Updated: Feb 6, 2019
In the summer of 1924, at a sprawling farm in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort summoned his three boys to his study. The patriarch solemnly produced the family bible and addressed his sons, intent on cutting short a grave threat to the good order of his household.
Aviation had taken root in his household, and Dr. Fort meant to put a stop to it.
"I want you boys to put your hands on this Bible," he said, "and promise me you will never fly."
Obediently, each of the three boys placed their hands on the sacred tome and said the words, forever condemning themselves to a life on the ground. In the hallway, just outside the doorway, Dr. Fort's five year-old daughter Cornelia observed the proceedings discretely.
Years later, at John Rodgers Airport on Oahu Island, a high wing, two seat, Interstate Cadet rolled down the gravel runway and lifted gently into the quiet December air. In the back seat (the instructor's seat) sat Cornelia Clark Fort. Omitted by gender and age from her family pledge to shun aviation at all cost, Cornelia had become a flier, much to her father's horror and chagrin.
Receiving her commercial flying license in February 1941, Cornelia applied as an instructor to various flying schools across the nation. Soon she received a telegram from the Massey-Ransom Flying Service of Fort Collins Colorado:
"MR. CORNELIA FORT. YOU ARE ACCEPTED AS A FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR. REPORT AT ONCE."
After some deliberation, she wired back, reasoning that she should clarify the issue of her gender.
"WE DO NOT CARE WHAT YOU ARE IF YOU CAN TEACH FLYING. REPORT AT ONCE."
Of her time in Colorado, she wrote, "I'm flying off the side of the Rocky Mountains where the air is tricky and vicious; one learns plenty and fast. A year ago if anyone had told me that I'd ever care about the workings of a carburetor I would have laughed in his face, and if that same person had told me that I would get up at 4:30 A.M. and work straight through until almost 8 P.M. daily for six months, I'd have thought him crazy. Yet one student who really aches to learn, one sun drenched flight at sunrise, one trip chasing a rainbow, one little girl who claps her hands and shouts 'Roller Coaster!' One cool, deeply quiet flight up the canyon at dusk are perhaps reasons enough."
In August of 1941, Fort was offered a job at Andrew Air Service on Oahu. Knowing that there where "millions. -thousands anyway- of embryo pilots" among the defense workers, civilian contractors, and military personnel residing in or around Honolulu, she jumped at the chance.
Her regular Sunday morning student was a defense worker named Suomala. His takeoff and landings had become appropriately workman-like and she decided he was ready to fly solo. After this next landing, she would jump out of the airplane, wish him luck on his next circuit, and wait nervously on the ground for him to return.
As they turned downwind along the coast Oahu, Fort noted a military aircraft coming in from the sea. Army pilots and naval aviators frequently made hash of the airspace along the south shore of the island, buzzing the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to the west and occasionally wreaking unintentional havoc among the tyro fliers at Andrew Air Service. Observing Suomala's base leg turn, she again took stock of the surrounding sky, making sure their landing pattern would be clear of any traffic.
The other aircraft was coming straight at her.
Jerking the controls away from her student, she blasted the throttle wide open and climbed above the oncoming aircraft, which passed so closely underneath the blue and yellow Cadet as to rattle the celluloid windows.
"The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter unbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships, but not on airplanes.
I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still, I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers. It might be. It must be. For surely, dear God...
Then I looked way up and saw formations of silver bombers riding in. I saw something detach itself from a plane and come glistening down. My eyes followed it down, down, and even with knowledge pounding in my mind, my heart turned over convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middle of the harbor.
Most people wonder how they would react in a crisis; if the danger comes as suddenly as this did you don't have time to be frightened. I'm not brave, but I knew the air was not the place for our little baby airplane and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could. It was as if the attack was happening in a different time track, with no relation to me."
As they wheeled over in a hard slip and began their descent, Cornelia heard a burst of gunfire and realized it was meant for her. She dropped the plane quickly toward the runway and touched down gracelessly. With the engine at idle, they rolled out the length of the runway in relative silence.
Suomala broke that silence with a question that may have been plaintive or in jest.
"When am I going to Solo?"
Shadows passed over them as they sprinted from the airplane to the relative safety of the Andrew Air Service hangars. As they ran, bullets tore into the plucky little interstate Cadet.
Strafing Zeroes killed airport manager Bob Tyce as he hurriedly grounded his Piper Cub and ran for the hangars.
"Suddenly that little wedge of sky above Hickam and Pearl Harbor was the busiest, fullest piece of sky I ever saw .... Our antiaircraft started belching shells which left their puffs of smoke scattered like so many umbrellas floating thru the air, planes darting in and out, high and low. One came screaming down in flames, leaving a crimson wake; the detonation of the bombs bursting shook the ground under us.
We counted anxiously as our little planes came fling back home to roost. Two belonging to Bob Tyce's company never came back. They were washed ashore weeks later on the windward side of the island, riddled with bullets. Not a pretty way for the brave yellow cubs and their pilots to go down to death.
Those of us on the Honolulu side were lucky. The enemy planes were hell-bent on Pearl Harbor and flicked only a few careless bullets at us en route.
We couldn't decide whether to put all the planes in the hangar and make one good target or whether to leave them out and open to general strafing. (which never came, as the enemy pilots weren't concerned with our little putt-putts when battleships and military planes were nearby) During the height of the attack we saw a bomber coming in very low, directly toward us, and deciding that the hangar was not a very smart place to stand, and we scattered.
For me and for some of the others, we later compared notes, this was the most unpleasant sensation of the whole day. It also crossed some of our minds that the possibility we were the first Americans to run from invaders on American soil. This dubious historical distinction I would rather have done without. Even when we recognized the bomber as it came nearer to be an American B-17 (one of those coming in from the mainland on a routine delivery flight) the guilty feeling was still in my mouth."
The B-17 pilot, she said later, "was so confused and excited, he landed downwind and nosed over."
As the fallout from the attack subsided, all civilian pilots and planes were grounded. Eventually returning to the U.S., Cornelia Fort joined the Army Air Corps and was one of the core group of the nacient Women's Auxilary Ferrying Squadron. Later known as WASPs (Women Auxilary Service Pilots), these experienced female flyers performed vital aircraft ferrying and test piloting jobs during the war.
Cornelia Fort was killed on March 21st, 1943. Her BT-13 was struck by another aircraft flying close formation. Her aircraft was crippled, and she did not have enough altitude to bail out.
Cornelia Fort was buried near her native Nashville. Her grave marker was inscribed with the noble epitaph of so many before and after: "Killed in the Service of Her Country"
Correspondence and quotations from Daughter of the Air by Rob Simbeck
With drawings by the immensely talented Grace Jensen
All illustrations © Hangar B Productions, LLC