Woman aviator Cornelia Fort was a Nashville debutante whose love of flying led her to become a pioneer in women's military aviation as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which later became part of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943. Fort was born to one of Nashville's wealthiest and most influential families. Her father was a founder of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. An intelligent and well-liked girl, she attended Ward-Belmont School. She was a voracious reader and active in, if ambivalent toward, the Belle Meade social scene. When her family gave her a debut ball at age nineteen, Fort had to be bribed to attend.
Fort attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York and enjoyed the intellectual and cultural climate she found there. She attended the theater and symphony and wrote passionate editorials for the school's newspaper on subjects like the rise of Hitler and his abuses of power.
After her graduation in 1939 Fort reluctantly entered the world of cotillion dances and civic activities. In 1940 a chance trip to Nashville's airport with a friend changed her life; one flight opened a new interest for her. She took lessons and soloed less than a month later. The first week she had her license, she flew more than two thousand miles in celebration. She went on to get her commercial and instructor's ratings and became Tennessee's only female instructor.
In 1941 she took a job as an instructor in Fort Collins, Colorado, then another in Honolulu. She was giving a flying lesson on the morning of December 7 when a wave of Japanese Zeros swept past her and began the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor. Fort landed in a hail of machine-gun fire.
After her return to the mainland, Fort traveled and sold war bonds amid heavy publicity about her Pearl Harbor experiences. She longed for service in the war effort and found it in September 1942, when she and a handful of women were invited to become part of a new organization, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which would ferry planes from factories to military bases, freeing men for combat flight. Fort eagerly accepted and was the second woman to arrive at Delaware's New Castle Army Air Base. She was part of a pioneering group of twenty-eight women who established an excellent record of service and safety in the face of resistance from many quarters and less-than-ideal conditions. The women often flew in open cockpits in sub-freezing temperatures without radios or other equipment now taken for granted.
In January, Fort was transferred to Long Beach, California. It was there, while on a ferrying mission to Dallas, that she was killed in a mid-air collision on March 21, 1943. Her life and love of service were an inspiration to those around her, and her story continues to inspire new generations.
Rob Simbeck, Daughter of the Air: The Short Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort (1999); Doris Brinker Tanner, “Cornelia Fort, A WASP in World War II, Part I,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 40 (1981): 381-94 and “Cornelia Fort, Pioneer Woman Military Aviator, Part II,” ibid., 41 (1982): 67-80