Cornelia Fort was born into Nashville Society in 1919. She was always bigger, and considered generally smarter, than most of the children her age. She was not generally inclined to the trappings of the Nashville society definition of what a young Lady from an upstanding family should be. As a young girl, she was more the Tomboy than the Debutante. Her college years were no different as she challenged many of the notions of a society that had a script for the young ladies of Nashville’s society.
At an early age, in her young, independent heart, the seeds were sown for a direct passion for aviation. After her family had watched a Barnstorming pilot demonstrate aviation in a Jenny, at the age of five, young Cornelia listened to her father make her brother’s promise they would never fly. As either a sign of her young age, or more likely, a sign of the times, her father felt no need to evoke such a promise from his daughter.
At the age of 15, Cornelia grasped that her junior college had been attended by Amelia Earhart, and Cornelia believed the drab environment of Ogontz Junior College inspired Amelia to free herself of those types of bonds.
At the age of 19, Cornelia entered Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She was nothing short of a spirited college girl that enjoyed the social life in New York City area immensely, even as she made respectable grades in her classes. But her father remained unimpressed with her ambitions beyond the debutante and was a continuous skeptic of her continuing on the education path. He may have been more supportive had Cornelia found her own passion in the education on which to focus but she did not. In June of 1939, she took a two year degree and even though she was accepted to return as a Junior, she did not continue with her formal education.
After college, she threw herself into life in Nashville again. Primarily, it was a social experience but Cornelia sought out both direction and purpose to her life which she was not finding in the Nashville Debutante and social circles. But that all changed in the winter of 1940 when she went to the local airport, Berry Field, and took her first flight at the controls of a small aircraft with her best friend’s beau who was a flight instructor. Flying enthralled her so completely that she impatiently waited around the flying school until the afternoon schedule for the planes and instructors allowed her to take her first lesson. She continued her lessons in the days and weeks after with as much pace as her instructor would allow.
With her father’s health failing, Cornelia did not publicize her flying lessons to her family. When her brother found out and chastised her for pursuing what they had promised their father they would never do, she reminded him that only the boys had made the promise, she had not.
Cornelia’s father passed away 22 Mar, 1940 when Cornelia was 21. He was an icon to the community and his loss was deeply felt by all in the Fort family. Cornelia threw herself into her flying and on 27 April, she soloed. She never looked back and aggressively pursued her flight training and had her pilot license by the summer of 1940.
With her pilot license in hand, she did not stop. She had her commercial pilot license on 8 February, 1941, and her instructor license on 10 Mar, 1941. With her instructor license in hand, she sent out applications to any flying school she could find. She was offered a job for a school in Fort Collins Colorado and took it. While she threw herself into teaching in Colorado with gusto, she still felt she would like to contribute more directly to what she believed would be the “war effort” in a few short months. Cornelia received an offer to teach at Andrews Flying Service in Honolulu Hawaii where most of the students were the military men stationed there. She jumped at the opportunity and left out of San Francisco by ship on 20 September, 1941.
Cornelia arrived in Hawaii, rented an apartment in Waikiki across from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and flew her first sorties in Hawaii on 29 September, 1941. She logged 4 hours and 45 minutes of flying time that first day, 4 hours of which she logged as instructor. Additionally, she logged flight time in three different aircraft; a Luscombe (no registration number logged), a Taylorcraft (registration number 23613), and Interstate Cadet (registration number 37345), the Interstate she would later log as having flown on 7 December, 1941.
In the 69 days between 29 September, and 7 December, Cornelia would log 300 Hours of total flying time to include many sorties in Interstate 37345. Her logbook reflects only one registration number for all of her Interstate Cadet flying time even though Andrew Flying Service had several Interstate Cadets. Cornelia was focused on acquiring flying time so in those 69 days she flew a very full flying schedule that exceeds current airline pilot legal maximum flying times. Cornelia had little else she could be doing except for flying.
7 December, 1941 and the immediate aftermath
Cornelia was up early Sunday morning so as to get to John Rodgers airfield and start her flying day. She arrived at 6:30 in the morning and started the day with a student known only as Soumala, a defense industry worker. She and her student were in the pattern for some landing practice. As was common, the aircraft had no radio so conflicts with other aircraft in the air were resolved by “see-and-avoid” practices that required flying established patterns and altitudes over the airport coupled with constant visual scanning. As Cornelia and her student were turning to align with the runway, Cornelia saw off to the side a fighter type aircraft coming right at her and her student. Grabbing the flight controls, she pulled up sharply narrowly escaping a collision with the fast moving aircraft. Her first thoughts were of the Army Air Corps pilots who were supposed to avoid the area around John Rodgers airfield but as the aircraft flashed by her, she saw the emblem on the wing was a large red ball, the “rising sun” insignia of Japanese Empire, not the star and bar of the US Army Air Corps. As she raised her eyes to Pearl Harbor, the initial plumes of black smoke made her realize that Pearl Harbor was under attack by the Japanese.
Cornelia immediately turned to get the little Interstate Cadet on the ground. She dodged one set of bullets from at least one pass on her by another Japanese aircraft. On the ground, her and her student quickly jumped out of the plane and ran for the school’s hangar. They were strafed as they were leaving the aircraft but not hit. When she arrived at the hangar, her initial report to those in the hangar that they were under attack by the Japanese was met with laughter. A mechanic came running in shortly after her yelling that Bob Tyce, a more senior instructor at Andrews Flying Service, had been killed while running for cover after landing in his aircraft, a Cabin Waco. The reality quickly sank in as the skies over Honolulu and Pearl Harbor began to blacken with the results of the attack. Along with most people at Andrews Flying Service, Cornelia found shelter in a large hangar and lived through an event that claimed over 2,300 lives on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu that day.
On the following day, Cornelia returned to the airport and inspected the little Interstate Cadet that had faced the Japanese attack. The body of the aircraft was riddled with bullet holes and it was impossible to tell if the holes came while she was flying, or after she had landed. Either way, the Interstate Cornelia was flying sustained significant battle damage. But to the immediate future of the aircraft, the damage did not matter because all civilian flying in Hawaii was grounded for the duration of the war and the Interstate Cadet was pushed into storage, battle damage and all. The Interstate that met the Japanese attack in the air, along with all of the other civilian aircraft on Hawaii not pressed into war service, was not going to be flying for a long time.
Given that she could not fly, Cornelia began to look for passage home. Unable to find it due to limited space and large numbers of people trying to leave the Islands, she enlisted help from Tennessee Senator McKellar who managed to get her booked on passage home in late February. No one thought the passage was without the threat of Japanese attack, least of all Cornelia, who typed out her will prior to setting sail.
Cornelia back in the United States
Cornelia arrived in San Francisco on 1 March, 1942. After a couple of interviews regarding her experience, she travelled back to Nashville and presented her story to the Civil Air Patrol on 18 March. Wanting to get back in the air and serve a purpose, Cornelia joined the Civil Air Patrol and once again began giving flying lessons at Berry Field.
It did not take long for the story of her experience on 7 December to dominate her life. She went out on the speaking tour to sell war bonds. This tour precluded flying but she did what she thought was important for her country. Cornelia was not shy about voicing her desire to get back in the air, lamenting the fact that her sex would keep her from becoming a fighter pilot so she could face the Japanese pilot again, but this time in a fighter.
It wasn’t until 6 September 1942 that Cornelia was offered what she wanted: a flying job supporting the war effort. A telegram described the job qualifications for the organization that would later be known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Service, or WAFS. Traveling from Binghamton New York, she was at New Castle Army Air Force base in Wilmington Delaware, testing in the PT-19 the very next day. She was the second applicant to arrive and she got the job.
Cornelia and the WAFS flew many successful aircraft deliveries. Each of these deliveries were directed through written orders from the Army Air Corps. She did her mission planning in a small spiral notebook, annotating Corrected Course and distance of each leg. One of her trips allowed Cornelia to visit home just before Christmas. Shortly after this trip, Cornelia received a telegram telling her that the family home, Fortland, had burned to the ground on 27 December, 1942. Cornelia had left most of her things there for safe keeping while she was traveling and her room at Fortland, and all of its contents, was completely destroyed. Among the things she was known to have left in her room for safe keeping were her diaries.
Cornelia was a prolific diary writer and the loss of her diaries was the loss of a very significant window into the life of a young woman aviator during a time when much of society believed that either women shouldn’t fly for reasons of propriety, or women couldn’t fly for reasons of the capabilities of their gender. Cornelia proved both misogynistic perspectives wrong through her example.
Back in Delaware, the weather continued to be sour for the WAFS for significant portions of the next month. The WAFS found themselves with a lot of idle time while they waited for the weather to clear. Cornelia spent as much time as she could in the Link Trainer developing her instrument flying skills but she still had lots of free time to write letters and such. It is certain that she spent a great deal of time reflecting on the things she had lost in the fire at Fortland. It assuredly weighed heavy on her mind that her family home was gone along with her diaries and other personal effects she had left in her room.
During this period of bad weather in Delaware, some, but not many, aircraft deliveries were made. But in the minds of the WAFS, the most important delivery was not one of delivering an aircraft, but one of delivering a telegram to the base on 11 Feb, 1943. The telegram was orders assigning a few of the WAFS, including Cornelia, to Long Beach, California to deliver BT-13’s. Cornelia left Wilmington the next day, stopped in Nashville to visit with her Mother, and boarded a plane 14 February for the final legs to Long Beach. In a time where travel was challenging, Cornelia made it to Long Beach very quickly.
The BT-13 was significantly larger than anything the young WAFS had ever flown. It was almost the size of a fighter and the WAFS were thrilled at the “promotion.” They checked out in the aircraft the first morning of their arrival and delivery sorties started soon thereafter. Cornelia kept her flight orders, and each flight was planned in her little spiral notebook.
Cornelia was 24 and living in LA with friends in different parts of the LA basin. She bought her first car and somewhat uncharacteristically, she began to add more of a social fold to her life than she had before, spending less time flying and more time visiting friends in several parts of the area. It was unlike Cornelia but she allowed herself more personal time and let some flying opportunities be missed.
Cornelia’s Last Mission
In March of 1943, Cornelia was one of several pilots tasked to deliver a group of BT-13’s from Long Beach to Dallas Love Field. They had flown the route many times but not often as a group of men and women. They quickly fell into the routine and made it to Tucson for an overnight. Launching out of Tucson on Sunday morning, 21 March, 1942, they landed in Midland Texas to refuel. At the snack bar a few of the group chatted of formation flying. 45 minutes east of Midland, and just south of Sweetwater Texas, with another hour and 30 minutes to go to get to Love Field, adventure turned tragic.
To the dismay of some of the other pilots in the group, Cornelia and a few of the others were trying their hand at formation flying, and activity strictly forbidden for these delivery flights. Those bold enough to try flying in that day and age, were certainly not so risk adverse as to not try something new such as formation flying just because it was risky and against the rules. Especially since some, like Cornelia, had a great deal of frustration that the rules said they weren’t able to fly the fighters of the day such as the P-51 or P-47 just because they were women. And as was true with all of their pioneering work as aviators, there were risks they did not fully understand. After a bit of time of successful formation flying, Frank Stamme looked to his right to see Cornelia coming right at him too quickly to stop before colliding. With Stamme pulling up sharply, Cornelia’s left wing struck his landing gear and significant parts of her wing broke off. Her aircraft spun and fell to the desert floor below with a very violent impact that shattered the aircraft and Cornelia’s body to the degree that little was recovered from the crash site. In the short span of a tragic moment, Cornelia was the first of the WAFS to be killed on a mission.
On what should have been a routine mission across Texas, America lost what surely would have been one of the greatest female aviation pioneers. Cornelia Fort had both a talent and a passion for aviation that society said women shouldn’t have. She would have been one of the female icons that helped society break those misplaced notions.