by Carmen Doyle
Margaret Ray was a farm girl from Fort Wayne. She went on her first airplane flight at age 7, when a barnstormer took her whole family up. That started her love of flying. She didn’t believe she could be a pilot because she was a girl, so she decided to become a stewardess.
|You can read about Maggie Ray and other Fort Wayne historical figures in books available in our gift shop.|
Maggie got concerned about what would happen if she was on a plane and the pilot became incapacitated, so she decided that she would like to learn how to fly a plane just in case that happened. She was working at the canning factory at GE in order to earn money for the nurses training that all stewardess were required to have. At age 19, Maggie took her first solo flight in an airplane, and decided she wasn’t going to be a stewardess- she was going to be a pilot. There was only one class at Indiana Tech that offered pilot training. Maggie was the only girl in the class, and the instructor often picked on her to answer questions, hoping to embarrass Maggie and have her drop out. Maggie tried to blend in by wearing jodhpurs, but she still got picked on.
In 1943, at age 21, she received a telegram that said “if interested in women flying training for ferry command” to contact Ethel Sheely, Chief Recruiting Officer, for interviews. If any women pilots were interested, they were to go to Chicago for interviews. Maggie went with a couple of other women, and passed the initial interview. Further instructions were then given on how to apply for the program.
Maggie received a letter a few days later from Jacqueline Cochran, who was the Director of Women’s Flying Training. The letter said that if a woman received “clearance of your Civil Service appointment and approval of your medical examination, you will be officially notified when and where to report for duty.” The physical was the same one that all Army Air Force cadets, who wanted to be fighter pilots, required. Maggie was concerned she would not pass the physical, because she was recovering from an appendectomy at the time.
The Women’s Ferrying Squadron had begun in September 1942, and at first only the most experienced women were accepted- most had over a thousand hours of flying experience. If commercial airlines had hired women as pilots, these women would have qualified.
Jackie Cochran urged General H.H. Arnold to provide opportunity for additional women pilots to be hired. At first Cochran anticipated being only able to accept women with 300 hours or commercial licenses, but huge demand meant that requirements were reduced to having a private license.
Women in the program had been instructed “not to publicize what we were about to do as we didn’t want the enemy to know that United States was so desperate that it was training women.”
Maggie was sent to training in Sweetwater, Texas. WASP (Women Air Service Pilots) had the same training as the male cadets, except females didn’t get gunnery training. Some fundamentals were skipped over because all the women knew how to fly already. Cochran insisted on military discipline because she didn’t want anyone to say that the women couldn’t pull their own weight. However, the women were volunteers, which meant they could leave at any time. The rate of attrition for the women trainees was 35%, no higher than that of men. Five hours a day were spent studying math, physics, meteorology, navigation, aerodynamics, electronics and instruments, as well as military and civilian air regulations, engine operations and maintenance. Every minute of free time was spent studying, including with a flashlight under the covers after bed check. When ground training was completed, Maggie had the equivalent of a college degree in aeronautics.
Women weren’t supposed to release information about what they were doing, allegedly in case the information fell into the hands of the enemy. Maggie had to get permission from the Public Relations Officer for her name and address to be published in the church bulletin.
Maggie later thought the real reason WASP weren’t supposed to tell anyone what they were doing might have been because the people in charge didn’t want a lot of publicity because of the high number of women who might be likely to “wash out”. Eighty-five girls of the 127 in Class 43 W-5 (Maggie’s class) graduated. It was dangerous too-38 women pilots died during WASP training.
WASPs didn’t receive any death benefits (and had to sign a release discharging the government of any claims, demands or actions on account of death or injury.) When a WASP died, the rest of the girls had to cover the expense of shipping the body home. Coffins could not be covered by an American flag, and family members couldn’t display a gold star in their window (a gold star indicated the loss of a family member in the war). Despite all the training that the WASPs went through, they still weren’t considered part of the Army.
There was a perception that WASPs were “rich girls on a lark”. That wasn’t true. Maggie explained: “I would get orders to pick up an airplane. I would grab my B-4 bag, which was always packed, and my parachute bag, catch a train or get on a commercial flight. When I arrived, I would go to Operations, pick up the airplane and deliver it to its destination. Most of what I flew were trainers and twin-engine troop transports. When trainers needed to be moved from base to base for whatever reason, it was a ferry pilot who did it.”
The WASPs were abruptly disbanded in December of 1944. Maggie tried to become a flight instructor, but few people seemed to want to take flight lessons from a girl, so she worked at the local airport at a desk job, or worked on the sidelines directing and fueling planes while waiting for pupils. It was when Maggie was at the desk job that she got hired for one last war effort. In 1945, the newspapers were on strike. A local radio station called the airport to say that Japan was about to surrender and the station had an idea to inform people not near their radios: the station would do a news drop. Thousands of leaflets were printed up with news of the surrender, and the station wanted someone to drop them over Fort Wayne. Maggie got to be the pilot to do it.
She recalled in The Greatest Generation: “I got to fly right over Main Street. Over the factories. I was flying real low- at only about a hundred feet, almost below the tops of some of the buildings.” (The History Center has one of the flyers that she dropped.)
In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day, a radio stationed mentioned the dropping of the flyers, and wanted to know if anyone had any information about the pilot. Maggie called the station and informed them that SHE had been the pilot. Maggie got to do a re-enactment of the drop- but this time she stayed out of downtown.
Maggie continued flying, including participating in many races, as well as continuing to instruct, until her death in 2008 at age 87.
For more information on Maggie, the History Center has a book: Maggie Ray World War II Air Force Pilot, written by her daughter, Marsha J. Wright.