The Fifinellas

by Barbara Selby

America's women flyers have created a wartime niche for themselves in ferrying Army planes.

Armed with bright silver wings and hard-earned Army diplomas, the first 23 women flyers to complete special training with the Army Air Forces at Houston, Tex., are proving that a trained woman can take her place in the cockpit, relieving fighting men of ferry assignments.

The 23 young women, each at least a private pilot, were the first in the nation to tuck their curls into hairnets, exchange pretty clothes for the sober khaki of GI flying suits, and learn to fly the Army way in the 319th Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment.

Hundreds more are following them to seize "the greatest opportunity ever offered women pilots anywhere in the world", as Miss Jacqueline Cochran, first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, describes the training program.

With Miss Cochran as director of the program, training was started last November at Houston municipal airport, a private contractor giving the flight instruction under Army supervision.

Proceeding without undue publicity or fanfare, the training has continued with additional classes starting at regular intervals. Members of the first class were graduated April 24 with ceremonies at nearby Ellington field, advanced Army training base. First to receive her wings was Dorothy Young, wing commander of the detachment.

The 23 Fifinellas — so called because of their official Disney-designed emblem, the female Gremlin — are now flying from bases at Dallas, TX, Wilmington, DE, Romulus, MI and Long Beach, CA, ferrying planes from factories to airfields.

"If Hitler could see what he is up against now, the war might be shortened considerably," Maj. Gen. Gerald C. Brant, commanding general of the Army Air Forces Gulf Coast training center, told the graduates at their commencement.

Miss Cochran, who has acquired many piloting honors, said the exercises were the "proudest moment" of her life and flying career. The specially designed silver wings were her personal gift to the class.

The first trainees arrived at Houston with well over 200 hours already logged by each, for a training program which originally called for 25 hours in 65-hp ships, 25 hours in 90-hp ships and 50 hours in 200-hp ships.

As "guinea pigs" they made good, and the amount of lightplane time was cut down. When ready to graduate, they had received almost 200 hours in primary, basic and advanced (including twin-engined) trainers, as well as 30 hours of Link Trainer time. The amplified course is comparable to that given aviation cadets. Plenty of instrument, night and cross-country flying is included.

Trainees undergo a strenuous schedule, flying six days a week (and often seven) in addition to daily ground school, drill and calisthenics. The ground school includes courses in mathematics, physics, theory of flight, radio communication, engines, navigation and meteorology.

Those who can not keep up with the routine are eliminated, but the percentage of washouts is surprisingly low. Some of those eliminated find work with the training detachment in other capacities.

Praise for its safety record has been given the detachment, which experienced one fatal crash when Margaret S Oldenburg (wife of a Navy ensign) and her instructor were killed on a routine training flight.

Unlike WAACs or WAVES, the Woofteddies (derived from WAAFTD) are not part of the Army or Navy, but are civil service employees. While training, they receive a base pay of $150 a month, from which they must pay board and room. After they become full-fledged Fifinellas, they are eligible for assignment at $250 a month base pay.

Explaining the purpose of the course, Miss Cochran said: "With the start of the war, I became convinced that there was a sound, beneficial place for women in the air — not to compete with or displace men pilots, but to supplement them.

"I flew a bomber to England partly to bring out that point, and partly to see what the English women pilots were accomplishing and how they were organized. On my return, I worked with the general staff of the AAF Ferry Command for several weeks on a plan which later developed.

"The time, however, did not seem opportune; so, with the blessings of our own authorities, I took 25 women pilots to England, where they have been doing a fine job, flying operational equipment behind the lines, including Hurricanes, Spitfires and bombers."

Since the first class, entrance requirements for the course have been lowered to meet recruiting needs. In April, a student permit and 35 hours of flying time was the minimum. Each prospective pupil must be between the ages of 21 and 35, able to pass an Army Air Force physical examination, and must have a personal interview with Miss Cochran or her representative.

The school has been transferred from Houston to Avenger field, Sweetwater, TX, because of the necessity for using facilities already in existence at the Sweetwater field. The Sweetwater field originally was used for an elementary training school for American aviation cadets. Barracks and a recreation hall are right on the field, relieving one of the chief difficulties at Houston, where outside housing had to be found for the girl flyers.

The first Houston class found living quarters in private homes, but subsequent groups were assigned to quarters in tourist courts. Converted trucks were used as buses to bring the girls to the field from the tourist courts early in the morning and to take them back at night. The first class provided its own transportation.

All the classes ate at the field mess hall, a remodeled tavern.

A typical day's schedule at Houston meant arising at 6:30 to catch the bus at 7; breakfast at the Field at 7:30 AM; on the flight line, 8 AM to 1:30 PM; dinner at 1:55 PM; ground school from 2:45 to 4:45 PM; calisthenics from 5 to 6 PM; retreat, 6:10, supper, 6:30, and then home on the bus.

Half the school flew in the morning and half in the afternoon. The flight schedule lengthened as daylight hours increased.

On week nights, the pilots were required to be in quarters by 8:30, with lights out at 10. Saturday night was "late permission" — 1 AM — and Sunday night curfew was at 9:30.

At Sweetwater, regular military discipline is observed, with students allowed off the post only on weekends. The girls clean their own rooms and have inspections, just as flying cadets do.

Both schools have systems of demerits for tardiness, carelessness or failing to conform to rules of dress.

Student officers help govern the two detachments, which are divided into squadrons. Commanding officer of the 319th at Houston is Capt Henry B Gibbons; at Sweetwater, where the detachment is the 318th, Maj Landon E McConnell is commanding officer.

The program is so new that the girls still have no uniform. For graduation, students appeared in khaki slacks and overseas caps, and white long-sleeved blouses.

The women were issued leather jackets, heavy sweaters and "zoot suits," as the summer Army flying suits are affectionately known to the 319th. Later, khaki caps were issued.

That first class included wives and mothers, an admiral's daughter and a former flying secretary to Richard Arlen, movie star. Most of the group are members of the Ninety-Nines, association of women pilots of which Miss Cochran is national president.

Comm Dorothy Young (a pilot for five years) had an instructor's rating, but joined the first class "because it was the best way I knew to help."

Her husband, Paul, is assistant chief of general inspection for the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Washington. The Youngs formerly operated a flying school at Fort Morgan, CO. Mrs. Young's father-in-law learned to fly at 59, and there are six pilots and four planes in the family.

Father pinned wings on daughter Mary Lou when Rear Adm L O Colbert of the United States coast and geodetic survey, the organization that makes airmen's maps, attended the graduation exercises. Miss Colbert completed both primary and secondary CPT courses.

Edna Collins of Fresno, CA, started flying in May, 1941, and came to Houston with 400 hours. One of her brothers is a marine and another is in the Navy preflight program.

Former flying secretary for motion picture actor Richard Arlen and for Stinson Aircraft, Lovelle Richards of Hollywood also has one exhibition parachute jump to her credit.

Only one Texas girl was in the class, Sidney Miller of Mineral Wells. Miss Miller was a reporter on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before enlisting in the Fifinellas. Byrd Howell Granger married two days before starting flying training, was editor of the Fifinella Gazette. She was once a public relations counsel and is the author of industrial aviation articles.

Eleanor Boysen of South Pasadena, CA, was a flight instructor when she entered the program. She has 650 hours. Ruth Hellman of San Francisco is the wife of Maj Marco F Hellman of the Air Transport Command, and the mother of a son, eight, and a daughter, five.

The wife of an FBI agent, Marlyene Lamphere of Wallace, ID, started her flying career at Portland, OR. Magda Tacke of Scarsdale, NY, has been flying since 1932, and took one of her present instructors for his first hop. Marion Mackey of New York used to ferry Cubs from Long Island to Maine. Marjorie Kumler of New York lived in Europe and the Orient for several years.

Another former flight instructor is Claire Callaghan of Chicago, with 800 hours of time. Ann Johnson was squadron commander of an all-woman Civil Air Patrol unit at Atlanta, GA. Marjorie Ketcham of Poughkeepsie, NY, operated her own flying club and was assistant in operations at National CAP headquarters. Jane Straughan of Washington is the wife of Lieut Alfred W Straughan, Army pilot with whom she started flying.

Evelyn Greenblatt of Atlanta, GA, one of the first women to be hired for airway traffic control, left her position to take the training.

A former aerial acrobat and parachute jumper, Margaret McCormick of Jackson, MS, had been flying since 1930.

Betty Tackaberry of Honolulu saw her Navy officer husband's battleship attacked by the Japs at Pearl Harbor. She watched the progress of the battle from her front porch.

Elizabeth McKinley of Baltimore was the first girl in her state to finish a CPT program. Gertrude Brown of Jersey City began flying with her husband in 1938, and has 450 hours in the air.

Marjorie Gray of Grantwood, NJ, has a commercial license. Concluding the class roster is Vega Johnson of New York, who learned to fly in California.

Average age of the class is 26.

This article was originally published in the July, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 33, no 1, pp 76, 78, 166-167.
The original article includes 3 photos and an image of the insigne.Photo subjects include Jacqueline Cochran, Carol Filmore, and Dorothy Young.
Photographs from Army Air Forces