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Women Flyers of America pin. The precursor to the WASPs program


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This is a recent addition to the collection.  A very rare and almost unknown women's flying organization called the Women Flyers of America.

 

First some history about women's aviation in the US (and to some extent internationally).  After the end of WWI, the public had become enamored with flight (powered and lighter than air).  Many returning WWI aviators became "barn stormers" going from town to town showing off their flying skills, taking up passengers (for a fee) and often times offering lessons for wanna be aviators (and sometimes crashing and killing themselves--its was a tough life).  During this time, increasingly daring aviation related stunts, including altitude, distance and speed records were being chased.  Men AND women were attracted to aviation and if you were a brave and progressive woman with some money you could also become a pilot.  Many of the great women aviators first got their feet wet by taking a ride on an old Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) from WWI.

 

1929 seemed to have been a VERY important year of women's aviation.  In May of 1929, Elizabeth Lippencott founded the Women's International Association of Aeronautics (WIAA). She believed that aviation could save the world from future wars. Her organization was focused on supporting women in aviation in the US and overseas. Later in 1929 the WIAA helped establish the Women's Air Derby, which was the first official women-only air race in the United States, taking place during the 1929 National Air Races. It was referred to it as the Powder Puff Derby, the name by which the race is most commonly known, with Nineteen women pilots taking off from Clover Field, Santa Monica, California on August 18, 1929.  A few months later (in November of 1929) the 99's were founded.  A number of early aviatrix sent out letters to all 117 licensed women pilots in the US asking them to join. The 99 women who responded were the basis of the name the 99s.  The 99's included most of the great women aviators, including Amelia Earhart who was their first president. The 99s are still active in supporting women aviation and are probably the most recognized after the WASPs.  Although they were not the first women's aviaition group (the WIAA predated them by a few months). I have read some of the 99's yearbooks and it was likely that the WIAA and 99s shared many members and probably shouldn't be thought of as separate organization so much as clubs with shared memberships.  In 1931-1933, there was another similar group (the Betsy Ross Corps) that was established by Opal Kunz, one of the original 99's and well respected aviatrix in her own right.

 

Generally speaking, learning to fly was a relatively dangerous and expensive hobby and most (but not all) women pilots came from wealthy backgrounds.  Many of these early women were future pioneers in women's WWII aviation like Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran and were involved heavily in these two early groups.

 

By the late 1930's the FDR administration started the CAA to regulate and promote civilian aviation in the US.  The Civilian Pilot Training Program started in 1938-39 was set up to train civilians pilots by setting up aeronautic programs in colleges and trade schools. While not truly intended to be associated with military aviation, the CPTP did open their doors to women and minority students (the Tuskegee and Howard Colleges eventually gave the military the Tuskegee airmen).  Many women took advantage of these programs and I read somewhere that about 1 women for ever 10 men were trained to be pilots.  There were also other aviation related fields, like engineering, maintenance manufacturing, clerical, nursing and stewardess training being offered.  During the War, many women became "Rosie the Riveter" and participated in war related services (again to free up men for combat).

 

By 1940, it was becoming clear to just about everyone in the US that war was coming and the USAAC was poorly prepared.  Although the USA was still strongly isolationist, some far sighted people began to think about ramping up American aviation ability.  Based on the experience of the RAF, it was thought that women pilots could fly and ferry aircraft while freeing up men pilots for combat duties.

 

In 1940, the Women Flyers of America (WFA) was founded by Ms Opal Kunz (if you remember, she had formed the Betsy Ross Air Corps as a paramilitary service to support the Army Air Corps  in national defense and to serve as humanitarian "air minutemen" in 1931)and Ms Chelle Jarvis (who founded one of the first flying academies in NY).  The WFA was basically a national flying club that accepted all women who wanted to become involved in aviation (and not just pilots).  It seems that the WFA would negotiate with various flying schools and aviation instructors to get better "costs" for training for women (sort of a bulk type pricing effort).  Many women took the opportunity and joined the WFA in order to get their pilot license.  The WFA lasted from 1940 until about 1954.

 

The Air Corp Ferry Command (ACFC) was started in 1941 as part of the Lend/Lease program.  Mostly they were ferrying planes from US factories to areas where our allies could pick them up. Modeled a bit like the English ATA which successfully used women pilots to free up men for combat, the ACFC took a similar tact.  In 1942 Nancy love had organized the the  Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), as part of the AFCF, but they never numbered more than about 30 pilots. At about the same time, Jackie Cochran was setting up a similar program called the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). For various political reasons, the WAFs and the WFTD was mearged into the WASPs in 1943.  The WASPs disbanded in 1944 having graduated about 1000 women pilots.

 

Collectors seem to value the WASP wings as being the start and end of women's aviation, but in fact there was a lot going on before the WASPs.  The 99's and WIAA were vary active all through the 1930's, both as pilots in their own right and also assisting in the development of women's aviation in general.  The CPTP and WFA was important in getting young women who would eventually join the WAPSs their pilot license.  Remember, the WASPs required that the recruits had to be between 21 and 35 years old, in good health, in possession of a pilot's license and 35 hours of flight time. Without the 99's, WIAA, WFA, and CPTP program, many of these women would not have been able to be WASPs.

 

I know this is a long winded post, but I was recently able to add a rather rare WFA badge to my collection. I have only seen about 4-5 of these in total, although I suspect that they are not all that rare--as I do believe many people don't really understand what they are and what they mean.

 

This is a smallish (3/4" in width by 1-3/8" in height) sterling silver and blue enamel lapel badge or hat jewelry (rather than a wing). It is hallmarked Johnson National NY.

 

Enjoy please. 

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As an aside, Ms Opal Kunz, who was also an early member of the 99s, was (apparently) disappointed that the 99's was less focused on National aviation that she felt was appropriate. So in 1931-1933 Ms Kunz established the Betsy Ross Corps, a paramilitary organization to support the Army Air Corps in times of emergency. They also had the goal of offering flight instruction to women in order to build a reserve group of women aviators that were well trained and effective pilots. Membership was available to licensed women pilots who were U.S. citizens. I believe that eventually there were only about 100 women who joined this group before they disbanded or were folded into the more popular 99 organization.

 

The over arching goal of the Betsy Ross Corp seemed to have been focused on training and preparing women pilots to support the USAAC, as aviators. Its not clear if she was thinking about women pilots supplanting the men to free them up for combat if there was a war or if she had envisioned that female pilots would be assigned other responsibilities, like ferry, transport, instruction etc. or actually work in conjunction with their male counterparts.  It seems that she had some idea that during emergencies or times of need, women pilots could/would offer a source reserve labor.  Although in 1930's as the Great Depression started, it didn't seem that the US public was all that interested in military adventures.

 

Ironically, it wasn't until the start of WWII, that the RAF realized that they could and should actually use women pilots as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) (1940-1945) program to free up male combat pilots.  By using women, older pilots and disabled pilots to ferry planes about it addressed a huge man power issue within the RAF and this turned out to be very successful. Eventually about 160 or so women pilots were recruited into the ATA for ferrying/transport duties including Jackie Cochran who used her experience as an ATA "Attagirl pilot" to convince Elanor Roosevelt and Hap Arnold to allow American women to serve similar roles as WASPs in the US. 

 

While Jackie Cochran gets a lot of credit for the WASPs This idea seemed to have occurred a decade earlier by Ms Opal Kunz when she founded the Betsy Ross Corps and likely contributed to her formation of the WFA in the 1940's.  Also the work done by Nancy Love with the WAFS of the AFCF actually predates Ms Cochran's work with the WFTD by a few months.  In fact the WAFS had about 30 women pilots flying with the AFCF before the WASPs had their first recruit. Its not clear to me how many women were enrolled in the WFTD before they merged with the WAFS to form the WASPs.  However, everything I have read suggests that Ms Cochran was VERY good at self promotion and she holds (perhaps) more credit for the formation and ideas behind the WASPs than she really deserved....  I know, I am being a bit heretical and perhaps unfair, but I have read stories of her being furious with Hap Arnold and using her connections with Elanor Roosevelt to get her the control of the WASPs.

 

That being said, here is an example of the Betsy Ross Corp insignia from Ca. 1930.  It was made by Tiffany and Co.  You can see that it was about the same size and shape as the WFA pin.  It was probably worn on a beret type hat or on the scarf.

 

I suspect that there are very few of the Betsy Ross Corp pins about.

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Thank you Manayukman and Scott.  I am going to add a bit more.

 

So this is a few images of a Betsy Ross Corp poster from (probably 1932-33).  It shows the insignia and highlights the idea that women civilian pilots could be trained to free up military male pilots.  Remember this was early in the 1930's, a good decade before the ATA of the RAF and ACFC of the USAAC started using women for this very reason--and (ulimately) the foundation  for the development of the WASPs.

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Interestingly about this same time, Florence "Poncho" Barnes (another pioneer of early aviation), also a member of the Betsy Ross Corps, went even farther. She apparently wanted to take a more active role in training women pilots to serve as an auxiliary to the Army Air Corps and mere months later in 1931, founded the Women’s Air Reserve Corps (WAR).  Poncho appointed herself "General" and the organization was located in Los Angeles. But the depression wasn't "good"  either for Ms Barnes or the Women's Air Reserve and it seems that the organization went down the drain relatively soon after. The WAR seems to have been even more "paramilitary" than the 99s and Betsy Ross Corp with military style uniforms and insignia.

 

By the late 1930's the American aviation industry seemed to be floundering, especially compared to Europe. Civilian aviation in the US was regulated by multiple agencies included the Aeronautics Branch (1926–1934), the Bureau of Air Commerce (1934–1938), and the Bureau of Air Mail, Interstate Commerce Commission (1934–38). In 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Authority was established and this began to lead civilian aviation into the WWII era.  As collectors we can see this in the various civilian pilot schools and civilian pilot instructors the CPTP and the war training service (WTS). (great thread here that shows many of the variations in insignia).

 

As an aside, I actually knew a lady who knew Ms Poncho Barnes well.  She told me some stories about Poncho and said she was perhaps the most unattractive women she ever met, but had the biggest character in an era full of big characters  My friend and her husband were would go to visit Poncho Barnes' Happy Bottom Riding Club on many occasions and also met some more than a few of the test pilots who liked to go there (like Charles Yeager!). Man... to have been a fly on that wall! 

 

 

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Just doing the math, if you were a woman who wanted to join the WASP's in 1943, you would have to be between 21-35 years old.  That means they would have had to been born between 1908 - 1922 to fall in that age range (assuming I haven't screwed up my math).

 

If we also assume that most women would have had to wait until  they turned 17 or so (see paragraph below) to be eligible for a civilian pilot license , these ladies would have needed to have attended an appropriate flight school or program some time between 1925 (at the earliest) but as late as 1942 or 43 to still meet the age.

 

While it is relatively murky to me, from my research the Aero Club of America (ACA) was founded in 1905 and started issuing licenses in 1911. By 1922 or so the ACA became the National Aeronautic Association (NAA).  The NAA regulated the issue of private pilot licenses, including age (minimum of 17 years old)  and hours of flying that they needed to get a license.

 

In Summary" A 35 year old woman who wanted to join the WASPs in 1943 would have needed to been born no earlier than 1908.  If she got her flying license at 17, that would have been no earlier than 1925, although it could have been later (say up to 1943 or so).

 

At the other end of the age scale, a 21 year old WASP cadet would have had to been born in 1922 --and if she got her license at 17, that would have been no earlier than 1939 or so (again could have been later).

 

My point is that the WIAA, 99's, Betsy Ross Corp, Women's Air Reserve Corps, CPTP and Women Flyers of America would have probably all played significant roles (to some extent or another) in training future WASPs to fly.  Not a strict requirement, of course, because there were private flying schools and instructors available to train women pilots independent of these flying clubs.

 

But for me, this makes this area of collecting very interesting as it adds a historical  layer of complexity that I fear many collectors haven't really thought about, especially those that are simply trying to find the handful of "class" and Josten "Shield of Athena" wings.  My bucket list would be to put together a nice linear collection of these artifacts from the WIAA/99's to the WASPs.

 

Anyway, I think I am done with this thread. I have noticed that the forum seems to be deep in the doldrums and very little is being posted.  I also blame a positive Covid test, which has forced me to isolate myself... never a good idea as idle hands and access to the internet very rarely bodes well for wholesome entertainment...

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Great education, Patrick and an area of early aviation that I wasn't aware of.  When I volunteered at the Oshkosh air show a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with a few women pilots who were passionate about the WASPs and women involved in early aviation.  I struck up a conversation with one of them when I complimented the WASP wing bracelet she was wearing.  Part of a jewelry collection that she makes and sells.  We shared a few stories of meeting WASPS and she shared the story of being able to spread one WASP's ashes over the airfield in Sweetwater from her T-6 Texan.  She was wearing sunglasses as she shared the story but I could tell her eyes were welling up as she told it.  It was a very emotionally charged few minutes in a good way.  

 

I also had the great pleasure of registering a young female pilot who had flown in her family's WW2 era trainer with her as pilot in command and her dad as passenger.  She volunteered with us last year in registration but this year she was on the other side of the registration window.  I remember talking with her a lot last year about her college studies and you could quickly tell that this young lady is going places.  As she was checking in, very humble but yet clearly proud, I couldn't help but be reminded that this is exactly what the WASPs must have been like.  She's 19 years old, very small in stature but large in personality.  I could picture her stepping out of a B-25 on a base full of Type A male pilots in the 1940s and watching their surprise at who flew the plane in.  

 

As much as I love collecting wings my real passion is the planes and people who flew them during the war and the ones who still fly them today.  Being at that air show and being surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of these old machines and talking to the people who carry on the legacy of those who flew them so long ago helps history come alive.  This is why I say the spirit of the WASPs is alive and well.  There was a group of about 40 young girls that participated in a WASP experience where they got to go and see the T-6 and BT-13 that were actually used in Sweetwater.  Seeing them climb up on the wings and sit in the cockpits and hear the stories you knew that the story is continuing to grow and that they will be remembered.  

 

In other words, the future of aviation is in very good hands.  As the father of a 12 year old daughter it makes me happy to see so many young girls and people in general still care about the history of all the people who flew and fought in the skies.

 

Sorry for the side step on this thread but Patrick's passion for this topic along with my recent experiences at the show just continue to fan the fires for collecting and for learning more about the history of the people who made the history.

 

You've given me some other very rare badges to keep my eye out for.  

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Well said Bob,

 

I agree with you 100% about finding those passions in collecting that move beyond just having the cool "stuff".  My first collecting passion (once I matured a bit beyond just buying that "stuff") was in 1930's/1940's era aviation and especially flight instructor and flight school history.  For some reason, those early civilian and commercial era wings really interested me.  In fact, it was my interest in civilian aviation instructors that lead to my friendship with Russ.  We used to regularly bang our heads together on eBay auctions for similar lots before he reached out to me and we became wing buddies.

 

As for pioneers in aviation, some of the very early women pilots were (like Ginger Rogers once said) doing the same things as the men, but backwards, in high heels and with make up on!  Most people know of Amelia Earhart, but very few of the others are ever on the radar.

 

When I was doing research on this thread, I found this very interesting picture of Ruth Law (1887-1970), who was one of the first American woman to get a private pilot license (1912).  She was, in fact, the THIRD woman to get her license, having bought her plane from Orville Wright who made her get her husband's approval first.  In fact, apparently Orville refused to train her to fly, because he didn't think women had the fortitude to succeed in aviation...  In 1917, she lobbied the War Department to be allowed to fly combat missions in Europe (they refused her, of course).  She wrote an OP/ED article arguing that while combat may not be for every red blooded American gal, most women pilots could/would have been more than suitable for doing non-combat duties to free up combat pilots.  Ms Law seemed to have been be a bit blood thirsty, with ice cold high octane aviation fuel in her veins.  I am sure the Germans would have been worried to see her coming into no-man's land! So, as far as I can tell, she was perhaps the FIRST women to envision the goals of the WASPS... way back in 1917.  Also, she did seem to be rather attractive--I do love a woman in uniform! 

 

I found this photo of her from about 1917 when research early flying clubs.  I believe she actually went to France during the war to review how women were used on the battlefield there. She was also the first American woman authorized to wear a non-commissioned Army officer’s uniform. Law used her fame to raise money for the Red Cross and liberty bond drives with exhibition flights.


She was the first woman to fly at night, do a loop-de-loop and held various flight endurance records. Eventually, her daredevil attitude stressed out her husband so much, the he made her stop flying for his sake in 1922!

 

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This picture is very interesting for a number of reasons. First, look at a close up of her wings!

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Those are (more than likely) French-made FIX wings!

 

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The Fix wings are sometimes seen being worn on early French pilot uniforms and rarely on American uniforms.  They were a popular bit of women's jewelry as well (apparently) and not all FIX wings would have belonged to a pilot. Here you have a woman AND a pilot wearing what seems like FIX wings.  Pretty cool.

 

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Finally, she is also wearing her Aero Club of America Aviation Medal of Merit.

 

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NOW I think I am done with this thread....

 

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Great stuff here.  Pat's mention of Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes piqued my interest, so I checked the Wiki writeup on her, and was surprised to learn how the USAF in the early 1950's tried to push her off of her ranch and restaurant, "The Happy Bottom Riding Club", located near Muroc dry lake - later part of Edwards AFB.  Not one of the Air Force's finer moments.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancho_Barnes 

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Terrific thread! It’s my first exposure to the “Betsy Ross Corps.” 
 

Patrick, thank you for sharing your new aviation badge and your research identifying the significance of that find!  

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  • 2 weeks later...

I recently found an example of the Woman Air Reserve badge. Its a 2 inch wing that is hallmarked with Entenmmen Roven Company of Los Angeles. They were a popular maker of police badges.

 

 

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