One of my heroes
Writing about Pearl Harbor has been a wonderful learning experience. And one of the best has been uncovering the stories about ordinary civilians and their reactions to the life changing event they lived through on the day of the attack. Many of those people have been added to my list of personal heroes. Cornelia Fort is one of them. She was a civilian flight instructor flying with a student the morning of the attack.
A recent article in Sport Aviation prompted the memory of her story which I touch upon in my book. The article is primarily about the restoration of the aircraft she flew that day. Fortunately, it's hard to write about aircraft without talking about the people who fly them so I was able to learn more about Cornelia.
She earned her pilot, commercial and instructor’s certifications by the time she was 22. She didn’t just break through the “glass ceiling” she flew through it. The picture of her in the magazine article shows her in a baggy flight suit-- obviously made for a male--goggles perched on top of her leather helmet. She exudes confidence; her arm perched on the wing of a PT-19 which she later ferried for military when she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron in 1942.
On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, she was flying an Interstate Cadet S-1A, a little high wing, single prop, fixed wheel aircraft out of John Rogers Field with her student. I love little aircraft . There is nothing like flying low and slow and touching the clouds, the deep sound of the engine reminding you that you are defying gravity. I think I know how she felt that morning when Pearl Harbor was off her west wing and the Koolau Mountains were dead ahead. Pure joy with a little edge of danger.
I must admit I didn't also love little aircraft. I had to take flying lessons to overcome my fear of falling. I'm glad it worked. And I'm proud to say my daughter, Michelle, went on to get her private pilots license, following in the footsteps of her dad. Obviously, Cornelia had no reservations or fears to overcome. Boy, did she love to fly!
Cornelia had been hired by Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu and took to the clear Hawaiian air every chance she could get. She and her student, Soumala, were doing landing practice that day. Bob Tyce’s, two training aircraft, both Piper Cubs, had just taken to the air as they flew the pattern. Coming in from the ocean was a flight of military aircraft that she assumed would head to one of the air bases, so she instructed her student to turn base for a landing. Then one of the planes in the flight broke formation and headed straight for them. She grabbed the controls and pulled up avoiding a potential collision, angry at the ‘hot dog’ intruder. It was then that she saw the “rising Sun” insignia on the wing of the Japanese aircraft. Machine gun fire soon followed. She made a rapid decent and landed, ran for cover in the hanger, dodging more bullets as the Japanese aircraft strafed the field. Bob Tyce and his student were not as lucky. She survived the attack and went on to help the war effort. Cornelia lost her life doing what she loved. She was killed in a midair while ferrying B-13’s. Some heroes die too young. But her story and her little Cadet live on. Her aircraft has been restored and is now named, “The Pearl”. Thank you, Sports Aviation, for sharing her story. And thank you, Cornelia, for being one of my heroes.
Your spirit lives on!
Picture: Wikipedia, cloud images.