Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort

Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort

by Rob Simbeck

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In Daughter of the Air, Rob Simbeck paints a vivid portrait of Army pilot Cornelia Fort—a passionate, brave, intelligent, and charming woman—and provides insight into the political and social atmosphere of her era. He cites Fort’s letters and diaries, various historical documents, and interviews of people who knew her personally and also

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In Daughter of the Air, Rob Simbeck paints a vivid portrait of Army pilot Cornelia Fort—a passionate, brave, intelligent, and charming woman—and provides insight into the political and social atmosphere of her era. He cites Fort’s letters and diaries, various historical documents, and interviews of people who knew her personally and also flew with her.

Cornelia Fort’s (1919-1943) barrier-breaking life included membership in the first trained women’s flight squadron, the WAFS. In a remarkable coincidence of fate, she was flying over Oahu on the morning of December 7, 1941, and was one of the few to witness the bombing of Pearl Harbor from the air. Her brief career was marked by the prejudices of the era toward women pilots.

Raised on her parent’s Nashville estate and educated at a prestigious finishing school, Fort cast off her role as a member of Southern aristocracy to become a pilot. She persevered in her courageous career despite rampant prejudice toward women, noting "because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the Army, all of us realized what a spot we were in. We had to deliver the goods or else." Tragically, it was a male pilot’s practical joke that clipped her wing and sent Fort into a fatal spin. This biography is a must read for historians, military specialists, or those interested in the role of women in the military.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This slim volume documents the U.S. Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, a group of pilots who delivered aircraft wherever they were needed in North America during World War II. Simbeck tells the story through Cornelia Fort, the Sarah Lawrence–educated Southern belle who was the second woman to enlist and the first to be killed in the line of duty. The text is thoroughly grounded in Fort’s own words and in the recollections of her family and friends. . . . [T]his is an informally written, well-documented portrait of a fascinating, little-known figure.” —Barbara Ann Hutcheson, Library Journal “Simbeck effectively captures the seriousness and dedication with which Fort and her colleagues approached flying, and the camaraderie that developed between them.” —Publishers Weekly “[T]ouching and entertaining." —The Daily Oklahoman "It's a rare person whose life is worth a biography after having lasted just twenty-four years. But as the first woman pilot to die in the service of her country in World War II, Cornelia Fort certainly qualifies.... Rob Simbeck's interviews with women who flew with her and knew her well, along with his use of her ample letters and assiduously kept diary, present a chapter in the nation's history that has waited more than half a century to be told." —Julie Dear, The Washington Post "An unusual story of a gallant young spirit who loved her country and died in its service." —Kirkus Reviews "Far more than just a tale of a fascinating and rebellious woman. Daughter of the Air provides an accounting of issues that would give rise to the modern women's liberation movement as well as of the conflicts faced by the U.S. military over the presence of women in the ranks." —Willy Stern, Business Week
The family of Cornelia Fort, a society girl, had hoped she would go to college and then marry, but Cornelia fell in love with planes when she went up in a two-seater for fun and decided that she wanted to fly airplanes for a career. Her career as an army pilot was short—she was the victim of an accident in the air. She was the first woman pilot to die while on active duty in the United States. She was only 24. The narrative is enhanced by her diaries and letters, which bring to life what a long, hard road women pilots had to follow to become as respected as the men pilots. Anyone with an interest in flying will enjoy reading about this courageous young woman. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Publishers Group West, Grove Press, 263p. illus. notes. index., $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Barbara Jo McKee; Libn/ Media Dir., Streetsboro H.S., Stow, OH , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)

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Transaction Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Daughter of the Air

The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort
By Rob Simbeck

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 1999 Rob Simbeck
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-3791-1

Chapter One

Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort was not a man given to self-doubt. The square-jawed, steely-eyed squire of Nashville's sprawling Fortland Farm saw no reason to doubt himself, his accomplishments, or his opinions. The son of one of the region's most storied families and a success at both medicine and business, he had become the perfect picture of everything the post-Reconstruction South had hoped it could be. His was a world with dignity and calm self-assurance as its bedrock.

After his graduation from Vanderbilt University Medical School in 1894, he rose swiftly to prominence, becoming chief surgeon and superintendent of Nashville City Hospital by the time he was twenty-five. He founded and ran his own fifty-bed hospital, the Fort Infirmary, where many of the city's young doctors and nurses did their intern work. He served on the boards of several others and was soon named president of the Tennessee Board of Health. He was chief surgeon for the Tennessee Central Railroad, providing care in his own converted railroad car, and his articles were widely published in medical journals.

But it was in the insurance business that Rufus Fort made his real mark. In 1902, when he was barely thirty, he was one of five foundersand initial stockholders of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which quickly grew into one of the nation's largest debit insurance firms. The firm sold its "penny policies" door-to-door in many cases, and Dr. Fort and his partners turned their $10,000 investment into a money machine of a company that was eventually worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the process, they helped put Nashville on the financial map.

Dr. Fort inspired loyalty and respect in the hearts of many; people told and retold stories of the early days when he made house calls in his two-horse carriage, driven by a black man named Charles, sometimes performing operations on patients' kitchen tables. Tall and imposing, he could also inspire fear and awe in the hearts of others, from acquaintances at the ultra-exclusive Belle Meade Country Club to those who worked with and under him.

Dr. Fort had earned a reputation as something of an autocrat. He held a firm grip on life at Fortland, his 365-acre estate on the Cumberland River, four miles east of downtown Nashville. His black houseman, Epperson Bond, might relay his orders to the other servants or to the field hands, but there was never any doubt as to who was giving them. Epperson spoke for Dr. Fort, and Dr. Fort's word was law.

It was the same way with the Fort children, whose privileged existence was tempered by the steady diet of hard work their father demanded. In 1924, there were four of them: Rufus Jr., thirteen, tall, thin, and serious; Dudley, twelve, easygoing and athletic; Garth, ten, red-haired and affable; and Cornelia, five, already gangly and tomboyish. With her open smile and blue eyes peeking out from under an unruly mound of thick, curly, reddish-blond hair, Cornelia could soften her father, if only a little, in a way her brothers could not. Dr. Fort, who was then fifty-two, did not exactly dote on her-he didn't really dote on anyone then-but he did seem to be amused by her straightforward spirit.

From time to time Epperson, who doubled as chauffeur, would take Cornelia with him when he drove into Nashville to pick up Dr. Fort after work. Invariably, she would ask her father to stop at the drugstore to buy her a treat. When he declined, she could generally win him over by challenging his gruff reluctance with a sweet, "But that's what daddies are for, isn't it?"

From an early age, Cornelia saw Dr. Fort precisely as he wished to be seen-as provider and lawgiver. He made it a practice to listen to his children's opinions on any number of matters, but all decisions were his. It was that way with chores. It was that way with schooling. And, in the summer of 1924, it was that way with flying.

A quarter of the way into the new century, Dr. Fort had already passed solemn judgment on the airplane. He had built a life, a fortune, and a reputation on hard work and intelligent calculation. He was not one to trifle with a whimsical piece of machinery. He had not even learned to drive a car-Epperson did his driving for him-and he was not about to be tempted by this rickety airborne toy of the flyboy adventurers.

Aviation seemed the life-threatening pastime of dreamers and ne'er-do-wells; for proof, Dr. Fort could point to Jersey Ringel and his Flying Circus, whose appearance at the 1921 Tennessee State Fair had been widely publicized in and around Nashville.

Dr. Fort owned a thriving herd of Jersey cattle that regularly won blue ribbons at venues like the fair, which was a prime showcase for agricultural products of all kinds. And it was there, amid the preserves and quilts, the sideshows, barkers, and games, the band concerts, trapeze acts, jugglers, and clowns, the parades of Confederate and Spanish- American war veterans, the Tunnel of Love, the Ferris wheel and nickel merry-go-round, the cotton candy, hamburgers, and muscadine punch, that Ringel had left the grandstand gasping.

He took off from a nearby farm in the passenger seat of a Curtiss "Jenny." Officially the JN-4-D, the Jenny was a 90-horsepower World War I biplane that could be picked up cheaply after the war and was a mainstay of the profession-if, in the early twenties, you could call aviation a profession. More accurately, it was simply an excuse for a group of daredevils to thrill themselves and others until, as often as not, they were killed or crippled. They went from town to town performing loops and rolls and spins in planes constructed of wood, wire, and fabric and held together by sewing kits, hammers, and wishful thinking. These barnstormers alternately amazed and horrified the crowds that gathered to watch them. Astonishingly enough, though, the same crowds usually contained a few foolhardy souls willing to pay for the chance to be taken aloft. Dr. Fort knew that sort of fool existed, and he had no patience with fools.

Ringel teetered into sight standing on the tiny plane's top wing, which stretched maybe 30 feet from end to end. The Jenny, piloted by Billy Brock of Chattanooga, swept low past the grandstand, and then circled. Ringel, waving to the crowd and balancing himself-without a parachute-seemed to defy every God-given instinct he possessed. He walked to one end of the wing, hooked his knees around a wing-tip skid, and hung there, arms waving in the wind. In a moment, another Jenny flew into position just above the first, a rope ladder swinging from its landing gear. The crowd held its breath as Ringel, sure enough, grabbed the rope and pulled himself up onto the lower wing of the second plane, got his balance, and stood motionless, his arms grasping the wing above him, as the plane did a loop.

Finally, he climbed into the front seat as the plane gained altitude and then, after a moment's hesitation, fell slowly into a nosedive. The engine went silent and the plane plummeted toward the crowd, as thousands of people, not sure whether this was planned or not, wondered if they should scramble toward the exits. At the last possible moment the engine started and the plane roared to life, leveling off just over the heads of the crowd and soaring away. It was joined by the original Jenny, and the crowd, its collective heart stilled and restarted, cheered, watching as the planes headed back toward the field they'd come from, magical specks growing smaller and smaller in the afternoon sky.

This kind of thing did not amuse Dr. Fort. Like it or not, though, the Jersey Ringels of the world were aviation's ambassadors, the romantic drifters who were gradually making the airplane a part of the American spirit.

The barnstormers may not have been the only reason for Dr. Fort's aversion to airplanes. During World War I, he was chairman of the draft examining board, and it is likely he had seen Nashville boys coming back wounded or killed after crashes. As an insurance executive, he knew a foolish risk when he saw one. He decided that aviation would have no part in his sons' lives.

This had been the "war to end all wars," but there could always be another one, he reasoned. He already had planned for his sons to attend military school. If they were ever called to war, they would go as officers, not enlisted men. His boys would not be cannon fodder, and they certainly would not be daredevils dropping from the skies as their airplanes sputtered nose-down over battlefields. Forts did not do such things. Yet Dr. Fort suspected that aviation, still in its infancy, might turn into an even stronger temptation as it matured.

And so, one afternoon in the summer of 1924, Dr. Fort called his sons into his study at Fortland. As Rufus Jr., Dudley, and Garth lined up, Dr. Fort brought out the family Bible. "I want you boys to put your hands on this Bible," he said, "and promise me you will never fly." Solemnly, each of the boys did as instructed, putting his hand on the Bible and taking the oath.

Cornelia stood in the hallway just outside the door. Her father had seen no reason to involve her in this ceremony. Cornelia, after all, was only five, and it was ludicrous to think a southern girl of her station would ever think of riding in a plane, let alone piloting one.

Still, Cornelia was drawn to the doorway. She waited, wide-eyed, as her brothers, each in his turn, faced their father. She listened as they made their promises. And, standing silently, she took in every word.


Excerpted from Daughter of the Air by Rob Simbeck Copyright © 1999 by Rob Simbeck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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