In the United States, women pilots were trained to fly non-combat missions in order to free male pilots for combat missions. They ferried planes from the manufacturing plants to military bases, and ended up doing much more -- including flying new aircraft such as the B-29, to prove to male pilots that these were not as difficult to fly as the men thought!
Well before World War II became imminent, women had made their mark as pilots. Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, Bessie Coleman and Harriet Quimby were only a few of the women record-holders in aviation.
In 1939, women were allowed to be part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a program designed to train college students to fly, with an eye to national defense. But women were limited by quota to one woman for every ten men in the program.
Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love separately proposed the use by the military of women. Cochran lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt, writing a 1940 letter urging that a women's division of the Air Force be established especially to ferry planes from manufacturing plants to military bases.
With no such American program supporting the Allies in their war effort, Cochran and 25 other American women pilots joined the British Air Transportation Auxiliary. Shortly after, Nancy Harkness Love was successful in getting the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) established, and a few women were hired. Jackie Cochran returned to establish the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).
On August 5, 1943, these two efforts -- WAFS and WFTD -- merged to become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Cochran as director. More than 25,000 women applied -- with requirements including a pilot's license and many hours experience. The first class graduated on December 17, 1943. The women had to pay their own way to the training program in Texas. A total of 1830 were accepted into training and 1074 women graduated from WASP training during its existence, plus 28 WAFS. The women were trained "the Army way" and their graduation rate was similar to that for male military pilots.
The WASP was never militarized, and those who served as WASP were considered civil service employees. There was considerable opposition to the WASP program in the press and in Congress. General Henry "Hap" Arnold, US Army Air Force commander, first supported the program, then disbanded it. The WASP was deactivated December 20, 1944, having flown about 60 million miles in operations. Thirty-eight WASP were killed, including some during training.
Records of WASP were classified and sealed, so historians minimized or ignored the women pilots. In 1977 -- the same year the Air Force graduated its first post-WASP women pilots -- Congress granted veteran status to those who had served as WASP, and in 1979 issued official honorable discharges.
Wings Across America is a project to tape memories of WASP.
Note: WASP is the correct use even in the plural for the program. WASPs is incorrect, because the "P" stands for "Pilots" so it's already plural.