Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort, by Rob Simbeck, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1999, $24.
Learning to fly was a dream come true for Cornelia Fort. She took her first flying lessons at the newly opened airport at Berry Field, near Nashville, Tennessee, in 1940 and received her commercial license on February 8, 1941. By the age of 22, Fort was one of the most experienced aviators in the United States.
Fort recorded her experiences of flying in letters and a diary, parts of which are interwoven into Rob Simbeck’s Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort. Simbeck also uses interviews with Fort’s friends, relatives and colleagues to flesh out the story of her remarkable but short life.
While working as an instructor with Andrew’s Flying Service in Honolulu, Fort witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, she was flying in an Interstate Cadet trainer with a student when a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero nearly collided head-on with her plane. She and her student were narrowly missed when Japanese aircraft strafed John Rogers Field after Fort landed.
Fort left the islands and went to San Francisco in hopes of using her knowledge of flying to serve her country. She soon became quite popular due to press interviews focusing on her Pearl Harbor ordeal. On September 6, 1942, she received a telegram from the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, in Wilmington, Del., which had established a group of women pilots for ferrying aircraft within the United States. Fort took her flight test at DuPont Field, Del., and became a civilian pilot with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) on September 12.
Fort was among the first to undergo Army orientation training, and on October 22, 1942, was second-in-command of the squadron’s first ferry mission. Tragically, she was killed in a midair collision over Texas on March 21, 1943, during another ferry mission. Her body was flown back to Nashville and on her headstone at Mt. Olivet Cemetery was inscribed “Killed in the Service of Her Country.”