Medical Air Evacuation in World War II - The Flight Nurse

At the Army Air Force School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, Ky.,
student flight nurses learned how to handle patients with the aid of a
mock-up fuselage of a Douglas C-47 transport. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Flight nurse Lt. Georgie Taylor wrestled down Captain McCurdy’s arms while Sgt. Enrique Ramirez forced him back into the seat. Apparently the captain was a poor candidate for air evacuation.

“What are you waiting for, men?” McCurdy called out. “Jump!”
Sergeant Ramirez planted his knee on the man’s lap and gripped both of the captain’s wrists in his big hands, locking him in place. “I got him.”
“I’ll get the med.” Georgie dashed down the aisle, past all the patients craning their heads to get a good look. She flung open the lid of the medication chest. A roll of gauze bandages to use for restraints, scissors, a bottle of phenobarbital. (On Distant Shores, p. 249)
In my novel On Distant Shores, the heroine serves as a flight nurse. To celebrate the book’s release, I’m running a series on medical air evacuation in World War II.

Earlier I discussed general principles of air evacuation and we followed one patient’sflight experience, and today we’ll meet the flight nurse.

Lt. Aleda Lutz of 802nd Medical Air Evacuation Transport
Squadron in C-47 in North Africa. Lt. Lutz would be killed
in a plane crash in France Nov. 1, 1944,
one of 16 flight nurses killed in service

The profession of flight nursing began in World War II. The US Army Air Force started the first training program at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky in the fall of 1942. Training was haphazard at this point, and the first two squadrons (the 801st and 802nd) were sent overseas before training was complete. The formal program ran six to nine weeks, changing throughout the war. The first class of flight nurses graduated in February 1943.

The program was named the School of Air Evacuation in June 1943 and moved from Bowman Field to Randolph Field, Texas in October 1944. The US Navy started a flight nursing program in December 1944 in Alameda, California.

In training, the nurses studied academic subjects such as aeromedical physiology. They also learned field survival, map-reading, camouflage, ditching and crash procedures, and the use of the parachute. The program included calisthenics, physical conditioning, and a bivouac in the field with simulated enemy attack.


Each Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS) was headed by a flight surgeon and chief nurse. The MAETS was divided into four flights, each led by a flight surgeon and composed of six teams of flight nurses and surgical technicians. A Headquarters section included clerks, cooks, and drivers. On July 19, 1944 the squadrons were re-designated Medical Air Evacuation Squadrons (MAES).

USAAF flight nurse uniform

The typical Army Nurse Corps uniform of white dress or a skirted suit uniform did not work in flight. Although some resisted—including in ANC leadership—the women were allowed to wear trousers. The first few squadrons improvised uniforms, often cutting down the dark blue ANC service jacket and purchasing trousers. Eventually an official flight nurse uniform was authorized—a waist-length gray-blue jacket and matching trousers and skirt, with a light blue or white blouse. In 1944, the uniform was changed to olive drab, with a khaki blouse. Depending on the climate, nurses also wore the combat airman’s heavy flight gear.

The official insignia of the flight nurse was a pair of golden wings with a maroon N superimposed. These wings were changed to silver later in the war.


The role of the flight nurse was revolutionary. No physician accompanied her on the flight, and she outranked the male surgical technician, who worked under her authority. She was trained to start IVs and oxygen, tasks reserved for physicians at the time. In addition, she was trained to deal with medical emergencies including shock, hemorrhage, and sedation. One flight nurse even performed an emergency tracheotomy using improvised equipment.

Lt. Ruth Gardiner, 805th MAETS

The primary responsibility for the lives of the patients rested on the shoulders of the flight nurses. Their emergency training was put into use in many cases throughout the war. Flight nurses and technicians successfully evacuated patients into life rafts after a ditching in the Pacific, unloaded patients from a burning plane after crash landing in North Africa, and loaded patients under enemy fire in the jungles of Burma.

One flight nurse was taken prisoner briefly by the Germans after crashing behind enemy lines, and another parachuted to safety in the mountains of China. In one dramatic incident, a plane carrying a dozen nurses from Sicily to Italy was blown off course and crash landed in Nazi-occupied Albania. With the help of Albanian partisans and Allied operatives, the crew and nurses all evaded capture and crossed snowy mountains to be rescued at the coast—a two-month ordeal. Cate Lineberry's recent book, The Secret Rescue (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013) gives an excellent account of the Albanian incident.

Sixteen flight nurses lost their lives during the war. Lt. Ruth Gardiner, 805th MAETS (pictured), was the first flight nurse killed, in a plane crash in Alaska.

Through professionalism and courage, the women who served as flight nurses in World War II saved many hundreds of lives and comforted over a million sick and wounded servicemen.


Sarnecky, Mary T. A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 1999.

Links, Mae Mills & Coleman, Hubert A. Medical Support of the Army Air Forces in World War II. Office of the Surgeon General, USAF. Washington, DC. 1955.

“Winged Angels: USAAF Flight Nurses in World War II.” On National Museum of the US Air Force website.

The World War II Flight Nurses Association. The Story of Air Evacuation: 1942-1989. Taylor Publishing Co., Dallas TX, 1989.

Website of the World War II Flight Nurse Association. Contains photos, news clippings, and PDF of The Story of Air Evacuation.

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