1. Cornelia Fort.
Fictional heroine Ace Carroway loves to fly and faces danger with grit. Real past and present pilots have that same love and that same courage. I’d like to pay some homage to a few of them in this blog.
Cornelia Fort was from Tennessee. Her family was wealthy, and she was a spectacular example of a Southern belle. Her debutante party had hundreds of guests. But in 1940 she took a flying lesson. She was enthralled with airplanes and with flying. Her life took an aerial turn.
In less than a year, she became the first female flight instructor in Nashville. Soon, she moved to Colorado, and then Hawaii. Pearl Harbor, actually. And the year? Fateful 1941.
Cornelia Fort was in the air with a student pilot as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She almost had a head-on collision with a Japanese fighter in her unarmed Interstate Cadet plane, but she seized the controls of the airplane from her student and climbed sharply to avoid the crash. Afterward, the two of them recognized the rising-sun symbol of Japan on the fighter, and realized that the harbor was under attack.
They landed at emergency speed at the civilian airport. The Zero they had almost hit pursued them, strafing their grounded airplane as they sprinted away from it. Cornelia and her student were not hit, but the airport manager was killed.
Oddly, Cornelia Fort was out of a job in Hawaii because all civilian flights were cancelled. She made a popular short movie promoting war bonds and accepted public speaking engagements. But in 1942 she was invited into the newly formed “Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron” to fly military planes from the factories to the front. A flying accident in 1943 ended her short military career: As she was ferrying a BT-13, her wing was clipped and the plane went out of control and crashed before she could bail out.
Dead at age 24, perhaps we can wrestle inspiration from the tragedy, for Cornelia Fort’s story lives on far longer than she herself did. The spirit of the love of flying is alive and thriving.
[Main sources: Linda Shiner, “The Lost Cadet,” Smithsonian, v. 47, no. 7, Nov. 2016. Rob Simbeck, “Daughter of the Air: The Brief, Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort,” New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.]