Nancy Harkness was born in 1914 in Michigan, situated in the Great Lakes region of the USA. The Harkness family was quite wealthy and Nancy’s parents encouraged her to pursue any interests she developed. When Nancy was sixteen years old, barnstorming pilots arrived at Houghton, her home town, and offered to take interested onlookers on flights. Nancy quickly became one of their passengers and instantly fell in love with flying. Even before the aircraft had landed, she determined that she was going to learn to fly. After convincing her parents to sponsor her flying lessons, Nancy earned her Private Pilot’s Licence in one month. On one occasion, whilst attending an all girls’ school, Nancy decided to fly low over the neighbouring boys’ school. She buzzed the buildings through the middle of the campus and only just avoided crashing into the school’s chapel. The only reason Nancy was not suspended for that incident, was that although students weren’t allowed to drive cars on school campuses, there were not any rules forbidding students to fly aircraft.
She later earned her Commercial Pilot’s Licence before joining an organisation for woman pilots, called the ‘Ninety-Nines’, founded by none other than Amelia Earhart. The Great Depression of the 1930s severely affected the Harkness family’s finances, so Nancy had to abandon her tertiary studies in order to find a job. Initially, Nancy was employed as an aircraft salesperson, but the first real opportunity to further her flying career was when the Bureau of Air Commerce chose her to participate in the national air marking programme. The purpose of the programme was to establish navigation aids for pilots at major cities in the USA.
In 1936, Nancy married Major Robert Love, an Air Corps Reserve pilot. Together they managed her husband’s company, Inner-City Aviation. Nancy’s duties included charter flying and ferrying aircraft to customers. She also became a test pilot at Gwinn Aircar and Hammond, where she tested and demonstrated the first tricycle undercarriage configurations on light aircraft.
Robert Love was called to active duty in 1942, shortly after the USA had entered World War II. He was Deputy Chief of Staff of the Ferry Command in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, Nancy was given a civilian administrative position at the Air Transport Command in Baltimore, Maryland. Everyday she used her aircraft to commute to Baltimore from their home in Washington D.C. Robert mentioned his wife’s daily flights to work and back to Col. William Tunner, who was in charge of the Domestic Ferrying Division. Col. Tunner was astonished and asked Nancy to write a proposal for a ferrying division staffed by woman pilots. These pilots would mainly ferry training aircraft to operational training units. A few months later, Nancy found herself in charge of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron with 29 women under her command.
Shortly afterwards, the formation of a training programme for woman pilots was approved. This programme, the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), fell under Jackie Cochran’s command and supplied pilots to the WAFS. Meanwhile, Nancy had checked out on various larger military aircraft types. These included the P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, C-47 Skytrain (Dakota) and B-25 Mitchell. Nancy along with Bettie Gillies, another pioneer aviatrix, became the first women to qualify to fly B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. They made a few B-17 deliveries inside the USA and were even scheduled to deliver a B-17F to England. However, General Hap Arnold cancelled that ground-breaking flight at the last minute, forbidding women to fly transoceanic ferry flights into dangerous areas.
In late 1943 the WAFS merged with the WFTD to form the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). Nancy was made the executive in charge of all WASP ferrying operations. Ultimately, the WASP would fly a combined total of more than 96 million kilometres in 78 different aircraft types. In addition to ferry flights, other duties, such as target towing, aircraft demonstrations, training and test flights became the WASP’s responsibility. It is generally accepted the WASP set the stage for future generations of woman pilots to become more active in military aviation – ultimately participating in combat sorties during later conflicts.
When World War II ended, Nancy was awarded the Air Medal for her part in training and managing hundreds of woman pilots in support of the war effort. She was decorated along with her husband, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Back in civilian life the couple raised three children and husband Robert started an airline. Nancy remained active in the aviation industry and campaigned for former WASP members to be recognised as military veterans. In 1976, she died of cancer at the age of 62. Throughout her life, Nancy kept a handwritten list of all the women pilots that served under her. She also kept photographs and newspaper clippings of those who had died under her command.
The US National Aviation Hall of Fame states that “Nancy Love's remarkable skill, singular vision, perseverance and leadership by example were crucial to the overall success and level of accomplishment achieved by the Army Air Force’s women pilot programme. However, beyond that, her view of how to integrate and utilise women in the military establishment stood in contrast with the contemporary concept of female pilots in a gender-specific ‘Women's Air Force’ within the Army Air Forces. Instead, she envisioned pilots - who just happened to be women - serving in the military alongside men, simply to get a mission accomplished, on the same basis as their male counterparts. That idea may have been ahead of its time, but is consistent with contemporary social thought and actual policy in the armed forces today - the most significant and enduring part of her legacy. For her passionate belief in women and their ability in the pursuit of aviation, Nancy Love has earned her enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.”
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2009 - www.africanpilot.co.za
More articles on exceptional pilots will be loaded on a regular basis.