The WASP — Women Airforce Service Pilots — of World War II were amazing, courageous pilots. And if you’ve never heard of them, check out our 2020 episode Fly Girl. They did all kinds of non-combat flying during the war, from ferrying planes to towing targets so they could be shot at with live ammunition.
Forgive us as we go on a little history tangent about the invention of radar… Way back in the late 1800s, sailors discovered that radio waves would not go through objects, in this case ships, in the same way they would go through air or water. At the same time, scientists doing experiments with electromagnetism discovered more-or-less the same thing. This was developed into simple devices that could detect ships in the fog so as to avoid collisions.
Fast forward to the 1930s and militaries across the world were working hard to figure out how to develop and use radar systems, while not letting on what they had discovered.
This is where the WASP come in. When we talked to WASP Nell “Mickey” Bright for the Fly Girl episode, she talked about “Window Missions” that were one of her assigned duties:
“This was daytime flying, in twin engine Beech. We had shoeboxes full of chaff that the crew chief flying with us would open the door and dump this chaff out. And the purpose of that was to see if that would interfere with the radar.”
Mickey and other WASP had no idea at the time why these crew chiefs were throwing the chaff, which was usually bits of aluminum like metal ticker tape, out of their planes: “They didn’t tell us what that was for because radar at the time was very secret.”
Keeping the secret was important. Radar was used to detect planes, like those used to bomb London and other cities, and U-Boats that were taking out military and civilian ships alike. The Allies needed to test their radar capabilities, and they needed their enemies not to know how they could detect them so well.
Story credit: AirSpace from the National Air and Space Museum; https://airandspace.si.edu/