It was undoubtedly a peaceful morning. Cornelia Fort had woken up early to take her place in the skies over Hawaii. Now, she and her student puttered around the pattern in a little Interstate Cadet. As her student made the turn from base to final, Fort noticed a fast aircraft coming right at them. Instincts took over, and she pulled up sharply. The plane flashed by, too close for comfort. It was then she saw the plumes of black smoke roiling up from Pearl Harbor.
Born in 1919, in Nashville, Tennessee, Fort wasn’t exactly the definition of a debutante. She was more of a tomboy, and at the age of 5, her love of aviation was born watching a barnstormer in a Curtiss Jenny. Fort’s father had made her brothers promise they would never fly. However, he overlooked his daughter and didn’t ask her to make the same promise, a fact she didn’t forget.
In 1940, Fort took her first flying lesson and was instantly hooked. She continued to take lessons with as much frequency as her instructor would allow. By March 1941, Fort had become the first female flight instructor in Nashville. She began applying to any flight school she could find and landed a job in Fort Collins, Colorado. She enjoyed teaching there but also knew that the United States was headed toward war. Fort wanted to contribute, and when offered a position at Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu, where the students were mostly military men stationed there, she jumped at the opportunity.
Fort sailed for Honolulu in September. From the time of her arrival in late September to that fateful day in December, she logged 300 hours of flight time. After successfully landing her plane, Fort and her student ran to the cover of the big hangar, managing to avoid being hit by the bullets of the aircraft that were now strafing the tiny field. As she burst into the hangar, she told those inside that the Japanese were attacking. They laughed.
They weren’t laughing the next day. The attack on Pearl Harbor claimed 2,300 lives, including that of Bob Tyce, an instructor at the same school, who had been killed after landing his Cabin Waco. Upon inspecting her bullet-riddled Interstate Cadet, Fort realized she had narrowly escaped the same fate.
She also knew her days of flying over Hawaii were done, at least for the time being, so she booked passage home. Still determined to contribute to the war effort, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, and as the story of her experience on Dec. 7 spread, she began touring to sell war bonds.
Yet Fort wanted to do more, and on Sept. 6, 1942, that chance came. She was offered a position in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and gladly accepted, becoming the second to join. She was soon based in Long Beach, California, and checked out in the BT-13. Ferrying missions began shortly after.
But these ferrying missions were to take a tragic turn. On March 21, 1943, Fort was flying in a group of both male and female pilots, transporting BT-13s from Long Beach, California, to Dallas, Texas. Over Texas, her plane collided with another, breaking off 6 feet of leading edge. Her plane entered an irreversible dive and crashed, killing Fort immediately. The other plane safely landed.
No one really knows for sure what happened that day. Some say that Fort was at fault, trying close formation flying that was prohibited. Still others say that the pilot of the other plane was pretending to dogfight Fort, making close passes to her aircraft and then pulling up.
Fort was the first female pilot to perish in service to the U.S. Military. In a letter to Fort’s mother, the ferrying service commander, Nancy Harkness Love, wrote, “If there can be any comforting thought, it is that she died as she wanted to—in an Army Airplane, and in the service country.” Cornelia’s own words reflected that sentiment: “I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country.”