A Day in the Life of a WASP

By Margaret DiBenedetto

   In 1942, Teresa James had been a flight instructor and stunt pilot for nearly a decade, when she learned of a special program recruiting female pilots. She had more than 2,254 flight hours—far exceeding the required 500, and was accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and assigned to New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware.

    One day, Teresa got her orders to deliver a P-47 to Evansville, Indiana and come right back. A quick trip. She slipped her lipstick into her pocket with some cash, and squeezed into the cockpit for the flight. Usually the pilots tried to be prepared for any eventualities on their flights. Take an extra pair of trousers and definitely your dress blouse and skirt, if you can. But the pursuit planes had no room for gear—just enough space for your body and your map case. Your map case contained 28 sector maps for flight navigation, because you don’t know if the weather’s going to force you to fly the northern route or the southern. But the thing is, restaurants don’t let women in if they’re wearing trousers, so without your skirt, you’re out of luck. But this trip was going to be a quick turn-around, so no problem.

   When she landed in Evansville, another P-47 needed to go out the next day to Long Beach, California. Too intimidated to mention she wasn’t ready to be away overnight, Teresa popped into the little PX to buy a comb, toothpaste and a toothbrush. And bases had absolutely no accommodations for females, so the women were often put up in nearby nurses’ quarters. But those weren’t always available either.

   The next morning the plane wasn’t ready to go. Teresa was stuck there, waiting for 4 days until the issue had been fixed; by then the weather had socked in and she was stuck waiting for 4 more. By then her tan flight shirt was more than ready to be washed, so she rinsed it out and hung it to dry. All cotton, no iron available. It was a completely wrinkled mess. But she had no alternative.

   She delivered the P-47 to Long Beach and remarked that she was so happy she’d be returning to her base.

   “Oh, no,” they told her, “You have to deliver a P-51 to Fort Myers, Florida.”

   “But I’ve never flown a P-51,” she said.

   “That’s okay,” they said, “Just read the tech orders and shoot 3 landings.”

   Tech orders are specific to maintenance and operational changes or post-factory fixes related to the aircraft and its components. Teresa got the tech orders and read through them. Reinforcement of Pilot’s Seat, Rework of Tail Wheel Struts, Rework of Baffle Assemblies in Carburetor Air Scoop, Replacement of Tail Wheel, Enlargement of Wing Fuel Tank Drain Plug Access Holes, Rework of Landing Gear, Position Indicator Switch Box, Installation of Fair-Lead Cockpit Enclosure Emergency Release Cable…

   She sat still for a moment in the 1800 horsepower P-51. A much different bird than the 2800 horsepower P-47. Lighter. Fast and sexy. She remembered what one of her flight instructors had told her: if you want to know how a plane flies, take it up, stall it, and land it. Meaning: go up, slow it down, drop the landing gear, drop your flaps, pretend you’re landing and try to stall it to see what the stall speed is.

   Teresa took it up, felt it out, played with the speed, and then noticed a big bank of fog rolling toward the airfield, threatening her landing visibility. She beat it to the landing strip and put the plane down.  However, since she’d just been flying the heavier P-47s, she came in too fast. She bounced the plane down the runway, finally stopping just as the fog enveloped her.

   The next morning, Teresa showed up to practice her last 2 landings.

   “Oh, you don’t need to do that,” they told her. “You got up, and you got down. You’re good to go.”

   So off she went to Florida. At Fort Myers, an AT-9 was waiting to go to Oklahoma. And on it went.

   By the time she got back to Wilmington,Teresa had been gone 31 days. Her clothes were a wrinkled mess, her hair was a mop of frizz.

   “I hate this Army,” she said, and she never again believed them when they told her “It’ll be a quick trip. You’ll be right back…”

Teresa James served as a major in the US Air Force from 1950 until her retirement in 1976. From the early 1960s, she lobbied for veteran status for the WAFS and WASP, finally granted in 1977.

7/19/1999 Interview

with Teresa James

by Rebecca Wright and Carol Butler

NASA Oral History

Cocoa Beach, Florida

Photo Credit: J.L. Blum / Source: https://metroairportnews.com/my-friend-the-invincible-teresa-james/