- Nancy Love And The WASP Ferry Pilots Of World War II
- University of North Texas Press, 332 pp.
A Woman Pilot of World War II
Nancy Harkness Love was born at the exactly the right time — and the wrong time — in history. The first woman pilot to be certified to fly the fabled P-51 Mustang and, with Betty Gillies, the B-17 Flying Fortress, she was one of the key female figures in aviation during WWII.
As the Commander of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), Love and her fellow pilots helped the Army Air Transport Ferrying Division get planes from point A to B. Fighting public perception and sparring with Jacqueline Cochran, another pioneer with ambitious plans for the war, she proved that the air was gender-blind. Yet like so many others, she found little opportunity after her service.
It’s a subject ripe, as they say, for the picking. Yet Sarah Byrn Rickman’s Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II feels a little green. The third of her books on female pilots, it is exhaustively researched — she even quotes from Love’s high school report card – but good notes do not a story make. Sunk deep in records, to the detriment of a broader context, Rickman has a hard time holding onto her subject.
Love was twenty-eight when she assumed command of the WAFS and had been in the air for almost half of her life. At the age of sixteen she took her first ride in a barnstorming biplane, paying a penny a pound, and then came back for the stunt flight. These were the days when a girl could solo after five hours training and gain her private pilot’s license after a total of only twenty-three. The country, uncluttered by chaotic air traffic and monstrous airports, was a wide-open ocean.
And those women determined enough to take to the skies in the 1920s and 30s were having a ball. Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic in 1928, then soloed in 1932. In 1936, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the Bendix Trophy, racing against men and setting a new world record of 14 hours, 55 minutes in their flight from New York City to Los Angeles.
They taught flying; they performed precision aerobatics at air shows; they set records for speed, altitude, endurance, and distance; they served as test pilots; and they flew charter, both cargo and passengers.
They were also a PR dream. Initially working for her future husband, Robert Love, the young and pretty Nancy Harkness was hired to demonstrate and sell airplanes. Predicted to replace the family car, the private plane was seen as the wave of the future. If women could fly it, the perception was, anybody could.
What Love thought of all of this malarkey, the cheesecake photographs and press coverage, is hard to determine. She kept no journals, wrote no memoir. Rickman set herself a challenge by focusing on a woman who others often found friendly but private, and she does her best. Yet even as we approach WWII, there is a lack of flow, that fluid sweep of history that carried Love to the office of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds to suggest women could ferry planes for the Army.
Love was not the first woman to suggest that female pilots could help in the Allied effort (though officially “neutral,” the U.S. was already putting the machinery of production and delivery into place). Nor was she the most famous. That honor belonged to Jacqueline Cochran, a record-breaking pilot and cosmetics entrepreneur with an outsized personality.
Close with the Roosevelts, Cochran dreamed much bigger than Love. She wanted a national program to train female pilots to fly all kinds of missions – courier, commercial, transport – to free up men for combat duty. Under the advice of General H. “Hap” Arnold, she went to England to observe the women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Love’s idea might have died with so many others if it had not been for Pearl Harbor. Suddenly strapped for pilots, Arnold could not wait for Cochran to finish her work in Britain. He approved the formation of a group of qualified civilian pilots, all women, to work under Love and begin ferrying planes immediately. Unlike the WAVES or the WAAC, the WAFS was non-military. And it was about to run into the full wrath of Cochran.
Rickman takes Love’s side in the bureaucratic battles that followed, but the real troublemaker appears to have been Arnold. After Cochran returned, he gave her complete control of a new program, thereby setting the scene for conflict. As Love worked on her graded system of training pilots to fly the Army’s fleet of war machines, Cochran began supervising the mass instruction of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Soon enough, Arnold was forced to decide who would have overall responsibility. He chose Cochran.
Love retained her position for the Ferrying Division, but was now answerable to her rival. Nevertheless, she continued in her quiet fight against the perception that women were not capable of handling warplanes. In 1943 she was assigned, as a publicity stunt, to fly a B-17 across the Atlantic with Betty Gillies, to prove to male pilots that it wasn’t so difficult. They made it to Labrador before Arnold stopped them. He didn’t wanted women flying into a war zone.
This is where Rickman’s style is smoothest, in moments of adventure. Then, like Love, we are back into choppy waters.
While the war waged overseas, there were deadly accidents at home. There were hastily trained WASPs with not enough flight hours. There were directives concerned about menstruation and having men as co-pilots. With a group of supportive male colleagues and her own initiative to guide her, Love pushed on. The book, on the other hand, struggles under the weight of dates, quotes and acronyms.
Many women in the WASPs wanted militarization, including Love. But just as this movement reached its peak, the war began its finale. Men were returning from Europe, looking for non-combat duty. New Army Air Force cadets and pilot trainers were not keen on being transferred to take part in the ground assault on Japan. They demanded jobs, and the public agreed. Though there was still a shortage of trained fliers for ferrying, the WASPs were disbanded in the fall of 1944.
Love’s career had a coda. On the record, she was sent to India, to inspect the new Crescent supply route from the eyes of a pilot experienced in ferrying administration. Off the record, she piloted a C-54 transport plane over the Hump, the risky route over the Himalayas that was used to supply troops in China. She was the first American woman to do so.
With peace came anonymity, and Love, like many other women, began a family and settled in to a domestic routine. There was no real time for her to work as a pilot and a mother. She supported her husband in various endeavors, but it was a quiet life. Despite her happiness with her children, she appears to have been bored and struggled with alcoholism. By the time she was diagnosed with fatal breast cancer in the 1970s, she was, like her colleagues, almost forgotten.
And she is, of course, worth remembering. In these days of Wikipedia, however, a biography has to become more than a chronicle. It has to develop a current of its own — quirky, argumentative, experimental, mythological — and draw the reader along. We don’t have to agree with it, but, like the subject, we must be caught in it until the last page. If you’re already an avid fan of this part of history, you’ll enjoy it. Others, one fears, will be left directionless.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.