raid.[ii] The 588th, later designated the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, flew 23,000 sorties and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs. Thirty women from this regiment died in combat.[iii]
The Soviet Air Force formed 2 other women’s flying regiments, the 586th and 587th. The 586th flew Yak-1 Fighters. The 587th was a Bomber Aviation Regiment. Marina Raskova who organized the three women flying regiments commanded this regiment. She was killed in a flying accident in 1943.[iv]
The pilots of the 586th flew 4,000 missions and fought in 125 air engagements and shot down 38 enemy aircraft. [v] Two women pilots became fighter aces, Lydia Litvyak and Katya Budanova. They started flying missions with the 586th later they were transferred to the elite 9th Guards Fighter Regiment. Budanova scored 11 kills and Litvyak scored 13 1/2 as the Anglo-Americans scored kills.[vi]
Before the war Lydia Litvyak was a flight instructor who had trained 45 pilots. When the Germans invaded The Soviet Union she attempted to join the Soviet Air Force but was turned down until the formation of the 586th Fighter Regiment. She was transferred to the 437th Fighter Regiment where she flew with male pilots. On September 13, 1942 she became the first woman fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft.[vii] She shot down a Ju 88 medium bomber then she shot down a Bf 109 G-2 that was attacking Raisa Beliaeva, another woman pilot. The next day Litvyak claimed another Bf 109.[viii] On the night of September 24 another woman pilot, Lieutenant Valeriya Khomiakova, shot down a Ju 88 piloted by Oberleutnant Gerhard Maak, the first night victory for a woman pilot. On September 27 Litvyak shot down another Ju 88. On October 2 Budanova scored her first two kills, a Ju 88 and a Bf 109. On October 6 Budanova shot down another Ju 88. On February 10, 1943 Budanov shot down an Fw 190. On February 23 Litvyak and Budanova were awarded the Order of the Red Star and Litvyak was promoted to Junior Lieutenant. She was shot down twice and on March 22nd, after shooting down a Ju 88, a Bf 109 damaged her plane and wounded her. She shot down a Bf 109 then she flew her plane back to base. On May 31st she shot down an observation balloon. On July 16th she shot down a Ju 88 and shared in the destruction of another Ju 88. Enemy fire damaged her plane and wounded her and she crash landed. She refused medical leave. The next day another woman fighter pilot, Antonina Lebedeva, was killed in action.[ix] Litvyak downed a Bf 109 on Jul 19th and Katya Budanova shot down another Bf 109[x] but Katya Budanova and Raisa Belyaeva were shot down and killed. Their victors were Georg Schwientek and Leutnant Emil Bitsch. It was Emil Bitsch’s 20th air victory. Litvyak shot down another Bf 109 on July 21st. On August 1st she was shot down and killed. Her victor was probably Leutnant Hans Schleef.[xi] Her body was not found until 1979 by Inna Pasportnikova[xii], who was Litvyak’s mechanic. On May 6, 1990 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Junior Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak the Hero of the Soviet Union.[xiii] The Russian Federation awarded Captain Katya Budanova the Hero of the Russian Federation on October 1, 1993. [xiv]
[ii] The Night Witches, The True Story of an Incredible Group of Women, by Linda Dowdy, © 2007, (http://www.seizethesky.com/nwitches/nitewtch.html), last accessed 3/19/17.
[iii] “Night Witches” ~ Nachthexen (https://sonocarina.wordpress.com/tag/soviet-union/), last accessed 3/19/2017.
[iv] Military History Now (http://militaryhistorynow.com/tag/587th-bomber-aviation-regiment/), last accessed 3/19/2017.
[v] Military History Now (http://militaryhistorynow.com/tag/587th-bomber-aviation-regiment/), last accessed 3/19/2017.
[vi] The Soviets would normally differentiate between individual kills and kills scored with another pilot. In the Anglo-American system a shared kill would count as a ½ if 2 pilots were involved or ¼ if for pilots were involved.
[vii] War History Online (https://www.warhistoryonline.com/guest-bloggers/the-white-lily-lydia-litvyak.html), last accessed 3/19/2017.
[viii] The Germans didn’t lose a Bf 109 in that area on that day. It could be a case of aircraft misidentification or a case of a plane believed destroyed made it back to base. Both of these occurrences were common during World War II.
[ix] Survinicity.com, Stalingrad the Girls and the Aircraft, (http://survincity.com/2012/03/stalingrad-the-girls-the-aircraft/) , last accessed 3/25/17.
[x] World War II Database (http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=645), Contributor C. Peter Chen, last accessed 3/25/17.
[xi] Leutnant Schleef shot down 98 enemy aircraft. He claimed a similar looking LaGG-3 where Litvyak’s former mechanic Inna Pasportnikova found Litvyak’s plane in 1979.
[xii] She was also a woman.
[xiii] Word War 2 Database (http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=433), Contributor C. Peter Chen, last accessed 3/25/17.
[xiv] World War II Database (http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=645), Contributor C. Peter Chen, last accessed 3/25/17.
Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch was the only German woman test pilot in World War II. She was popularized in the 1965 movie “Operation Crossbow”. In the autumn of 1943 Reitsch and Hauptmann Heinrich Lange, and later SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny developed the idea of a unit to bomb important allied targets. The unit was to be comprised of Fieseler Fi 103s, a piloted version of the V-1 “buzz bomb”, and Messerschmitt Me 328s. The pilots were to aim their flying bomb at the target then bail out. They estimated the chance of the pilot’s survival was 1%. The first 2 flight tests of the Fi 103 launched from a Heinkel He 111 resulted in crashes. Then Reitsch took over flight tests and had more success. There were 2 mishaps during the Reitch test flights but neither was her fault. One mishap resulted in a crash but Reitsch was unhurt.[i]
Reitsch also flew the Me 163 Komet, a rocket fighter. She crashed in one of these aircraft and broke her nose on the gun sight. She refused medical assistance for 15 minutes because she wanted to finish her notes. In Mano Ziegler’s book “Rocket Fighter” he wrote there was a fatal crash of a Komet. He later saw Hanna Reitsch was upset. He assumed she was upset about the pilot’s death. He decided to invite her to the opera to get her mind of the tragedy. When he went to invite Reitsch he found she was upset because the crash convinced the commander a powered start would be too dangerous for her and prohibited her from making a “sharp” start. Zeigler decided it was best not to invite her.
During the Battle of Berlin Hitler summoned Hanna Reitsch and Generaloberst Ritter von Greim to the Führerbunker. They flew in an Fw 190D single seat fighter. The sergeant pilot and von Greim were in the cockpit. Hanna Reitsch was stuffed in the fuselage.[ii] The 2ndStaffel of JG26, also flying Fw 190Ds received orders to fly an escort mission. They weren’t told what they were escorting. On the way to Berlin the JG26 pilots found there was an extra plane with them. They assumed it was an enemy aircraft and turned to attack it. The Fw 190 with the VIPs flew into a cloud and the JG26 fighters lost it.[iii] The Fw 190 carrying the VIPs landed safely at Gatow but the airfield was under artillery fire. Hanna Reitsch suggested they take a Fieseler Storch, a light plane, to fly to the Führerbunker. They dashed to the Fieseler Storch and von Greim took the controls. When the Storch got airborne it came under heavy artillery and small arms fire. Ground fire hit the plane and knocked von Greim unconscious. Reitsch immediately took control of the aircraft and flew it to the heart of Berlin, landing in front of the Brendenburg Gate. They hitched a ride on a truck to the Führerbunker. The Fw 190D pilot who flew Hanna Reitsch and General von Greim into Gatow flew an Arado Ar 96 into Berlin. Hanna Reitsch flew von Greim out of Berlin. She flew the last German aircraft to leave Berlin during World War II. [iv]
[i] The Warplanes of the Third Reich, by William Green, © 1970, pages 170- 171. "Operation Crossbow" inaccurately depicted her as flying the V-1 to solve its flight control problems. She flew the V-1 when the Luftwaffe was testing the piloted version, the Fi 103.
[ii] A History of the Luftwaffe, by John Kllen, © 1967.
[iii] JG 26: Top Guns of the Luftwaffe ,by Donald L. Caldwell, © 1991.
[iv] A History of the Luftwaffe, by John Kllen, © 1967.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 09, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found the article interesting.
Robert Sacchi (author) on January 20, 2019:
The USAAF definitely played on their pilots' ego by having women fly the B-26 & B-29. World War II vintage aircraft were nowhere near as airworthy as modern aircraft. Some were of course much more dangerous than others.
Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 20, 2019:
Hi Robert. This article happens to fit in with a book I read recently by British author Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins, about WWII pilots. All the incidents in the book were ones that actually happened. Although it focused on the men, it was a real insight into life in the Air Force. Women ferried planes between airfields for maintenance but the planes they flew were often not in good nick and there were many fatal accidents. Really interesting article.
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 15, 2018:
True. Interestingly, Vietnam was the first war where the U.S. Military had male nurses. Before that there was a situation where women could be nurses but not doctors and men could be doctors but not nurses. Such a situation hurt both sides. There was an episode of M*A*S*H where they addressed the nurse situation.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 15, 2018:
I think that although there is still some discrepancy in what women earn vs. men for doing the same job in the U.S. (in some fields) there is no longer such a delineation between what is considered to be a man's job vs. a woman's job.
There were few women pharmacists when my mother-in-law became one. Now I believe women outnumber men in that profession. When I became a nurse there were few men doing that. Now there are many more. Those are just two examples.
Robert Sacchi (author) on August 08, 2018:
You're welcome. I suppose as with any other field people who are not particularly interested in the field might not know certain things about the field. In this case, aerospace, people who are not familiar with aerospace history might not know about women's accomplishments in these areas. It tends to be a double edge sword. On the one hand often women's contributions are often overlooked. On the other hand sometimes women get notoriety for doing something that would go unnoticed had the woman been a man.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 08, 2018:
Women are now astronauts serving in many capacities. Many people did not realize the place that women have played in aeronautical careers throughout history. Thanks again for writing this informative article.
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 17, 2018:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found the article informative.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 17, 2018:
That Peggy...she is a keeper. This is quite a detailed article and so much I did not know. Am marking it to come back and reread and I know I did not absorb it all in one reading. Very interesting.
Angels are on the way ps
Robert Sacchi (author) on March 01, 2018:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I kept the scope of this article very limited. It would be easy to fill a book about women's involvement in World War II, or women's involvement in aviation during World War II,
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 01, 2018:
Interesting. Something I did not know about. It is amazing that women did this.
Robert Sacchi (author) on May 25, 2017:
Thank you. I'm glad you found it informative.
SUNSHYNE from California, US on May 24, 2017:
Wow, lots of interesting facts in this article. I learned a lot from this. Thank you.
Robert Sacchi (author) on May 06, 2017:
Lawrence, thanks for reading and the information.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on May 06, 2017:
Great article here, a few years ago I had the joy of meeting one of the women pilots who flew replacement planes for the British Factories to frontline squadrons.
By the way, I'm not sure you're aware, but the early Spitfires had a weakness in that they would stall doing a barrel roll (gravity fed carburettor). It was a woman engineer who designed the modification that cured the problem.
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 30, 2017:
Thank you, I'm glad you found the article interesting.
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 30, 2017:
Robert, your article was both informative and interesting, I enjoyed reading this, you did a great job.
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 26, 2017:
Raul Sierra Jr., in school history is so condensed they really don't have time to get into the details. The best history classes can do is spark an area of interest for the students so the students study up on the topic. Thank you for reading and commenting. Glad you found this topic interesting.
Raul Sierra Jr from El Paso, Texas on April 25, 2017:
Excellent article. Love the topic. I regret not learning this in school. Guess we still have work to do. Very informative.
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 10, 2017:
Thank you C E Clark. Many articles have been written, and many more will be written about women in history.
C E Clark from North Texas on April 10, 2017:
We need more articles like this one on the history of women's contributions to our country. Appreciate your research and writing.
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 10, 2017:
Thank you Peggy Woods. The reason I hesitated when you suggested I write such an article is because I felt it all had been written somewhere else already. I decided the only way to make the article unique is to include pilots from multiple countries and not just ones that were in specific organizations.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 10, 2017:
You did a stellar job on writing this article Robert. You not only featured what the British and American women pilots did during WWII but also added information about German and Russian women pilots. I had never read information about the latter. Thanks for filling in all kinds of holes in my base knowledge about such things.
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 08, 2017:
Thank you Edna.
Edna Straney from Oneonta New York on April 08, 2017:
Great article! Will share with my friends!
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 07, 2017:
Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 06, 2017:
Great job, Mr. Sacchi. Very well written. Sharing everywhere.