Love, Nancy Harkness
Military StrategistEnshrined 2005 1914-1976
One afternoon while attending Milton Academy, an all girls’ school, Nancy decided to buzz the neighboring boy’s school. She flew through the middle of campus and she had to pull up at the end to avoid hitting the chapel, rattling the windows and knocking off some shingles on the chapel roof. Someone was able to get the tail number off the plane and called the local airport to find out who was responsible for such a prank. When she returned to school later that day, several members of the administration met her. The school was strict about not allowing their students to drive, but there were no rules about flying and she was all but suspended for the incident.
- Won an appointment with the Bureau of Air Commerce as a pilot for the national air marking program.
- While working as a test pilot for Gwinn Aircar in Buffalo she helped develop the tricycle landing gear.
- Appointed as the leader of the new Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) in the Air Transport Command’s Ferrying Division in September 1942.
- Named WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) Executive in Air Transport Command in August 1943, responsible for six ferrying squadrons and over 300 women pilots.
Nancy Love qualified as the first female pilot in the Army Air Forces (AAF) on September 7, 1942. Three days later, she emerged on the national scene when Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced her appointment to organize and lead a new “Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron”–the WAFS–in the Ferrying Division of the AAF’s Air Transport Command (ATC). Over the following weeks, she, and 27 other highly experienced women pilots, joined the Air Transport Command’s 2nd Ferrying Group and made history as the first women pilots to fly operational missions for the U.S. armed forces.
Nancy Lincoln Harkness was born on February 14, 1914 in Houghton Michigan to Dr. Robert and Alice Harkness. Thirteen-year-old Nancy was at Le Bourget Airport in Paris when Charles Lindbergh ushered in the “Golden Age” of aviation.
During summer break in high school, Nancy soloed a Fleet biplane in August 1930 with only 4 ½ hours. Just 5 weeks later, the 16 year old earned her private pilots’ license. Nancy enrolled in Vassar College in 1931 and became known as the “Flying Freshman” for organizing a collegiate flying club. But her family’s financial reserves during the Great Depression caused her to withdraw from college in January 1934.
Nancy found work in aviation first for Beechcraft and then Waco selling aircraft before she took a job with Inter-City Air Lines, a Fixed based operation owned by a young Princeton and MIT alumnus named Robert Love. The logic of the day was if a woman can do it, then it must not be that difficult. Nancy left Inter-City Air after winning an appointment as a pilot for the Bureau of Air Commerce, in the National Air Marking Program.
She resigned in late 1935 and married Bob Love in January 1936, followed by a flying honeymoon to California. Nancy competed in two national air races, but focused on work as a sales demonstration and charter pilot.
Nancy became a test pilot for the Hammond Y safety plane and later for Gwinn aircar in Buffalo. The Gwinn AirCar was a two-passenger, auto-like airplane heralded as the family vehicle of the future. Nancy also helped develop the tricycle landing gear while at Gwinn. In 1938, Nancy returned to Inter-City Air and became business partner with her husband and continued to build flight experience as Europe moved toward war.
In May 1940, Nancy proposed the Air Corps Planes Division, headed by Lt. Col. Robert Olds, in which experienced women pilots could be used to fill the growing need for qualified ferry pilots. Despite having Olds’ support, Gen Hap Arnold rejected the idea. Biding her time, she persevered, gaining valuable experience during America’s period of neutrality by ferrying new planes to Canada for transfer to France and Britain.
After Pearl Harbor, Bob, Nancy’s husband, a major in the reserves was called to active duty and assigned as deputy chief of staff at Air Corps Ferrying Command headquarters in Washington. Nancy became an operations planner in the Ferrying Command’s northeast sector office in Baltimore, commuting daily between Washington and Baltimore in her Fairchild 24. By the summer of 1942, the AAF’s new Air Transport Command faced a critical shortage of trained pilots to deliver airplanes coming off assembly lines. Col. Tunner, Air Transports Commander, recognized Nancy Love as the ideal person to organize and lead the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS. If the first squadron was successful, other women’s squadrons would emerge.
Nancy Love’s WAFS conducted their first operation ferry mission in late October 1942, delivering liaison planes. Later that year, they ferried trainers. From April to August 1943 four more classes graduated from the women’s pilot courses, bringing the WAFS strength to over 225 women. Late in August 1943, the new Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, program superseded the WAFS. Meanwhile, Nancy had been determined from the beginning to challenge the Army Air Forces policy that limited women ferry pilots to flying light, simple aircraft. She personally demonstrated the capabilities of women pilots to advance to highest performance aircraft in the same way that male service pilots did.
Nancy was the first woman to fly virtually all the Army Air Force’s complex, high performance combat aircraft, such as the new P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning fighters, the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber, and various multi-engine attack aircraft, medium bombers, and transports. Her example led the way for her original WAFS to also ferry combat aircraft and they, in turn, blazed the trail for a significant number of later women pilots to follow in their footsteps.
Under Gen. Tunner, Nancy was WASP executive responsible for all women ferry pilots. At it’s peak in April 1944, the ATC Ferrying Division had 300 women ferry pilots and made 50 percent of all deliveries of fighters in the US that year. Eight months before the war ended, the Army Air Forces disbanded the WASP program in December 1944. In 1945, the Army Air Forces asked President Truman himself to sign the Air medal it awarded to Nancy for her wartime accomplishments. Shortly before Nancy love died in 1976, the order of Fifiella, the WASP alumni organization, named her “Woman of the Year.” Thirteen years later, in 1989, she was enshrined into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.
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 AAF’s women pilot program. But beyond that, her view of how to integrate and utilize women in the military establishment stood in contrast to the contemporary concept of female pilots in a gender-specific “Women’s Airforce” 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 abilities in the pursuit of aviation, Nancy Love has earned her enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.