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Flight of the WASP

Women Airforce Service Pilots Elevate History

At 88 years old, Millicent flew her favorite plane, a Stearman; this was the last time she ’took the stick’ of a plane.

At 88 years old, Millicent flew her favorite plane, a Stearman; this was the last time she ’took the stick’ of a plane.

At the height of World War II, more than a thousand pioneering women left hometowns across America to become the first females in history to fly for the U.S. military. As male pilots were called overseas for combat, women were recruited to fill the shortage of support pilots. Despite skeptics’ concerns, these women exceeded expectation, proving they could fly with more skill and competency than their male counterparts. Overlooked in history, sixty-five years later, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were finally recognized for changing the world and opening the skies to future female military pilots. 

Colorado Springs resident, Millicent Young, a courageous, original ‘Fly Girl’, is still full of fire and moxie at age 92. Her desire to fly was an unlikely ambition for a Depression era Nebraska farm girl. At age six, enchanted by a neighbor’s plane circling the wheat fields, she ran a-half mile to see the plane up-close and reached out to touch its wing. “Don’t touch that airplane, little girl,” sneered the pilot. Her determination was forever ignited. 

Another pivotal experience was the Barnstormer’s airshow during a harvest festival when she was 14. Recognizing Millicent’s passion, her parents granted her first plane ride, that cost $25 – an entire month’s salary. Afterward, Millicent listed her goals: “get an education, learn to fly, swim, dance, and snow ski.” She set out to conquer them all.

Millicent’s resolve led her to work the wheat fields with her father to earn extra money. The summer after her sophomore year in college, she told her parents that she was going to Denver to buy new clothes. Instead, she hopped a bus to Ogallala, NB, Searle Field where she used her crop money to buy flight lessons.

THE CHOSEN FEW

hen the country sought female pilots, in 1942, more than 25,000 applied. Millicent was among the 1,074 chosen. Paying their own way, the women completed four months of training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The WASP earned their wings just like the men, but these brave volunteers were not granted the same military status and faced multiple injustices while serving their country. 

“We followed a strict military regimen with infantry drills and oaths of allegiance, just like the male officers,” Millicent explained. “We read the specifications inside and out because we knew that we needed to be better than the guys.” 

The WASP flew over 60 million miles in every military aircraft of the Army Air Corps’ arsenal, including fighters and bombers with duties involving test piloting, towing gunnery practice targets, ferrying, and night tracking. 

A dangerous job, thirty-eight WASP lost their lives while serving. Fallen WASP were sent home at their family’s expense in poorly crafted pine caskets; often, the WASP collected money to ship their comrade’s remains. The Army forbade the U.S. flag to be draped on the coffins. Further, when the unit was disbanded in 1944, the WASP paid their own bus fare home. 

“Everyone talks about our sacrifice,” Millicent said, “but for me it wasn’t about sacrifice. I was making an investment – in myself, and in my country.” 

A PLACE IN HISTORY

n the mid-70s, military academies opened to women, and the defense department announced that for the first time in our nation’s history women would be permitted to fly military planes. At a forum, a recruiting general said, “We will find out if women can fly the military way.” 

Millicent spoke out, “I believe that question has already been answered.”

“We came unglued,” she said. The WASP, in their 60s, were spurred to seek long overdue acknowledgement and in 1977, were officially militarized. 

In 2009, President Obama signed legislation awarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor awarded to civilians who have changed the world. During the award ceremony, Air Force Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the nation’s first female Thunderbird pilot, said people had dismissed her dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. She discovered a small display about the WASP in a back room of the Smithsonian, that reinforced her will to fly. 

Today the WASP finally have their place in history, and their legacy continues to inspire.