Historical fiction writers are obsessed. They research and research, and they get grumpy when told to stop, or when the clock strikes bedtime. After sufficient research, odds are excellent that the writer can slice history in new ways, like a good historian.
This happened to me by accident. I wanted to write sometime around 1930 because I had romantic notions of grand adventures set in a world less tame than ours. Then came characters, who I wanted colorful and varied. I settled on a female pilot as the protagonist. Only then did I begin wondering about other female pilots in history, but at the time Amelia Earhart was the only one I could name.
Ah, what a journey of inspiration I unwittingly embarked upon! I started with military pilots. I found that women did not fly combat missions in WWI. In WWII, only the Soviets had a squadron of female flyers, the 586th Fighter Regiment, often called the night witches. Lilya Litvyak and Raya Belyaeva flew many combat missions with the 586th.
Liliya Vladimirovna Litvyak
Female pilots in Britain and America flew support during WWII. This was often nearly as dangerous as flying combat. In America, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or in Britain, the Air Transport Auxiliary ferried people, equipment, and quite often repaired or new aircraft from place to place. Cornelia Fort was a flight instructor in Pearl Harbor on the day the Japanese attacked in 1941. She almost had a head-on collision with an incoming Japanese Zero (in her unarmed civilian Interstate Cadet) but took the controls from her student and managed a miss. After an emergency landing, the same Zero strafed instructor and student, but they escaped again. Cornelia soon joined the WAFS and was accidentally killed in 1943 while ferrying a BT-13.
Between World Wars, we had Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and Howard Hughes’s world-circumnavigation flights. We had Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Ruth Nichols, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and many others as female exemplars of danger-defying bravery.
But Bessie Coleman impresses me most for her love of flying, and her determination in following her dream. She flew, but she also fought the forces of racial discrimination and poverty to become the first African American and also Native American woman to obtain a civil pilot’s license. Born in 1982 to sharecropper parents, she made her in the world until shortly after WWI her dream to fly ignited. Working several jobs, she finally made enough money to attend the only flight school (in France) that would accept women. In 1921, she began her five-year barnstorming career, becoming enormously popular.
Airplanes at the start of World War I were used for observation only. Fairly early on, though, some unknown pilot decided to toss a grenade at a passing enemy plane, and soon pilots were taking revolvers, grenades, and rifles aloft to do (mostly ineffectual) battle. In 1915, British pilot Vessy Holt fired his revolver at a passing German observation plane and forced it to land in Allied territory; the first aerial battle with a winner and a loser.
The same year, French pilot Roland Garros mounted a machine gun on his plane. In order to keep his propeller undisintegrated, he wrapped metal strips around it. Bullets from the machine gun would ricochet from the metal bands, sometimes in distinctly unintended directions! But most bullets would get through, and Garros quickly shot down five German planes. The French began calling him the ace of all pilots, and it soon became tradition to attach the name ace to all pilots that shot down five enemies.
And that is the origin of the word “ace,” surely a story worth knowing. Especially for me, since my main character is a female pilot named Cecilia “Ace” Carroway.