Cornelia Fort was an unlikely candidate to be the first American woman to die on active military duty. Born into a wealthy family in Nashville, the oldest of five children. A debutante. Sarah Lawrence graduate. Member of the Junior League of Nashville. Destined for a quiet life.
But Cornelia Fort wanted to fly, and fly she did. She took her first flying lesson in 1940, shortly after her father died. She soon became first female flight instructor in Nashville.
In 1941, she took a job in Fort Collins, CO as a flight instructor with the Civilian Pilots Training Program, established under then President, Franklin Roosevelt. Later that year, she was hired to teach defense workers, soldiers and sailors to fly on a U.S. military base in Honolulu. There, flying on the morning of December 7, 1941, she was a witness to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, she joined a select group of women aviators in what would become known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), charged with piloting planes newly off the assembly line to military bases across the U.S., freeing up male servicemen to engage in active combat.
On a delivery mission to Love Field in Dallas, TX from her base in Long Beach, CA, she was killed in a mid-air collision.
Cornelia Fort was 24 when she fell to her death from the skies above Mulberry Canyon, TX. A short life, but clearly an adventurous one. And she died a pilot’s death.
Says Delly Beekman, President of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., “Even now, nearly 70 years later, Cornelia Fort’s life stands out as an example of one woman’s commitment to a larger purpose. Like many other League members, past and present, she consciously broke down barriers while making an impact with what they do.”