Nancy Harkness Love: first female pilot in the Army Air Forces, Commander of the WAFS and Leader of WASP ferrying operations

Nancy Harkness Love (Photo: hill.af.mil)

Nancy Harkness Love (Photo: hill.af.mil)

Hannah L. "Nancy" Harkness, born on February 14, 1914 to a wealthy family in Houghton, Michigan, was a dreamer. When she was fifteen years old, she wrote a piece titled, The Flowers That Bloom In The Spring, Tra La! which appeared in The Magus, a literary magazine published by the all-girls school she attended. In this piece she talks of her joy in experiencing the changing seasons.

“Lessons are more drab than usual 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.”

Young Nancy would eventually more than just gazing into the skies, she would become a part of them.  She possessed every ounce of spunk one might expect from an ace pilot. Her idea of a high school prank was to "buzz" the neighboring boys school, rattling the windows, and just barely missing the chapel. Since there were rules against driving, not flying, Love avoided suspension, and by the time she entered Vassar, she had gained national attention by obtaining her commercial pilots license at the age of 18.

The Great Depression caused Nancy to withdraw from Vassar, and she went to work in aviation, eventually becoming a test pilot alongside famous air racer, Frank Hawkes, for Gwinn Air Car Company. Nancy also helped develop the tricycle landing gear while at Gwinn. Love married Air Corps Reserve Major Robert Love, and together they built their own successful aviation company.

Nancy Harkness Love in the cockpit of an Army Fairchild PT-19A. (Photo: historynet.com)

Nancy Harkness Love in the cockpit of an Army Fairchild PT-19A. (Photo: historynet.com)

In September 1942, Love became the first female pilot in the Army Air Forces (AAF) and Secretary of War Henry Stimson appointed her to organize and lead the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), the Ferrying Division of the AAF’s Air Transport Command.  She recruited 29 experienced female pilots for the WAFS and became their commander. By the summer of 1943, she commanded four WAFS squadrons in four different locations. When the WAFS and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Love was put in charge of all ferrying operations. She was certified in nineteen military aircraft and under her tutelage, the women of the WASP flew nearly every type of military aircraft available.

After the war, Love continued to work in aviation and was designated Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve in 1948. She championed for recognition of the WASP but died in 1976 and never lived to see it. She left behind was a box containing an old handwritten list of the women pilots she'd commanded and photos and newspaper clippings about whose who had died under her command.  Though her job had been quite difficult, it was evident that she was loved and respected by the women who served under her.

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. "Nancy" Harkness, Milton Academy Magus, Dec. 1929