By: Captain Nancy Aldrich
Nancy Hopkins is another obscure, but interesting early aviatrix. She was born in 1909, to Alfred Francis and Anne Hopkins. She was named after her aunt, Lady Nancy Astor. She was a bit of a blue blood. Her father was from the family that started Johns Hopkins University, and her mother’s uncle was the creator of the famous “Gibson Girl.”
As a child she was fascinated with airplanes and aviation. She took her first airplane ride when she was 18, in November of 1927. She is quoted as saying, “Ever since I was in high school, I had just one determination – to fly!” She also commented that as a female, she did not get much encouragement. However, she was determined and was able to earn her limited commercial pilot’s license, # 5889, in 1929, at Roosevelt Field, in New York. Always seeking adventure, she flew down Pennsylvania Avenue over the Inaugural Parade for Herbert Hoover. (That might have contributed to some of the flight restrictions that are now in place). As a young socialite, she received quite a bit of publicity. Even Ernie Pyle wrote feature stories about her.
Nancy moved to Long Island in 1930, and started working at the Old Curtiss Field. There she met and worked with George C. Dade, another lover of aviation. Dade later founded the Cradle of Aviation Museum.
While working there, she was able to continue her flying lessons and became quite proficient. She entered the Women’s Dixie Derby, which was a 2,000 mile air race from Washington D. C. to Chicago. In that race, she flew her Viking Kitty Hawk B4, NC30V.
After that race, she was invited to enter the 1930 Ford Reliability Tour. This was one of the most famous aviation events of the 1920s. It was started in 1924 by Edsel Ford, and was promoted to prove the reliability of Ford produced airplanes. Ford wanted to show that his fixed-wing airplanes were so reliable they could keep a schedule in any weather. By 1930, the tour had been so successful that they expanded it to a 5,000 mile race. The tour had a daily schedule that had to be maintained. For instance, the first day started in Dearborn, Michigan, then to Kalamazoo for lunch, on to Chicago for the first overnight. The next day, Milwaukee, Eau Claire,Wausau, etc. The tour lasted sixteen days and flew through all kinds of weather and all kinds of terrain, even the Rocky Mountains. The route in 1930 was a huge loop that went as far north as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan before turning back south toward Enid, Oklahoma. From there ti went through southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, then back to Dearborn, Michigan where it had started. You were expected to show that you could keep your schedule no matter what.
While flying over the Mississippi River, about 40 miles from Memphis, Nancy’s 90 hp Kinner B5 engine made a hard sound and instantly cut out. The prop windmilled to a stop, leaving one blade sticking up in front of the cockpit. All of a sudden, there was silence instead of the roar of that big radial engine. Now there was only the sound of the wind whistling through the flying wires. She described the incident, “I just made a big circle. I was used to landing in small fields. I landed in the back of a little shack, tree stumps all around, hit an irrigation ditch, and blew a tire. But the main thing was to see what was wrong. I pulled the propeller, checked out the cylinders and found the problem. I went to work with a screwdriver and some wire, and it started right up. All I could think about was the great shop course back in Central High School, and how glad I was to take it.” She kept her schedule that day! Flying out of the stump filled field, she finished fourteenth out of nineteen pilots. Quite a feat for a 22 year old young woman.
That incident put her out of the running for the top eight on the tour, but she was still able to catch up with the rest of the tour in time for dinner that evening. She had done very well, considering that she was alone in the plane and there was no one around to help her. She did receive $200 for completing the tour.
The Reliability was one of her last serious venture into competitive flying. Shortly after, in 1931 she married Irving V. Tier, who owned a fleet of airplanes. She continued to fly while raising three children. She entered the Meridian Speed Race in 1932, and even competed in 1971. She was one of the first women to fly solo from sea so shining sea, in 1933.
In 1931, shortly after marrying Tier, she came close to losing her life while flying. At an altitude of 1,000 ft, her Kitty Hawk stalled and entered a flat spin. The airflow over the tail of was blocked making it impossible to recover from the spin. She decided to parachute out of the airplane. She stepped out of the cockpit and onto the wing preparing to jump, which changed the balance of the airplane. That, along with the drag she created by standing on the wing, stopped the spinning. She climbed back into the cockpit and recovered from the dive at 200 ft. It was a very close call, and made the New York Times. After that, the Viking Company offered her a job as their spokeswoman.
In 1942, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, and served for more than 18 years.
She flew bomb patrols during WWII, and became the first female Wing Commander. She flew the first day covers of the Amelia Earhart stamp from Atchison, Kansas to New York City, when it was issued in 1962. The covers were presented to the then Mayor Wagner. In 1976, C. W Post University honored her for her achievements, as did the Wings Club, in 1983. She was recognized for her outstanding service to the Civil Air Patrol, in 1981, and was elected to the Pioneer Women In Aviation Hall of Fame, in 1992, and was an honorary member of the United States Air Force’s 38th Strategic Missile Wing. In addition, she was a charter member of The Ninety-Nines. To her, one of the most important achievements was the creation of the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, and she presided as the museum’s president on its opening day in March 1986. She continued to serve as president until 1994. When Nancy passed away in 1997, we lost quite a lady!
The history of aviation is full of wonderful stories, and I enjoy recounting some of them here. I hope that you are learning a little and gaining a better appreciation of the important role that women have played in the field of aviation.
If you enjoyed reading this, I would appreciate a little note or comment.
OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH PSALMS 124:8
Nancy Welz Aldrich
Available for speaking engagements