Cornelia Fort was born to wealth and
privilege, but in a time and place that prescribed her a very narrow role in life. Yet she made bold choices push boundaries and lived of life of daring and adventure few women would even dream of.
Would she have made the same choices, if she'd known it would lead to hear at 24?
Growing up in a luxurious mansion built in 1815 on the banks of the Cumberland River in Tennessee, she was expected to become a Southern debutante, attend society functions, marry and have children.
At eighteen, Cornelia wanted to attend Sarah Lawrence College where young women could design their own course of study. Her father at first refused to allow her to apply to that "liberal northern school" and she was sent to Ogontz School for Young Ladies.
In her first major rebellion against the "proper" role assigned to her, Cornelia got her mother to help change her father's mind. She was finally allowed to leave the "oppressive atmosphere" and transfer to Sarah Lawrence, where she graduated with a two-year degree.
Cornelia's next bold move challenging the strictures of women's lives in the 1940s,
At age five, with her father and three older brothers, Cornelia saw a daring pilot perform acrobatics in the sky.
It appeared so dangerous, Dr. Rufus Fort made his sons promise ( as one story goes, swear an oath on the family bible) they would never fly.
Later, when Cornelia made her first solo flight, one brother chided her for breaking a promise to their father. But Dr. Fort had not thought to ask his daughter not to fly.
She was hooked from her very first time in the sky, saying “It gets under your skin, deep down inside.”
Cornelia Fort became the first female flying instructor in all of Tennessee in 1940. The next year she got a job in Hawaii teaching defense workers, soldiers and sailors to fly.
In November 1941, Cornelia wrote home (her father had died more than year before). "If I leave here, I will leave the best job that I can have (unless the national emergency creates a still better one), a very pleasant atmosphere, a good salary, but far the best of all are the planes I fly. Big and fast and better suited for advanced flying.
On December 7, 1941, she was in the sky with a student pilot when a small plane nearly collided with them. Cornelia grabbed the controls and saved their lives.
Later, she said the plane “passed so close under us that our celluloid windows rattled violently and I looked down to see what kind of plane it was. The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes.”
“Then I looked way up and saw the formations of silver bombers riding in. Something detached itself from an airplane and came glistening down. My eyes followed it down, down, and even with knowledge pounding in my mind, my heart turned convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middle of the harbor. I knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could. A few seconds later a shadow passed over me, and simultaneously bullets spattered all around me.”
See below the entry in Cornelia's logbook for that flight
“Later, we counted anxiously as our little civilian planes came flying home to roost. Two never came back. They were washed ashore weeks later on the windward side of the island, bullet-riddled. Not a pretty way for the brave yellow Cubs and their pilots to go down to death.”
Cornelia survived. And then stepped out of bounds again.
She knew the risks when she became one of the first to volunteer for Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (WAFS) “I felt I could be doing something more constructive for my country than knitting socks. Better to go to war than lose the things that make life worth living.”
“Because there were so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the army....We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn’t ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.”
The WAFS ferried planes for the U.S. military during WWII, flying them from factories to points of embarkation. The group later merged with the
Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
The women pilots faced painful prejudice from some of the male pilots, who Cornelia said went "to great lengths to discredit them whenever possible.”
The end came quickly, and far to soon. March 21, 1943, flying over Texas in a six-plane formation, Cornelia's Fort's wing tip was clipped by another plane. She crashed to the ground and died instantly.
Cornelia was twenty-four, and became the first female pilot in American history to die in the line of duty, though the WAFS were not recognized as official military service members 1977.
A year prior to her death, Cornelia had written her mother, poetically describing how much she had loved life, loved green pastures and cities,
sunshine on the plains and rain in the mountains, blue jeans, red wine, books, music and the kindness of friends. She wrote:
If I die violently, who can say it was "before my time"? I should have dearly loved to have had a husband and children. My talents in that line would have been pretty good but if that was not to be, I want no one to grieve for me.
I was happiest in the sky--at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light. Think of me there and remember me...Love, Cornelia.
Cornelia's story reminds me we do not have time to be mired in self-doubt and regret. We make the best decisions we can without the benefit of knowing how they will unfold. Like Cornelia, I want to choose boldly and love life hugely. What about you?
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