Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Soaring in the Service: The Life of Cornelia Fort

The Tennessee State Library and Archives values the many women who have impacted Tennessee history. During Women’s History Month we pause to remember a bold and brave woman named Cornelia Fort. Fort made the ultimate sacrifice for her country as the first female pilot from the United States to die during active military duty.

Fort showed interest in aviation at an early age. Her father, Dr. Rufus Fort, was a prominent businessman and physician in Nashville. Dr. Fort did not approve of the risky sport, and in 1924, he made his sons swear they would not become pilots. However, Cornelia, five years old at the time, did not take the same oath. After her father passed away when she was 21 years old, she began taking flying lessons regularly. Cornelia became instantly enamored. Within a matter of weeks, she made her first solo flight. She took her passion for flying and transformed it into a career. Once Cornelia obtained the required number of flight hours, she began teaching others how to navigate the sky, which eventually led to her moving to Hawaii.

Cornelia Fort, early Tennessee aviator present at the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Image from Record Group 238, Tennessee Blue Book, 1995-1996, Bicentennial Edition
Tennessee State Library and Archives
Published in Rob Simbeck's book, Daughter of the Air.

Cornelia wanted to make a difference, and saw an opportunity to do so by contributing to the country’s need for trained pilots. In 1941, the Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu recruited her to teach sailors and factory workers how to fly. During one of those training sessions, Cornelia took the controls from one of her students to narrowly avoid colliding with a military plane. At that moment, she saw the Japanese emblem painted onto the top of the wings. Cornelia was one of the first pilots to witness the incoming planes that attacked Pearl Harbor. As she landed the plane, bullets narrowly missed Cornelia and her student as they both sprinted toward cover. Miraculously, both walked away from the ordeal without injury, but two of her fellow pilots were killed on that day of infamy.

After she left Hawaii, Cornelia’s options for work were limited. She resorted to teaching Civilian Pilot Training programs. However, she still longed to serve her country. In September, when she received a telegram asking her to join what would later be known as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Cornelia enthusiastically traveled to the New Castle Army Air Force Base in Wilmington, Delaware. Although WASP would not be recognized as an official military unit until 1977, it provided an important service.

Cornelia Fort
Library Collection
Tennessee State Library and Archives

Cornelia Fort lost her life during her delivery of a BT-13 to Love Field in Dallas. The wing of her plane clipped another pilot’s landing gear resulting in Cornelia losing control and violently crashing into the terrain below. She most likely died instantly. At 24 years of age, Cornelia achieved what she set out to do in life. In an article that she submitted to several newspapers shortly before her accident, she stated, “I, for one, am profoundly grateful hat my one talent, my only knowledge, flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That’s all the luck I ever hope to have.” Despite the public sentiment against women joining the military efforts of World War II, Cornelia followed her passion and served her country.

If you are interested in learning more about Cornelia Fort and other female pioneers in American aviation history, read about them in TSLA’s collection. A good place to start is with, Daughter of the Air, by Rob Simbeck, They Also Flew: Women Aviators in Tennessee, 1922-1950, by Janene G. Leonhirth, and United States Women in Aviation, 1930-1939, by Claudia M. Oakes. You can look up these books and many more through our online catalog at: http://www1.youseemore.com/tsla/.

Established in 1944, the Cornelia Fort Airpark was named in her memory. In 2011, it was sold and re-purposed as a green space for Shelby Park. Cornelia’s story lives on through the historical marker in the park that bares a short biography of her life.
Image from Record Group 33: Tennessee Aeronautics Commission Records, 1939-1953
Tennessee State Library and Archives

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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