21 March 1943

Cornelia Clark Fort, with a Fairchild PT-19A Cornell trainer. (U.S. Air Force)
Cornelia Clark Fort with a Fairchild PT-19A Cornell trainer. (U.S. Air Force)

21 March 1943: Cornelia Clark Fort, a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (the WAFS), was ferrying a new Vultee BT-13A Valiant basic trainer, serial number 42-42432, from the airplane factory at Downey, California, to an airfield in Texas. She was leading a flight of five BT-13s with the others being flown by inexperienced military pilots.

A flight of Vultee BT-13A Valiant basic trainers, 41-22226, 41-22666 and 41-23050. (Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum NASM A19600288000a)

The left wing of Fort’s airplane was struck from behind by another airplane, BT-13A 42-42450, flown by Flight Officer Frank E. Stamme, Jr., U.S. Army Air Corps. Frank Stamme had approximately 250 flight hours. Apparently trying to impress Miss Fort, Stamme attempted to perform a barrel roll around her airplane, but struck her wing.

Fort’s BT-13 crashed approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Merkel, Texas, and Cornelia Fort was killed. Her body was found in the wreckage of the airplane. The canopy latches were still fastened.

The Associated Press reported:

Woman Ferry Pilot Killed

     LONG BEACH, Calif., March 22. (AP)—The army air transport command’s ferrying division has announced the death of Cornelia Fort, twenty-three-year-old Nashville, Tenn., pilot.

Miss Fort was killed, the command said, on a routine ferrying flight yesterday at Merkel, Tex. She was the second woman to sign up with the women’s auxiliary ferrying squadron, and had had 1100 hours in the air.

Cause of the accident has not been learned, the command reported.

     Fifteen months ago, a private flying instructor, Miss Fort was giving a lesson over Honolulu when the Japs attacked. Her surprised student almost piloted their plane into an enemy ship before she grabbed the controls, she related later.

Following her evacuation  from the Hawaiian islands, she joined the auxiliary ferrying squadron and was stationed here. Miss Fort was the daughter of Cornelia Clark Fort of Fortland farms, near Nashville.

Reno Evening Gazette, Vol. 77, No. 69, Monday, 22 March 1943, Page 7, Column 5

Cornelia Clark Fort was the first female pilot killed while on active duty with the United States military. She was 24 years old. Miss Fort was buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennesee.

Cornelia Clark Fort. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Cornelia Clark Fort. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Cornelia Clark Fort was born into an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee, 5 February 1919, the fourth of five children of Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort and Louise Clark Fort. Her father was a prominent surgeon who co-founded the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The family lived at Fortland, an estate east of Nashville.

Cornelia Clark Fort. (1936 Milestones)

Cornelia attended the Ward-Belmont School in Nashville, then studied at the Ogontz School in Philadelphia. (Amelia Earhart had also attended Ogontz.) In 1937, Miss Fort transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, Yonkers, New York, where she studied Literature. Miss Ford graduated 10 June 1939.

After taking a flight with a friend, Jack Caldwell, in January 1940, she pursued an interest in aviation, starting flight lessons the following day.  Miss Ford had earned her pilot certificate and flight instructor certificate by June 1940, which made her the first woman to become an instructor at Nashville. With the Civilian Pilot Training Program, she first went to Fort Collins, Colorado, where she taught for about three months, then went on to Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii.

On 7 December 1941 Cornelia Fort was practicing touch-and-goes with a student at John Rodgers Airport, near Honolulu.

Shortly before 8:00 a.m., Miss Fort saw a silver military-type airplane approaching her Cadet at high speed. She took over the flight controls from Mr. Suomala and put the trainer into a steep climb. The other airplane flew directly under, close enough that she felt the vibrations of its engine. She saw that its wings carried the “rising sun” insignia of the Empire of Japan.

Fort landed the Cadet at John Rogers Airport, which was being attacked by Japanese airplanes. Another trainer on the ground was destroyed by machine gunfire and its instructor killed.

“WAFS WELCOMED—Mrs. Nancy H. Love (left), commander, is shown in this photo greeting Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Command recruits at New Castle, Del. The fledglings are, left to right, Cornelia Fort, Helen Clark, Aline Rhonie and Betty Gillies.” (AP Wirephoto, The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), Vol. 65—No. 137, Thursday, 24 September 1942, Page 28, Columns 5–8)

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, all civilian aircraft were grounded. Cornelia Fort was able to return to the mainland United States in early 1942. In September she was one of the first 25 women accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. Miss Fort was assigned to the 6th Ferrying Group based at Long Beach, California.

Pilots of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron at Long Beach Army Airfield, 7 March 1943. Left to right, Barbara Towne, Cornelia Clark Fort, Evelyn Sharp, Barbara Erickson and Bernice Batten. The airplane is a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. (Texas Women’s University)
Pilots of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron at Long Beach Army Airfield, 7 March 1943. Left to right, Barbara Towne, Cornelia Clark Fort, Evelyn Sharp, Barbara Erickson and Bernice Batten. The airplane is a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. (Texas Women’s University)

Air & Space/Smithsonian quoted from a letter written by Fort in a January 2012 article:

“I dearly loved the airports, little and big. I loved the sky and the airplanes, and yet, best of all I loved the flying. . . I was happiest in the sky at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light.”

—Cornelia Clark Fort, 1942.

Cornelia Clark Fort’s military identification card. (Nashville Public Library)

Frank Edward Stamme, Jr., was born at Dorchester, Illinois, 3 January 1920. He was the first of four children of Frank Edward Stamme, a machinist, and Bertha Catherine Peters Stamme.

Stamme enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps at San Francisco, California, 5 November 1941. He had brown hair, gray eyes, was 6 feet, 1 inch ( meters) tall and weighed 159 pounds. Stamme was released from military service 16 January 1947. He died 19 February 1987 at San Pablo, California.

Vultee BT-13A Valiant 42-43130, the same type aircraft flown by Cornelia Fort and Frank Stamme, 21 March 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

The Vultee BT-13A Valiant was an all-metal, two-place, single engine, low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. The airplane was 28 feet, 10 inches (8.788 meters) long with a wingspan of 42 feet, 0 inches (12.802 meters) and height of 11 feet, 4-3/8 inches (3.464 meters). It had an empty weight of approximately 3,375 pounds (1,531 kilograms) and “maximum recommended flying weight” of 4,745 pounds (2,152 kilograms).

The BT-13A was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liter) Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-1, -AN-3, or R-985-25 nine-cylinder radial engine. These engines had a compression ratio of 6:1, with Normal Power ratings from 420 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. at Sea Level to 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., and 440 horsepower to 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for Takeoff. They were direct-drive engines which turned a two-bladed variable-pitch propeller. These engines were 3 feet, 6.38 inches (1.076 meters) long, 3 feet, 9.75 inches (1.162 meters) in diameter and weighed from 648 to 685 pounds (294–311 kilograms).

The BT-13A had a maximum speed (VNE) of 230 miles per hour (370 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 21,650 feet (6,599 meters) and range was 725 miles (1,167 kilometers).

Vultee built 9,525 BT-13 and BT-15 Valiant basic trainers between 1940 and 1945. Of these, 7,037 were the BT-13A and SNV-1 variant. By the end of World War II, the Vultee Valiant was considered obsolete and was replaced in U.S. service by the North American AT-6 Texan.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 thoughts on “21 March 1943

    1. Thank you for the link, an enjoyable read. Miss Fort’s description of flying is simply outstanding, they should be written on a monument somewhere.

  1. Hello Bryan, I am researching the photographic history of the lava bombings of 1935 and 1942. I am wondering where I could purchase high resolution scans of images related to this history. Who do you think would have the largest collection of such photographs?

    Love your website!

    Jean-René

    1. Thank you, Jean-René. That’s a very good question.

      Several of the photographs I found were from U.S. Government agencies, i.e., the U.S. Geophysical Survey, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Air Force. I would suggest that you try the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, although I just checked and their web site is down today because of weather. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/about/

      The National Museum of the United States Air Force would also be a good source: http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/

      Hawaii Aviation has many excellent historical photographs. They also have a Live Person who has helped search photos for me: http://aviation.hawaii.gov/

      Art Resources in New York City handles images for the Smithsonian Institution. They “license” the image, sending you a computer file. The last one I licensed from them cost around $150. http://www.artres.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=ARTHO1_3_VForm&Flash=1

      Getty Images has an incredible collection of historic images. Again, they license the image and send a downloadable file, rather than sell prints. There are very strict limitations on their use, and licenses are time-limited. My experience has been that they do not sell to individuals, only business-to-business, and they are VERY EXPENSIVE: https://www.gettyimages.com/

      Many universities and libraries have huge photograph/image collections and do sell prints. I have found them to be quite reasonable. (I assume that you would know about these. 🙂 )

      I have also been very happy with the services of the McMahan Photo Art Gallery & Archive in New York City. The quality of their prints is excellent and they are very well packaged for shipping (NOT rolled!). And not at all expensive, in my opinion. Robert McMahan may be able to help you find photos. http://www.mcmahanphoto.com/prco.html

      Planning for the 1935 volcano bombing was under Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton (later, General Patton, commanding Third United States Army during World War II.). There is the General George Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky, that might be useful: http://www.generalpatton.org/ The Patton Society Research Library might also be helpful: http://www.pattonhq.com/ And there is also a General Patton Memorial Museum in the low desert of southern California. I have never had contact with that museum, so it’s just a suggestion that you might consider: http://generalpattonmuseum.com/

      I hope you find these suggestions useful. And thank you very much for visiting “This Day in Aviation.”

      —Bryan

  2. Was there ever an interview done with Mr. Stammes to find out why he pulled that stunt which cost Miss Fort her life?

      1. I went looking for a report and started stumbling upon other versions of the story which say that Stamme and Fort were attempting formation flying, against policy and regulations, and she clipped his wheel, lost parts of her wing, and augered in pushing the engine 2 feet into the ground, the implication being that the fault was on Fort. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that this doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. On the one hand we have an experienced instructor pilot with over 1,100 hours flying time, and on the other, an FNG type with only 200+ hours flying time. In the male dominated world of 1943 I’m getting a whiff of a male dominated narrative of the accident which clears the guy that lived, and blames the girl that died. I am of the mind that a grievous error has been committed against Miss Fort. Miss Fort seemed way too dedicated to flying, her job, and her commitment to the United States in the middle of a war to engage in such careless activity. Where did you hear that Stamme did a barrel roll and tagged Fort’s plane? I would like to help you clear Miss Fort’s name if it’s possible.

        1. Ed, I do agree with you. These women certainly faced a lot of resistance. Their perseverance in the face of skepticism, obstruction, gender discrimination, etc., in the male-dominated world of military aviation, is highly commendable, and lead the way for some of today’s female combat pilots, for example, Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, currently commanding the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada, or space shuttle commander Colonel Eileen Collins.

          It has been several years since I did the original research for this article and I don’t recall the specific source. (It is my practice to use only sources that I consider to be reliable.) I will try to track it down. In Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II by Sarah Byrn Rickman, a letter from Nancy Harkness Love is quoted as saying the military investigation had “completely exonerated Cornelia of any blame.”

          The caricaturish portrayal of Miss Fort by actress Jeff Donnell in the 1970 film, “Tora, Tora, Tora!” was unflattering, to put it nicely, in my opinion.

          Thanks, Ed, for your interest in this subject.

          —Bryan

          1. I’m going to keep poking around to see what i can dig up. I’ll let you know if I find anything.
            I found your site recently as a suggestion on Facebook.
            I love it, it’s fantastic, the stories are great. You are doing a great job!
            Regards, Ed

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