Monday, March 5, 2018

Virginia Sweet: Trailblazing WASP

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

On May 21, 1932, Amelia Earhart touched down in Ireland, completing a transatlantic flight exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh entered the record books as the first pilot to fly solo in a nonstop flight across the Atlantic.  In a small Saratoga County hamlet, a twelve-year old girl was inspired by Earhart’s feat to become a pilot herself.  Virginia Sweet would heed the call to serve her country in World War II, joining the Women’s Air Service Patrol (WASP).  As part of a select group of over 1,000 women, she made an important contribution to the war effort, and went on to an impressive career in the Air Force and as a commercial pilot.


Virginia, also known as Ginger, was born on February 12, 1921 to Harry Sweet and Jessica Smith Sweet.  She grew up, along with two sisters, in Quaker Springs, a small community in Saratoga County. Sadly, her father, a veteran who had been exposed to mustard gas in World War I, died when Virginia was nine years old, leaving her mother to raise the three daughters by herself.

Her early school years were spent in a one-room schoolhouse, where Virginia proved to be a gifted student, skipping two grades.  She continued her education at Mechanicville High School, and graduated with honors as a language major from Duke University.  When home for the summer following her sophomore year, she wanted to drive her grandfather’s new car.  In response to his assertion that no one was going to drive his vehicle, Virginia said: “Then I’m going to learn to fly instead” (“Flying Chatter – Quaker Springs’ Virginia Sweet).  She was about to make good on that declaration.

Her flying career began when Virginia entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at Union College, which utilized the Schenectady County Airport.  With the prospects of war growing, in 1938 President Roosevelt had begun this program to create a corps of potential pilots for the military. Luckily for Virginia and other young women--limited to 10% of the trainee population--the CPTP gave them a rare opportunity to participate in an activity which, under normal circumstances, would be out of their reach.  She earned her private pilot’s license in September of 1940, at the age of nineteen. With war approaching, all graduates from the program were required to enlist; women, who could not join the military, were no longer welcome.  Still, the CPTP trained approximately 25,000 women by June of 1941 (Civilian Pilot Training Program), a valuable pool for WASP recruitment.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 opened up opportunities for women to serve their country.  In the spring of 1942 Virginia enlisted in the New York wing of newly created Civil Air Patrol, an organization of civilian pilots who assisted in defense of the homeland.  It welcomed all citizens, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.  In that role, she served as a courier, ferrying crucial materials and personnel.   Once the war was in full swing, the manufacture of airplanes ballooned.  With the majority of male pilots at war, the army was in desperate need of pilots to deliver these aircraft to US bases.  Two army-approved programs—the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD)--were created, respectively, by Nancy Harkness Love and Jackie Cochran.  In August of 1943, the programs were combined into the Women’s Air Forces Service Pilots, with Cochran as director and Love as executive of the Air Transport Command, Ferrying Division.

Sweet had the distinction of being the first Schenectady County resident to join the WASPs.  As part of the class of 43-4 (Fourth class of 1943), she was assigned first to Houston, and then to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for rigorous training.   Although the women were civilians, they followed military protocol, including marching and living in dormitory-style barracks.  After a 6 am breakfast, trainees spent half of the day in class, and the other half in ground school.  The curriculum included navigation techniques, principles of slight, communications, maps and weather, as well as subjects such as math and physics. Studying and homework followed a 7 pm dinner, with lights out at 10 pm.  The early recruits, who were experienced pilots, underwent 23 weeks of training, divided into 115 hours of flying and 180 hours of ground school.  As the war continued, course time expanded to 30 weeks to accommodate less experienced volunteers.

After learning how to operate single-engine planes, they moved on to twin-engines, such as the A-17 Cessna Bobcat, having to exhibit mastery in some rather extreme circumstances:

They practiced making emergency landings and doing lazy-eights, loops, and slow rolls.  They also learned how to make a plane fly again if it stalled in midair or went into a spin, which would send it spiraling down toward the ground.  To master this skill, they first made a plane go into a spin, and then worked the plane’s controls quickly to get out of the spin before the plane could crash. (Yankee Doodle Gals, p. 36).

An important skill the women had to master was flying using only the plane’s instruments.  Eventually, WASPS made cross-country trips, first using a flight map to determine their routes, and then flying an hour or two from base, locating another airfield, and finding their way back to Sweetwater.  Trainees were tested at each phase of their training before moving on to the next level.  Upon graduation, the proud women were issued silver wing pins. 
The process of qualifying to become a WASP was no easy feat.  Of the 25,000 women who applied to the program, only 1,830 (less than 1%) were accepted.  Of that group, only 1,074 graduated and earned their wing pins (WASP Digital Archive).  These pioneers were the first US women to fly our country’s military aircraft. They flew every type of plane in the army’s arsenal and every type of mission that their male counterparts flew, excluding combat missions.  In addition to ferrying aircraft, later classes performed many other tasks, including flying personnel and cargo planes, towing targets, testing damaged aircraft, taking meteorologists on weather missions, and serving as flight instructors. Ultimately, thirty-eight WASPS and WASP trainees died in service to their country; twenty-seven were mission-related fatalities, and eleven occurred during training.

As a new WASP, Virginia reported to Romulus, Michigan’s Third Ferry Group in Air Transport Command, where she was assigned to deliver army aircraft.  During her period of active duty, Sweet attended instrument school in St. Louis, Missouri, qualifying her as an army instrument and night flight pilot on the Douglas C-47, a large military transport ship, as well as on other aircraft.  Virginia entered officer training school in Orlando, Florida in July of 1944.  A Troy Times article notes that, “During her 22 months in the WASPs Virginia flew 28 different types of planes, completed fifty ferrying missions and numerous training light* [flights] which included hops as long as 3,000 miles and as many as 10 ½ solo hours in a single day” (“OTD: Sweet Teaching Flying at RPI”) . Her favorite plane was the P-51 Mustang, a single-seat fighter.  Sweet said “She was a honey to fly” (“Virginia Sweet: Pioneering Aviator”).

On December 20, 1944, the WASP program was officially shut down, a disappointing ending for these valiant women.  For Virginia, however, this was only the beginning of a long career in the military and as a pilot.  In 1947 a separate Department of the Air Force was created; one year later, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act established the WAF (Women in the Air Force) program.  Virginia, hoping to remain in the service, applied.  To her disappointment, she was forced to reapply one year later, after her original application expired.  On September 13, 1949, she received her commission as a first lieutenant.  That same year, as a member of the Ninety-Nines, an international club for women pilots, she was the recipient of a $200 Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship, which she used to obtain a commercial instrument rating.

With the Korean War imminent, her immediate assignment was Extended Active Duty.  For two months, beginning in January of 1953, she was a member of the Ground Observer Squadron in Roanoke, Virginia.  Its mission was to train citizen volunteers to spot potential threats from enemy aircraft. From 1954 to 1957, Virginia was assigned to a number of bases in England, and was named Administrator for the Dependents Schools in London and Copenhagen.  These were educational institutions for children of US service members stationed in those areas.

Women were the first victims of the decision to reduce the size of the military in 1957.  Virginia quickly attained the rank of captain in her new position in the Air Force Reserve.  Among her assignments was Rome, New York, where she worked with the Volunteer Air Reserve Training Unit, and became a captain.  Once again, she was disappointed when she was not accepted into active duty following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam.  Still, Sweet remained in the service until September 13, 1979, when she retired as a lieutenant colonel, having served her country for approximately thirty-six years from her entry into the WASPs.

During her long career, Virginia Sweet was a presence in the Capital District, teaching flying at many local airports, and serving as a flight instructor in Lake Champlain, as well as for the ROTC students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  As noted in her obituary in the Times-Union:

After WASP deactivation, she had a lifelong aviation career, adding some 55 different civilian types of aircrafts to her flight log, along with 14 sailplanes and gliders. She held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, gliders, and an instrument and instructor certificate. She was an advanced ground school instructor and was a flight examiner for many years.

In reference to Virginia’s pilot credentials, an editor of the P-51 Mustang Pilots Newsletter commented, “In my mind, this is a pretty impressive collection of aircraft.” (Grems-Doolittle files on Virginia Sweet).      According to an article in the      P-47 Thunderbolt Newsletter, one newspaper article noted that she was “...one of the ten most experienced women pilots in the country” (Grems-Doolittle files).

Beyond her achievements in the air, Sweet was an independent woman long before the women’s movement of the 1970s.  She chafed at the discrimination that she and other women experienced in spite of their service: 

Sweet wasn’t shy about articulating the bitterness she felt for being treated as a second-class citizen because she was a woman in a man’s realm during the war. She felt she could fly as well as any male, even if she was issued men’s flight jumpsuits that never fit quite right across her sinewy 5-feet-6, 100-pound body (“Flying Chatter – Quaker Springs’ Virginia Sweet).

This unfair treatment began early and persisted for many years.  In March of 1944, Congress considered enacting legislation granting military status to WASPS; unfortunately, the bill was defeated.  When the program was terminated in December of that year, many of the 916 WASPs were given only one day to leave.  Even after WASPs were offered the opportunity in 1949 to become Air Force officers, those, like Sweet, who accepted, were not permitted to fly military aircraft.  A giant step forward was legislation in November of 1977, which granted WASPs military status, along with limited veterans’ benefits.  Over a generation later, on July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation that bestowed on the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious honor which that body can award to civilians.  Sadly, Virginia Sweet died at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on July 12, less than two weeks later.  She is buried in Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery.
The struggle for recognition continued until recently.  In 2002, Arlington National Cemetery revised its policy so that WASP members could have their ashes inurned there. That eligibility was challenged in 2015, however, by the secretary of the army.  Thanks to a few female senators, legislation enacted in 2016 ensured that those female pilots secured that right.  As then Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski said, “If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough to be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery” (“Legislation Introduced”).

Along with other WASPs, Virginia Sweet answered the call when her nation needed her.  Like other trailblazers in history, she and her peers faced prejudices and other obstacles in paving the way for future women in the military.  History professor Kate Landdeck, who has studied the WASP program for years, aptly notes, “We want the WASP to know that the work that they did during the war — and the work they’ve done since in representing women who served as pilots — that legacy lives on,...“Their journey may be ending, but their story isn’t finished” (“Rose Parade: Female WWII Pilots to Be Honored). Lieutenant Colonel Virginia Sweet would be pleased.

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