Avenger Field was active during World War II to train female pilots in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP). One of the goals of the WASP program was to make use of the talents of female fliers in service in order to free up their male counterparts for combat flying.
The program was created under General Henry “Hap” Arnold. Gen. Arnold selected Jacqueline Cochran to help establish a unit where female civilian pilots could be trained to fly for the Army Air Forces. Cochran was a remarkable pilot on her own. She had learned to fly at the suggestion of her future husband, Floyd Odlum, founder and executive of the Atlas Corporation. She took her first solo flight in 1932 after three weeks of lessons. Thereafter, she gained her instrument rating, commercial and transport pilot’s licenses and began her career as a pilot. Not limited to flying, she also started her own cosmetic company. As she managed her cosmetic business, Cochran continued to fly, compete in air races and set speed records. As World War II continued in Europe, she and other female pilots promoted and advanced the concept of using women in wartime aviation.
Cochran worked with Gen. Arnold in 1941 to select at first twenty-seven women to fly military aircraft to Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The following year, Gen. Arnold organized the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) which led directly to the establishment of the WASP program by merging the WFTD with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron.
An early training facility was put together in Houston at Howard Hughes Field, with Jacqueline Cochran as director. In an unrelated event, Houston Municipal Airport (now Hobby Airport) was briefly renamed for Howard Hughes after Hughes, Harry Connor, Thomas Thurlow, Richard Stoddard and Ed Lund made an around the world flight in 3 days, 19 hours and 8 minutes in a Model 14 Lockheed Super Electra. They flew a total of 14,791 miles during that few days ending on July 14, 1938. The name of the field was eventually changed back to Houston Municipal Airport, since the city later determined that locations could not be named for living individuals, but the name still existed during World War II. However, Hughes Field turned out to be ill suited for the WASP program due to the area’s already heavy air traffic and its frequently stormy weather conditions. Alternate sites were evaluated and the twenty year old municipal airport at Sweetwater, Texas was selected for the program for a number of reasons, including its comparatively moderate weather, the existing facilities and its previous, though relatively short, history as a flight training facility.
The West Texas airfield had been been used for a number of months in the British Flying Training School when a school was relocated to Texas from California. In mid 1942, a contest was created to give the airfield a name and the prize was won by Mrs. Grace Faver, an art instructor at Sweetwater’s John H. Reagan Junior High School, who offered the name “Avenger Field” before the first British pilot trainees arrived. Eventually, this program was consolidated with other such schools and the airfield was later set up for advanced single engine flight training under the Air Transport Command of the Army Air Forces.
In early 1943, the program was moved from Houston to Sweetwater. There the candidates received flight training. The program was a resounding success. In 1943 and 1944, 1,074 women were trained. After their flight training was completed, their flight duties included flying every military aircraft including the B-17 and B-29 bombers. The pilots accumulated some sixty million air miles ferrying aircraft and military personnel, towing targets for use in anti-aircraft training and other duties before the program was disbanded in 1944. Despite this remarkable service, the group was not combined with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps or to be acknowledged as having military status until 1977.
The WASP logo was derived and adapted from a character in a children’s book called “The Gremlins.” Author Roald Dahl was formerly a pilot in the Royal Air Force. After being injured in an accident he was unable to fly and he was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., He was working there when he began writing his children’s book. In his story, gremlins resided in a wooded area that the RAF planned to raze for a wartime aircraft factory. At first the gremlins were angry and interfered with the operation of the aircraft. Ultimately, one sees the benefit to the country and influences the others to aid the war effort instead on hindering it. Disney Studios planned to make an animated feature based on the book, but the project stalled due to the war and was never completed. The WASP logo was adapted from the artwork for the project and used with permission by the unit.
There were many personal stories of the pilots’ experiences. One was the story of Alberta Antonia Paskvan Kinney. She was of Croatian ancestry and grew up in the home of her grandmother and other relatives in Montana. When she was fourteen, she took her first airplane ride on a trip to the 1933 World’s Fair and was inspired to take up flying. After graduating from high school, Alberta took flying lessons on her own while she was working for the United States Navy in Seattle, Washington. She applied for and was accepted into the WASP program and was assigned to Avenger Field in early 1944. After the program was disbanded, Alberta received a flight instructor’s rating and continued to be involved in aviation. She married Frank Kinney, himself a pilot, formerly with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Both Alberta and Frank have since passed away, but Alberta was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in the summer of 2009.
Another pilot was RaVenna Leigh Baker, originally of Cedar City, Utah. RaVenna had grown up in Cedar City. She obtained her pilot’s license while attending the Branch Agricultural College, now known as Southern Utah University for her first two years of college. Upon her graduation with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from University of Utah in 1943, she was accepted into the WASP program. After completing her training, she flew Piper Cubs, PT-17s and AT-6 aircraft and ferried them to training bases in California, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. She recounted that though she had no accidents or personal close calls during her service in WASP program, some thirty-eight pilots were killed during the war. In a 1981 newspaper interview, she said she looked back on her flying days in World War II with warmth and observed, “I was young and vivacious. You just couldn’t stop me in those days. I was exuberant.”
Avenger Field was decommissioned at the end of the war and the airfield returned to use as a municipal aviation facility. During the Cold War, it saw use as part of the United States Air Force Air Defense Command radar installation.
By 1977, 850 of the former WASP personnel were finally awarded military benefits for their service. In 1979, Air Force Secretary John C. Stetson announced that the women would be considered as having having performed active military service.
The National WASP World War II museum is located in Sweetwater, Texas. Please consult its website at https://waspmuseum.org/ for its hours, directions and other information.
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