Flying with Fifinella: A Visit to the WASP Museum

FifinellaMain
A statue of Fifinella, the guardian sprite of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) looks over the planes, images and other artifacts at the WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas. Image: Rick Tate

My family and I were heading home from our Spring Break trip in the Dallas area, and wanted to break up the drive with an overnight stay in Sweetwater, Texas. We were doing our best to make it before 5 p.m., because I had to see Fifinella.

Sweetwater isn’t a large town, and is currently best known as the “Wind Energy Capital” where more than 500 giant wind turbines can be see on the mesa outside of town.

However, when World War II was in full swing, Sweetwater was home to Avenger Field, and Avenger Field was the training home of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). These women helped inspire a generation of girls who, because of them, knew they could take to the skies in service to their nation.

Since 2005, the site houses an information-packed National WASP WWII Museum, which pays honor to their service and legacy. It also features prominently the WASP mascot, Fifinella.

The WASP was established by famed aviator and racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran (the first woman to break the sound barrier), and Nancy Love, as a combination of Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Women’s Flying Training Detachment. Their first training site was in Houston before moving to Sweetwater. The program was active from November 1942 to December 1944.

Fifinella’s story also began in 1942. When author Roald Dahl had to leave the RAF due to an injury, he wrote about the dangers of combat flying in The Gremlins, published in 1943 for Walt Disney Productions. The Gremlins had already been the legendary scapegoats for aviation malfunctions, and the word “fifinella” referred to all female gremlins.

Disney had intended to create an animated film based on these creatures, but that never came to be. When the WASPs asked Disney if Fifinella could be their mascot, he granted them the rights and gave her a special design. She was soon adorning flight jackets and noses of bombers. There was also an Order of Fifinella Award for outstanding service to the WASP.

We made it to the museum just around 4:45 p.m., and the guide, a young graphic artist with a passion for this group’s history, was more than happy to let us come in and take a look. Since the museum was near closing, we were the only ones there, and she stayed with us to share information and answer questions about any of the displays.

A look into the living quarters for the WASP member during training.

The museum has some wonderful static displays for aviation lovers including the Stearman PT-17, Fairchild PT-19, and Valient BT-13 planes, as well as a set up of a WASP Sleeping Bay. Most importantly were the displayed portraits around the hangar of pretty much every WASP member, letting us see the faces behind these brave women.

There is also a large set of WASP handprints made by former WASPs made during a reunion held at the museum.

Our guide said there were a least two plane types every WASP had to master, and both can be seen at the museum. Some of them became experienced pilots in more than 75 different aircraft types, ranging from trainers to fighter planes to bombers. That’s impressive for any pilot, even today.

This wasn’t just a group of enthusiastic volunteers, these women had to meet some strict criteria, and be able to keep up with the rigorous training program to qualify. According to our guide, around 24,000 women signed up for the program, but only 1,102 made it into this elite group.

Jobs included ferrying aircraft, acting as tow-target gunnery pilots, test pilots, and trainers. They operated out of at least 110 air bases nationwide and flew more than 65 million miles. Although they did not participate in combat, they were part of some very dangerous missions. In total, 38 WASPS were killed serving their country.

This group isn’t to be confused with the women and men of the current-day United States Air Force. The WASPs were considered civil servants at the time, and many of them had to leave the program if they were needed to run the household back home. Despite Army Air Forces Commanding General “Hap” Arnold championing for them to be given official military status, it was not until 1977 they were granted well-deserved and long-overdue veteran status.

In 2010 their contributions to their nation and the free world were rewarded with the Congressional Gold Medal, which is on display at the museum.

Our guide told us there are still a few living WASPs today, the youngest in her mid-90s and the oldest having passed 100 years of age. They are anticipating their next Homecoming at the museum this year on May 25. Good for them.

WASP members came from all over the country.

These women loved their fellow members, their country, the contributions they made to the war effort, and their Fifinella.

In a document I found on an old Texas Portal site, sculptor France A. Withers talked about the Fifi award she designed for the Order of Fifinella.

“Walt Disney was so intrigued with the work of the WASPS that he dreamed up their patron saint, a dainty little sprite they call ‘Fifinella,'” she said. “She is the sister of the ‘gremlin,’ but unlike her prank playing brother, she is a kind hearted little elf who helped the WASPs out of tight spots.”

Everywhere you look in the museum’s hangar, there were images of Fifinella.

A large-scale version of Withers’ statue created in 1976 is a favorite photo op at the WASP museum. We certainly took a few images, and our guide also confirmed “Fifi” was the opposite of her male counterparts. She was a fixer and a guardian.

Some of the items she can be seen on at the museum, include nosecone art, handmade items such as blown glass figure donated by a former WASP member during the 2015 reunion, and on an American Girl doll outfit available for the now-retired WWII era doll, Molly. Former WASPS also donated other items, and one member even offered an oral history video of her experiences with the program.

There are plenty of items featuring the museum’s Fifinella logo available for purchase, from shirts to magnets. We picked up a few smaller items, particularly since proceeds go toward helping create a bigger and better facility to honor the WASP. They are currently housed in the former Sweetwater Municipal Airport hangar built in 1929, but are working to expand and upgrade their areas in a new climate-controlled hangar.

The Tate girls ready to do their part for the war effort. The hangar to their right is part of the museum’s new expansion-progress.

This wasn’t the biggest or most elaborate air museum I’ve been to, but the contributions, abilities, and service of these women will leave a giant impact on anyone who visits. It’s nice to know that Fifinella is there in artistic form and spirit quietly keeping watch over their incredible legacy.

The museum is open everyday but Monday. Admission is by donation, and “Fifi” shirts and other items can be found at waspmuseum.org.

Pretty much all the merchandise available at the museum celebrated their winged mascot.
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