NANCY HARKNESS LOVE
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
I am going to take the next three articles to tell a story, so please bear with me. This is a story with which most women pilots in America will be familiar. However, in my opinion, it is a story that all should know. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
In order to tell this story properly, we need to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!). Let me introduce you to Nancy, nee Hannah Lincoln, Harkness. She was born on February 14, 1914, to Robert Bruce and Alice Graham Harkness. Her father was a successful physician in the small town of Houghton, Michigan. She enjoyed the privileges that come with affluence, including all the best schools. When she was 13, she spent a year traveling and studying in Europe, and was in the crowd witnessing Charles Lindgergh’s triumphant landing at Le Bourget.
In the summer of 1930, a pair of barnstorming pilots came to Houghton. They advertised, “A penny a pound and up you go!” She scraped her pennies together and took her first flight. She loved every minute of that flight, and even before they landed she was figuring how to scrape up the money to fly again. She knew she wanted to learn to fly.
Her parents were not enthusiastic about her plan. They had always encouraged their children to ‘show spunk,’ but flying lessons were not what they had in mind. Her mother was truly opposed to the idea. She did not think flying was something becoming to a well-bred young lady. Nancy was persistent and ultimately won their approval.
Once she convinced her parents to let her take flying lessons, she earned her pilot’s license within a month. Her lessons were in a decrepit old Fleet airplane. Her instructor, Jimmy Hanson, was only two years older than she, and was not very experienced. Later, she said, “I don’t think he knew what made the plane stay in the air. At least he never told me. My instructions were to just ‘keep up the flying speed.” She was determined to complete her instruction before returning to school. On November 7, 1930, at age 16 1/2, she was issued her private pilot’s license. She was ecstatic!
The first thing she did after getting her license was to take two friends on a flight from Boston to Poughkeepsie, to visit friends at Vassar College. The weather was not good, and only got worse. With just 15 total flight hours to her credit at the time, she could not properly read the magnetic compass. Things went from bad to worse, and the oil gauge broke. She knew she must land and made what she later called a “precarious landing.” The passengers and airplane were were unhurt. (Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing!) However, she recognized that she had made some serious mistakes on that flight and decided to learn from her experience. She knew she must spend time developing her skills. She would never again overestimate her abilities.
Nancy entered Vassar in the fall of 1931. While a student at Vassar, she would rent an airplane and earn pocket money taking other students flying. On one flight, she flew so low over the campus that people on the ground were able to read the registration numbers on the airplane. When word of this adventure reached the school officials, they were not amused. That caused a two week suspension, and she was forbidden to fly for the remainder of that semester.
By the end of her freshman year, in 1932, Nancy had her commercial license. She received national attention, and was dubbed, “The Flying Freshman!”
Unfortunately, while Nancy’s father was a successful doctor, he was not as good a businessman, and the family suffered financial problems during the Great Depression. It became clear, in 1934, that she would not be able to complete her junior year, due to the family’s financial situation.
She moved to Boston and was hired by “Inter-City Air Service.” The small flying service offered everything, flight instruction, charter service, aerial surveying, and selling new airplanes. While working on commission, demonstrating and selling airplanes, one of her customers was Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Actually, he seemed to be more interested in looking for a wife for his son, whom he hoped would become president of the United States. That was probably his first son, Joseph Kennedy, Jr, who was killed in WWII. She was not interested as she was already looking forward to marrying the owner of the company, Robert Love, an Air Corps Reserve Major. She was also working for the Bureau of Air commerce, which assigned her and two other women pilots to mark cities across the United States to facilitate air navigation. They began to mark water towers with the names of the cities and towns. She also served as a test pilot for Gwinn Aircar Company in Buffalo, performing safety checks on various airplane modifications and innovations.
When Robert and Nancy married, in 1936, the society headlines were effusive. One Boston headline declared, “Beautiful Aviatrix Weds Dashing Air Corps Officer.” Another shouted, “The Romance Of The Glamorous Young Society Couple Meets The Romance Of The Sky.” The marriage helped put Nancy in a perfect position to further her career in flying.
In May of 1940, Nancy had the idea of having women ferry airplanes from the factories to military bases. This would free up the many men who were doing the ferrying. She wrote to Lt. Col. Robert Olds, who was in charge of the ferrying operations within the Army Air Corps. She said that she had 49 experienced women pilots, all of whom had at least 1,000 flying hours, and would be able to take over the ferrying, freeing the men for wartime duty. Lt. Col. Olds took her suggestion to Gen. Hap Arnold, Chief of Staff, and it was turned down.
In 1942, her husband was called into active duty in washington D. C. He was appointed the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Ferry Command. Nancy accompanied him and was able to get a civilian job with the Air Transport Command (ATC), Ferrying Division Operations Office in Baltimore. One morning, her husband and Col. William Tunner, who headed the domestic wing of the Ferrying Division, were chatting and Robert mentioned that she would probably be late for work, commenting that the weather would delay her flight. He went on to explain that she flew her plane from D. C. to Baltimore each day. About that same time, Col. Tunner was scouring the country for experienced domestic pilots. She was in the right place at the right time!
Nancy was able to talk to him about using women pilots in ferrying airplanes. He listened, and she was able to convince him that experienced women could do a lot toward relieving the men for other duties. He asked her to write a proposal, which she happy to do. Within just a few months she had recruited 29 experienced women pilots to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), with Nancy as their Commander. In September 1942, the women pilots began flying at New Castle Army Air Field, Wilmington, Delaware, under ATC’s 2nd Ferrying Group. The women had an average of 1,100 flying hours, high-horsepower ratings, and commercial pilot’s licenses. They were to remain civil servants because they were needed immediately and it would take time for Congress to pass legislation giving them commissions in the military. This first group of women were called the “Originals.”
Unfortunately, the media were much more interested in Nancy’s beauty than in her flying skills and leadership abilities. The War Department tried to tone down the publicity, but as today, the media had their own agenda. Nancy wanted her group taken seriously because they were giving serious service to the country. She cautioned the women that their personal conduct must be above reproach in order for them to succeed. That elite group of women pilots worked hard to ensure their success. They would not let her down.
While stationed in Dallas, Nancy was checked out in a North American P-51 Mustang, the military’s ‘hottest’ fighter airplane. After moving on to Long Beach, she also flew B-17s. In the summer of 1943, the British requested delivery of one hundred B-17s for a major offensive. Nancy, and her close friend Betty Gillies, prepared to ferry one, called ‘The Queen Bee,’ across the Atlantic to Britain. Nancy and Betty were the first women to be qualified in the Flying Fortress and had already made three domestic deliveries. Col. Tunner had been ordered to advance the WAFS capabilities, so he cleared the two women for the delivery, and assigned his personal navigator to the flight. The crew picked up the ‘Queen Bee’ in Cincinnati and flew it to Goose Bay, Labrador, in Canada. While waiting for their clearance to Prestwick, Scotland, General Hap Arnold heard of their assignment. He immediately issued an order that they “Cease and desist.” He said “No WAFS will fly outside the contiguous U.S.” The two women were bitterly disappointed that politics had interfered with their mission, but they shut down the engines.
The next article will deal with Jacqueline Cochran the development of her group of women, known as the Women’s Flying training Detachment (WFTDs), then how those two groups were merged into what became known as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). I certainly hope you will come back to read more of this important history of early women military pilots. These women were, and are, true heros!!!