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Congress Honors Female Pilots From WWII

March 10, 2010
San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.

Alma L. Fornal stepped away from the bowling lane to explain why she is being honored Wednesday in Washington.

"I was a test pilot on the AT-6 and I flew a B-26 Marauder towing a gunnery target over the Gulf of Mexico," the Highland woman said during an interview last week.

During World War II, Fornal was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and she's justifiably proud of it, though the U.S. government took a long time getting around to recognizing the work of the ladies who played a major role in winning the war and helped pave the way for women in the military.

Congress is attempting to make up for lost time, inviting Fornal and the 200-plus surviving WASPs to Washington, D.C., where they will be awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda.

Last week at the Del Rosa Lanes, Fornal -- who will be 90 in July -- was bowling with her league, The Young in Heart.

She scored at least three strikes and two spares and did high fives with her teammates. Asked the name of her team, she said, "We're No. 6. We're not very creative."

To call her spry, would be a disservice. This active woman also plays tennis and sails.

There were 25,000 applicants when the WASPs was created. Only 1,900 were accepted and just 1,078 earned their wings.

And it was a dangerous business. Thirty-Eight of the women died in service.

Asked about close calls during her time as a WASP, Fornal said, "No. I was very lucky."

In 1977, the WASP survivors finally were awarded the GI Bill of Rights, which in addition to home-buying and education assistance, guaranteed them medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fornal had high praise for Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the wartime President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General H.H. (Hap) Arnold and famed woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran, all of whom aided in the creation of the WASP.

"Women can do that," Fornal quoted the former First Lady as saying.

The primary requirement for WASP recruits was that they have a pilot's license, which Fornal did. Born on a Texas ranch out of Morgan, she attended the University of Arkansas and learned to fly. She was teaching in business college when the call came from the WASP.

WASP training was just like the military.

"We marched everywhere and we didn't have much time (for social life)," Fornal said.

While serving at the base in Sweetwater, Texas, male pilots from a base near Abilene would make forced landings at Sweetwater to get a chance to meet the WASPs.

"That didn't go on long," she said. "A general heard about it and put an end to it."

Her first love of the planes she flew was the AT-6, which was built to train fighter pilots. She went through basic, primary and advanced flying school while a WASP and was transferred to Kendall Field, Fla., where she piloted the B-26 Marauder, a powerful twin-engine medium bomber with a 71-foot wingspan and 1,900 horsepower engines.

In combat the Marauder carried a crew of seven. Her Marauder carried a crew of three: Pilot, copilot and a male soldier who handled deploying and retracting the target.

"They wouldn't let us do it," she laughed.

When the WASP were disbanded, "They didn't even pay our way home," Fornal said.

She stayed at the base as an instructor on the Link Trainer, a flight simulator used to teach instrument flying. It was then, she met and married her husband, the late Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Fornal, who served in the Inspector General's Office and, after retirement, completed a second career with Northrup Grumman and TRW in the space program.

Alma Fornal said she didn't do much flying after the WASP but did learn to fly a float plane and take off and land on water. A few times, pilots offered to let her take the controls but mostly she declined. The one time she didn't, she flew the plane for a while but told the pilot he would have to land.

Fornal's daughter, Jean Hitchman is with Northrup Grumman. Her son, John Fornal, is a construction superintendent with Matich Corp. She has two grandchildren.

The family is accompanying her to Washington for the big day.

Fornal was packing on Friday and said she had just received a telephone call from a woman Air Force sergeant, who will be her escort while in the nation's capital. Fornal said the she was pleased by the attention and it was noticeable in her voice.

Photographs from her days in the WASP show a petite girl-next-door-type. She says she was 5-4 and about 120 pounds back then.

"I never was skinny," she said, adding: "Fortunately, I've been healthy. That's the important thing."

Her home is in a gated community in Highland and she has a condo in Carlsbad, which she visits on a regular basis.

"Kids of the WASPs still have no understanding of what we went through," Fornal said. "I have sent some of my memorabilia to Texas Women's University, which has an archive." WASPs with local ties who were killed in service

The plane and body of Gertrude Vreeland Tompkins Silver have never been recovered. She departed what is now Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 16, 1944 at the controls of a P-51D Mustang headed east. She never arrived at her destination, Palm Springs. Her family believes she went down in Santa Monica Bay or due west of the end of the runway at LAX.

WASP Marie Michell Robinson was training and flying co-pilot on a B-25 Mitchell bomber at then-Victorville Army Air Base, when the plane went into a flat spin and wasn't able to recover. An instructor was at the controls.

Dorothy Scott was sent to Palm Springs Army Air Field for pursuit plane training. It was Dec. 3, 1943, when she was in the rear seat of an AT-6 which was set up to resemble an actual fighter cockpit. She and an instructor were cleared to land at the same time as a P-39 Cobra. The air controller neglected to consider that the Cobra was a faster plane. It came in and landed on Scott's AT-6 without ever seeing it.

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