Cornelia's Top Matches
About Cornelia Clark Fort
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.
In January 1942, while confined in Hawaii awaiting evacuation to the mainland, she had written to her mother a letter that serves as her epitaph:
Books and music have been deeply personal things to me, possessions of the soul. I’ve loved the multitudinous friends in many places and their many kindnesses to me. I’ve loved the steak and red wine and dancing in smoky nightclubs, self-important headwaiters who bring the reams of French bread and wine sauces in New Orleans. I’ve loved the ice coldness of the air in the Canadian Laurentians, the camaraderie of skiing and the first scotch and soda as you sit in front of the fire
I loved my blue jeans and the great dignity of life on the ranches. I loved fox-hunting even with its snobbishness, I loved the deep pervading tiredness after six hours of timber-hopping.
I dearly loved the airports, little and big. I loved the sky and the planes and yet, best of all, I loved flying. I loved it best perhaps because it taught me utter self-sufficiency, the ability to remove oneself beyond the keep of anyone at all—and in so doing it taught me what was of value and what was not.
It taught me a way of life—in the spiritual sense. It taught me to cherish dignity and integrity and to understand the importance of love and laughter....
If I die violently, who can say it was “before my time”? I should have dearly loved to have had a husband and children. My talents in that line would have been pretty good but if that was not to be, I want no one to grieve for me.
I was happiest in the sky—at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light. Think of me there and remember me, I hope as I shall you, with love.
Cornelia got used to the biggest planes she or any of the WAFs had flown alone (450-horsepower BT-13s), and she put her training to use on an instrument flight. “I really feel as if I’m a 500% better pilot than I was last fall,” she wrote. On the California base, she discovered that the Officers’ Club was “sprinkled with movie stars & silver chafing dishes filled with fried oysters & cheese—Ahem!”
By Feb. 23, 1943, the apparent early warmth of their reception in California was chilled by an officers’ wives’ luncheon to which the WAFs were invited. She wrote:
It was the most desperate ordeal I ever saw. Talk about being stared at & appraised & in a decidedly unfriendly fashion. Whew! They are in a frenzy of jealousy that we will co-pilot with their husbands. Of all the damned, stupid, female rot!
Col. Spake sent his Deputy to make a speech—which had a dual purpose. Theoretically it was a speech of welcome for us. Actually it was an announcement to the wives that they need not worry, that no “mixed” operations orders would be issued, i.e., no man & girl as pilot & co-pilot.
And can you believe it, the rude women applauded right in front of us! I was so livid at an exhibition whose equal I’ve never seen that I got up & walked out whereupon the other girls followed me. I hope they had the grace to be ashamed of their rudeness if not their feelings.
Cornelia continued to ferry planes. She bought a car (“a dream car this time instead of a junk heap”), which, she told her mother, “has already been a joy with its top down & the Cal. sun pouring in.” She described visits to the Cocoanut Grove and The Victor Hugo, an inn overlooking Laguna Beach.