The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were the first female pilots to fly American military aircraft in WWII. They ferried more than 12,000 aircraft over sixty million miles – yet their service to our nation went unrecognized for decades. The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) has recently discovered an AT-6 training aircraft used in the original WASP flight training program. The CAF will acquire, restore, and paint this historic aircraft, just as it was in 1943. This AT-6 will be featured in our new film RISE ABOVE: WASP, narrated by Sigourney Weaver - a three-time Academy Award-nominated actress. The film will be the basis of a nationwide outreach program that educates and inspires young people with the story of the WASP.
Funds raised through the Kickstarter campaign will be used for two main outreach vehicles of the program – the acquisition of an aircraft to honor the WASP and the production of a film that will educate audiences around the country about their inspirational history.
Produced by award-winning Hemlock Films, the film will use a unique blend of theatrical story-telling and dramatic flying sequences to create an immersive experience. CAF RISE ABOVE: WASP will honor the service of these women and their success in triumphing over adversity. The WASP provide an inspirational lesson relevant to today's generation, teaching us that no matter what our aspirations may be, aiming high, believing in ourselves, and never quitting allows us to succeed.
The WASP story will also be told through a new CAF unit, the WASP Squadron. Led by Debbie Travis-King, the first woman to pilot a B-29 since WWII, the squadron will oversee the WASP-provenance aircraft and tour the country with the story of these extraordinary women.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II resulted in a collective response, “What can I do to help?” Women aviators, who observed a shortage of pilots in transport roles within the United States, proposed a radical idea – they would step into the cockpit and free up men for service on the front lines. The military remained skeptical that women could fly high performance combat aircraft – much less be trusted to regularly operate them. Through perseverance, however, the women were permitted to move forward. In 1942, female pilots began ferrying military aircraft within the U.S. and in 1943, the WASP program was formalized to train them.
The WASP embodied skill and ability, but were not given the same treatment, pay, or military honors as their male counterparts. Classified as Civil Service employees, the WASP were required to pay for personal expenses and make their own uniforms. For the early classes, there wasn’t even a fire truck on the airfield in case of an accident.
Of the 1,074 women who earned their wings, 38 lost their lives in accidents while performing a service to their country. As a final testament to the era’s cold-hearted attitudes towards women, the families of these 38 women received a bill for the transport of the bodies of the deceased.
The program ended abruptly in 1944, amid considerable controversy. Congress had decided that training women to fly was a waste of money because the ability to fly was not a skill women needed to possess. The WASP were the only wartime unit that was denied military status and sent home before the war was over and their job was done. It would be 33 years after the war before the WASP were granted veteran status and a level of recognition for their service. They continue to strive to preserve their legacy.
The perseverance and dedication that the WASP possessed allowed them to serve their country in a time of need – blazing a path for generations of women who would follow them into aircraft cockpits and other professional careers.
Discovered by CAF Members researching the history of their own privately owned AT-6, this aircraft was actually used to train female pilots at Avenger Field as part of the WASP Program. The AT-6 is the iconic airplane of the WASP – not simply because they ferried and delivered thousands of them, but because it was the airplane the women flew immediately prior to graduation.
The AT-6 was a demanding and complex aircraft, and served as the final gate through which any woman aspiring to fly in service of her country would have to pass. In spite of this daunting position, it was well loved by those who mastered it, and remains a favorite among the WASP to this day. It was the airplane in which they earned their coveted silver wings.
This particular airplane was constructed by North American Aviation at their Dallas plant by a workforce which was more than half female. When it was originally accepted for service, it was assigned the serial number 42-4125. It arrived at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas on June 11, 1943. It remained on station, training hopeful female pilots until December 15th, 1943. During its time at Avenger Field, the airplane participated in the training of five classes of female cadets, totaling 561 cadets. Of this group, 378 would graduate.
While the aircraft was helping the cadets of 43-W-7 prepare for the rigors of wartime service, it was involved in an accident – the pilot of record was W/P (Woman Pilot) Constance B. “Connie” Turner. Turner would not graduate, despite having several hundred hours of flying time – male instructors were notoriously tough on women and unforgiving of accidents.
The airplane was lost to history, because in Fiscal Year 1949 the Air Force began a modernization program, converting their surviving AT-6Cs into AT-6Gs. 42-4125 was re-manufactured as 49-2943, the number which appears on its FAA records to this day.
The overall program goal is to provide young people, specifically young women, with a greater appreciation of their own potential, an awareness of the opportunities which surround them, and a mentorship pathway to accomplish their dreams.
The film will combine historical footage, dramatic flying scenes, and interviews with WASP to inspire viewers to apply the same principles used by the WASP to overcome their own challenges today. The film will utilize cutting-edge technology which will allow it to be viewed on a curved screen in an inflatable dome theater, providing an unparalleled ‘full-immersion’ experience.
CAF RISE ABOVE: WASP will take young people back in time, so that they can live key moments in the WASP journey and experience flight in a WWII Airplane. While the experience will appeal to a broad audience, it is designed to achieve particular resonance with young women, who will share the experience and leave the theater thinking, “If the WASP could do it, so can I!”
The CAF conducted a competitive selection process that included several nationally-renowned filmmakers specializing in historical docudramas. Several surviving WASP, representatives from the National WASP WWII Museum, and staff from the WASP Collection at Texas Woman’s University were an integral part of the selection process. The group selected Hemlock Films to produce the movie. Adam White and Kara Martinelli are well known for their passionate storytelling, award-winning documentaries, and immersive films.
The production will be narrated by Sigourney Weaver, an American actress well-known for her role in films such as Alien, Gorillas in the Mist and Avatar. A seven-time Golden Globe Award nominee, she is very active in her support of nonprofit endeavors, and associated with strong female characters.
The Dome Theater system creates a truly immersive experience, where the screen wraps around the audience, allowing them to experience the thrill and sensation of flight as they soar into the skies in vintage World War II aircraft alongside a female pilot. The Dome Theater system has been widely used in other outreach programs, and is derived from tried and true planetarium technology. Because of the size and weight of the system, it is remarkably portable, and can carry the story of the WASP into every classroom in America.
These theaters will be operated by the more than 70 CAF units located across the nation, allowing us to reach the American people with the resonant and meaningful story of the WASP at an unprecedented level. Follow-on programming will allow young people to map the lessons of the WASP directly into their own lives.
Led by Debbie Travis-King, the first woman to pilot a B-29 since WWII, the CAF’s new WASP Squadron is designed to provide a deeper level of engagement for young people who are inspired by the film, and provide a support network for women who aspire to fly warbirds – or succeed in other traditionally male-dominated career fields.
The squadron will operate the AT-6, traveling across the country sharing stories from the WASP and their own lives, exposing young people to robust female role models. The squadron’s members will encourage young people to pursue their dreams and goals, while providing mentorship opportunities for women in aviation fields.
For Major Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the United States Military’s first female Combat Pilots, the WASP are a source of inspiration, and now as National Chairman for the CAF WASP Program she is helping tell their story, and using it to impact young people’s lives.
Penney’s many firsts stand on the shoulders of a group of women who dared to stand up for what they knew they could do… serve their country at a time of war with dignity and courage, in a way that had never been done before.
It was Penney, tapping into a deep courage and sense of service to country, who answered the call on the morning of September 11, 2001 to intercept hijacked passenger jet United Flight 93 that was feared to be on a collision course with Washington D.C. With no time for the armament of her F-16, she was sent with a clear mission to take down this potential missile at whatever cost, even that of her own life. United 93 never made it to Washington. The brave passengers aboard did what Penney herself was prepared to do.
Her call sign is Lucky. But it wasn’t luck that got Penney through two college degrees, commissioned as an officer, and two tours in Iraq. It was determination and the belief that if you RISE ABOVE any obstacle set before you, anything is possible. As the only woman in her fighter pilot training class, and again the only woman in her fighter squadron, Penney was able to draw upon the legacy of the WASP as a reminder of her ability to succeed at whatever she put her heart and mind to.
Penney has raced in the Jet Class of the Reno Air Races, flown her vintage 1941 Taylorcraft airplane solo across the county at the age of 24, and attained many other lofty goals she has set for herself. She attributes her success to hard work, belief in her abilities, and her “spiritual grandmothers” – the WASP – whose strength reminds her she is not alone.
With the Commemorative Air Force, Penney is dedicated to ensuring the story of the WASP is told to future generations to inspire other women and girls to reach their true potential, and to inspire everyone to RISE ABOVE the challenges in their own lives, just like the WASP.
Risks and challenges
The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) was established in 1957, and is made up of more than 12,000 member volunteers who maintain, restore and operate a fleet of 160 vintage military aircraft. These members are united by a passion for aviation and history – and are motivated to share the stories of our greatest generation.
The Film: The CAF has an established track record of delivering high quality, inspirational and educational programming. For the past five years, this capability has been embodied by the Rise Above: Red Tail traveling exhibit. A unique, curved screen experiential theatre allows audiences to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen – and their journey to overcome adversity. This traveling exhibit visits 40 different communities across the nation each year, and has been viewed by more than 200,000 people.
The Squadron: Women who thrive in traditionally male-dominated fields such as aviation are by definition – driven. These same women are driving the formation of the WASP Squadron and are eager to provide mentorship, support and education to young people. Most importantly, they are eager to share the life lessons from their spiritual grandmothers – the WASP.
The Airplane: The CAF has secured a written purchase agreement from the aircraft’s current owners, which is valid until August 2017, contingent on the funds being raised to purchase the aircraft. The CAF has conducted a pre-purchase inspection on the aircraft, and has concluded that the aircraft can be safely operated, with most of the needed restoration being cosmetic in nature. Because the AT-6 is one of the most popular warbirds in the United States, parts and service are readily available.
Additionally, CAF’s confidence in approaching this restoration is based on the numerous similar projects that have been successfully completed since the organization was founded in 1957. CAF is the largest operator of vintage military aircraft in the world. The CAF also recognizes that while flying a historic aircraft can be a source of unparalleled inspirational and education value it also carries a level of operational risk. This risk is mitigated by the CAF’s robust safety management system, and almost 60-year depth of experience operating AT-6 aircraft.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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