Cornelia Fort '39 in 1942

—Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Cornelia Fort wearing flying gear in 1942

“I shudder when I think how easily I might have missed that road that led to the airplanes, to the misty summer sunrises … and to all the little remembered bits of happiness that fit into the flying pattern,” wrote Cornelia Fort ’39 in the October 1941 issue of this magazine, in an article called “Lady-Bird.” After studying literature at Sarah Lawrence, Fort became a pilot, and was the second person accepted into the newly established Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS), an organization of female civilian pilots hired to fly planes from factories to military air bases. She would also be the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty, at the age of 24.

Fort, who sported pearls daily and had the nickname “Cornie,” defied the expectations of her wealthy Southern family and of her generation by becoming a pilot—a career her father had forbidden her brothers from pursuing, given its inherent risk. When her father died in 1940, Fort took her first flying lesson and soon became the first female flight instructor in Tennessee, where she was raised. In the fall of 1941, she was hired to teach US defense workers, soldiers, and sailors to fly in Hawaii. She was in the air with a student on December 7, 1941, when an unfamiliar plane zoomed by. Fort noticed a red sun insignia on the plane, then spied the smoke rising over Pearl Harbor—she had just witnessed the Japanese attack that would launch the US into World War II.

The contrails of Fort’s plane—and those of the other women in WAFS—marked a new path for women in aviation. As “Lady-Bird” makes clear, the sky was where Fort felt most alive. At the time of her tragic death in a midair collision in 1943, she had logged more than 1,100 hours in the air.