In the March 1929 edition of The Magus, a literary magazine published by the Milton Academy Girls Upper School, Hannah L. Harkness wrote a short nonfiction piece, “The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, Tra La!” The fifteen-year old describes her joy at the changing seasons: “Lessons are more drab than usual,” she admits, “and if you are fortunate enough to get a seat by a window in the classroom, you gaze off into space, and dream ecstatic dreams.”[i] Eventually, Hannah Harkness’s dreams led her into the clouds she gazed at from her classroom at Milton Academy in Massachusetts. The appeal of flying airplanes charmed her from a young age, and aviation became a life-long passion.
Hannah “Nancy” Harkness was born on February 14, 1914 in Houghton, Michigan, to Alice Chadbourne and Dr. Robert Bruce Harkness, a prosperous physician. The family’s affluence allowed Harkness to travel to France in 1927, where on May 21 she stood with thousands of onlookers at Le Bourget Field as Charles Lindberg completed the first ever transatlantic solo flight. She later maintained that Lindberg’s feat “didn’t inspire me with an overwhelming desire to fly, as it probably should have,” but another experience, her first flight, greatly inspired her and imbued her with a love of airplanes. Young Nancy’s ride probably cost about a dollar when a traveling aviator visited her hometown early in 1930, offering to take passengers on joy rides—for “a penny a pound.” Determined to fly again, Harkness begged her parents for aviation lessons. Despite her mother’s belief that “nice young ladies don’t do such things,” her parents reluctantly agreed to send her to flying school, and on November 30, 1930, the sixteen-year old Harkness earned her private pilot’s license. To modern eyes, the requirements seem meager. She spent 13 hours in the air with her instructor—an 18-year old named Jimmy whose first student was Harkness—10 hours in the sky by herself, and she passed one examination. With that, the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce informed her that she had earned her license and was ready to fly.
In truth, she was not ready. When she tried to fly two friends from Boston to Poughkeepsie for a visit to Vassar, her first licensed trip ended badly. “In the first place, the ship was far too large and complicated for my fifteen solo hours,” Harkness recalled. “Once in the air, I realized I had never used an aircraft compass before. I couldn’t read it!…. My two passengers were sitting in the back. They had no idea how inadequate and frightened I suddenly felt.”
“I noticed ugly clouds coming from the west, and they were moving fast,” she remembered. “I couldn’t really see that well. I flew lower and lower in an effort to see out. With that, the oil gauge broke and smeared black stuff all over the windscreen…. I had to hang my head out the open side window. My inflamed imagination convinced me the motor was about to stop.” No one was injured when she made an emergency landing—according to the Miscellany News, “in a coalyard so small that [he]r plane ha[d] to be taken apart to extricate it.”
In the fall of 1931, Nancy entered Vassar, declaring a French and French History major, and she continued to refine her flying skills in college. The campus soon caught wind of “The Flying Freshman” and the Miscellany News profiled her in 1932. “Miss Harkness,” the newspaper reported, “is continuing her flying here at college, with parental permission, at the Gyro Flyers Limited, a Poughkeepsie airport.”
At Gyro, her teacher John Miller, helped her gain the skills necessary to obtain a limited commercial flying license. In April of 1932, she and Miller suffered a life-threatening emergency in the sky when their motor malfunctioned during landing and threw the plane off-course. Hitting a tree, the aircraft plummeted directly downward, crashing upside down across a stone wall. Harkness then made the mistake of unbuckling her seatbelt. Gravity quickly brought her to the ground, and she hit her head against the wall. She would recover from her mild head injuries, but Miller had badly hurt himself in the collision with the tree; the talented aviator ultimately lost his left eye as a result of this crash landing. Despite these traumatic incidents, Harkness continued to fly at Vassar, often earning extra income by shuttling students from Poughkeepsie to various destinations in the Northeast or simply by selling joy rides above the Hudson Valley.
About her life after Vassar, The Misc. reported, “she hopes to become a pilot in a demonstration parlor, where she would exhibit airplanes to prospective customers and sell them.” And that is precisely what she did, although sooner than she imagined, since she had to withdraw from Vassar in early 1934, after the first semester of her Junior year. The stock market crash had financially weakened her family in Michigan, and her father could no longer afford the tuition.
She found her way to Boston and to just the job she was looking for: selling airplanes for Inter-City Air Service, a company Air Corps Reserve Officer Robert Love had left MIT two years earlier to found. In 1935 the couple announced their engagement. A Boston headline-writer announced: “THE ROMANCE OF THE GLAMOROUS YOUNG SOCIETY COUPLE MEETS THE ROMANCE OF THE SKY.”
Miss Harkness,” wrote the Boston Globe, “who is barely over 20 and who is little and very pretty, can smile wisely to herself. For now she wears a sizable and very sparkling diamond ring on her left hand and she is engaged to the president of Inter-City Air Lines, Robert Love, son of a New York banker.” The pair enjoyed a honeymoon to California; they of course flew themselves there.
In the workplace, Nancy Harkness Love proved invaluable and highly efficient. The newly formed Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC), a predecessor of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), heard of her talents and hired her to serve as a test pilot for the Bureau and as a member of the Air Marking program, whose mission was to aid pilots by placing navigational markers on water towers and other high-reaching structures. Love was responsible for placing over 290 markers throughout Massachusetts alone. In the BAC’s workshop facility, she tested the newest aerial technology of the day, tricycle landing gear, which most aircraft manufacturers would later adopt as the industry standard.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Love immediately thought of forming a women’s flying unit to help the war effort. She did not dare to suggest that women participate in military action; her idea was that able female pilots like herself would transport planes from factories to military bases freeing up airmen for more pressing duties. Lieutenant Col. Robert Olds supported Love’s proposition, but his superior, General Henry H. Arnold, rejected it in 1940.
Two years passed, and the Loves found themselves living in Washington, D.C. Robert Love worked as the Air Transport Command’s Deputy Chief of Staff, while his wife made the daily commute, by air, from the capital to her job in Baltimore. Love allegedly mentioned his wife’s impressive commute to his boss, Colonel William Tunner, while the two men chatted at the ATC’s water fountain. Tunner, whose duties included hiring pilots to ferry aircrafts to wherever the Air Force needed them, hadn’t considered the notion of employing women until then, but he began discussions with Mrs. Love about forming an all-female ferrying division. In the fall of 1942, General Arnold, after years of wavering, finally approved the proposal, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson named Nancy Harkness Love the director of the new group: the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).
“A good woman pilot,” Love said in 1932, “has a better chance than a man because there are so few of them.” The idealistic 19 year-old’s assessment turned out to be a bit inaccurate. Like Love, another American aviatrix, Jackie Cochran, had been lobbying for a cadre of female fliers in the war. When Cochran, an impressive pilot, found her proposal tabled while Love’s gained the Air Force’s approval, she angrily proposed to lead an all-female training program. Through a process of arm-twisting and political leveraging, she got her wish when, just a few days after Love’s WAFS took flight, the Army Air Force established the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), appointing Jackie Cochran its leader.
With two nearly identical female squads mobilized in 1942, it was only a matter of time before Love’s and Cochran’s organizations clashed. Love, apparently not accustomed to confrontation, submitted to the ambition and political clout of Cochran. In the summer of 1943, the two female squads combined to form the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), and Cochran gained control of the entire operation. Love, however, remained in the public eye because of her instrumental role in the WASPs. “Do you think that women make good pilots?” an interviewer asked her in the early 1940s. “Subject to the same qualifications as men” Love responded,”—yes —but many women are unfitted physically and temperamentally,” she added, “as are many men.”
Many in the United States remained lukewarm to the WASPs. “What will they think of next?” wondered a television broadcaster. Even Cochran’s enthusiasm for the project could not will the public into fully accepting the idea of female pilots in military service, and the Air Force itself grappled with their use of women.
An anecdote from 1943 illuminates the anxiety of letting women fly during the war. Col. Tunner assigned Nancy Harkness Love the job of ferrying new B-17 fighter jets across the Atlantic to bolster the British RAF’s fleet, making Love the first woman to fly a military plane across continents. But the higher-ups in the U.S. military, concerned about public outrage if the enemy shot down a female pilot, cancelled the mission, deeming it too dangerous for a woman. Love had already started the engine of her B-17 plane and prepared for take off, when the telegram arrived at the last possible moment, ordering her: “CEASE AND DESIST.”
Further frustration lingered around the corner. In early 1944, General Arnold petitioned Congress to allow the WASP pilots to fly all domestic missions, so that men currently flying domestically could transfer to the European theater as infantrymen—essentially, the domestic militarization of the WASP. But the men who would be sent abroad refused to go without a fight. They publicly attacked the reputation of female pilots, arguing that they were undertrained and were robbing jobs from qualified men. The Civil Service Committee held a hearing on the matter and ultimately sided with the men. With public sentiment against the squad, Congress terminated the WASP in late 1944, but a hushed, off-the-record assignment from her friend, General C.R. Smith, the deputy director of the Air Transport Command, gave Love the opportunity to become the first women to fly a military plane overseas, albeit in a far less glamorous manner. No one would know about her flight on January 8, 1945, from Calcutta to Kunming, China. For this reconnaissance mission, Love flew a C-54, a large cargo plane she had flown hundreds of times before. After the nearly five-hour flight, Love officially hung up her WASP uniform and went home to join the other female pilots who had been sidelined as of 1945.
Like so many other women who participated in the war effort, Nancy Harkness Love retreated from the work force and became a full-time mother and wife. She and Robert moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and started a family; they had three daughters. She continued flying recreationally, mostly using her plane to fly to and from the mainland, when necessary. Her wartime service to her country did not go unrecognized. The Air Force awarded her and her husband an Air Medal for their efforts, and the aviatrix ultimately earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by 1945. Still, hers is a story of starts and stops, one full of ephemeral excitement and frequent frustrations. Never feeling able to fully pursue her desire to fly and hurt by her treatment in the U.S. military, she is reported to have appeared melancholy when talk of planes came up, and she suffered with bouts of depression for most of the rest of her life.
Nancy Harkness Love died of cancer in 1976 at the age of 62, three years before the government extended veteran status to the women pilots who had served in Love’s WASPs, an important recognition she had always hoped for. Yet, considering her remarkable career as a female pilot, Nancy Harkness Love had much to feel satisfied about. The poetic dreams of a fifteen-year old sometimes do come true.
I can fill my cup of dreams
When silver springs are far.
If I can find a firefly,
I can reach a star.
Even I, by wishing,
Can wear the Magic shoon,
Even I, by dreaming,
Can reach up for the Moon.
—Hannah L. Harkness, Milton Academy Magus, Dec. 1929
[i] For quotations from the Milton Academy Magus, I am indebted to Diane Pierce-Williams, Academy Archivist at Milton Academy, who granted me access to these wonderful poems.
Douglas, Deborah G. “Nancy Harkness Love: Female Pilot and First to Fly for the U.S. Military.” Aviation History, January 1999.
Harkness, Hannah L., “The Flowers that Bloom in Spring, Tra La!” The Magus, March 1929.
“Dreams.” The Magus, December 1929.
Rickman, Sarah Byrn. Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2008.
“Nancy Harkess Love.” American Experience: Fly Girls. www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flygirls/peopleevents/pandeAMEX03.html