… the story of an uncommon woman:
- high school cheerleader
- campus queen
- airplane pilot
Born in 1960, right? Just in time to benefit from the Women’s Movement.
Wrong! Born in 1920. As a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), she flew airplanes for the U.S. Army in World War II.
Nancy began her aviation career in 1939 — one of five young women chosen for civilian pilot training at The University of Alabama.
She became the 20th woman of 28 to qualify for the FIRST WASP squadron employed during World War II. The women shuttled top-priority P-38, P-47, and P-51 high-performance aircraft from the factories to staging areas.
After the war Crews raised a family then returned to aviation when in her forties. She flight instructed, flew in air races, towed and also flew gliders, and owned her own flight service business in California. Returning to Alabama, she flew as copilot in a corporate turbo jet at age 80, and finally returned to her airplane of choice, the J-3 Cub.
An excerpt from Nancy Batson Crews, Chapter One:
The same Tuesday in November 1944 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his unprecedented fourth term as president of the United States, Nancy Elizabeth Batson of Birmingham, Alabama, tried to crowd FDR off the front page of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, daily newspapers. She would just as soon have skipped the whole affair; she would have much preferred a quiet, uneventful delivery of her airplane to Newark, New Jersey, without all the fuss.
Nancy was a ferry pilot with the women’s squadron, 2nd Ferrying Group, Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, and she had orders to take a plane–destined for combat in Europe–from the Lockheed factory near Long Beach, California, to the docks at Newark.
“I picked up this brand-new, shiny P-38 in California and took off cross-country, made my last stop in Pittsburgh to refuel, and headed for Newark. About twenty minutes out of Pittsburgh, I noticed that the two engine coolant needles were oscillating–moving back and forth erratically instead of holding steady.”
Too many P-38s already had lost engines. That was one of those vagaries for which the sleek, twin-engine Lightning was known. A lost engine on takeoff had killed fellow woman ferry pilot Evelyn Sharp the previous spring. Nancy knew that all too well. She had accompanied Evelyn’s body home to Nebraska for the funeral.
No sense taking unnecessary chances. Nancy decided to return to the airport and let a mechanic check it out.
“I turned back to Pittsburgh, called the tower to get permission to land, and was cleared for a straight-in approach. I reached down, activated the landing gear handle, and listened for the hum of the wheels descending into the down and locked position. But the lights on the instrument panel showed that the nosewheel was not down and locked. The lights are in a triangle. The two at the bottom showed green, meaning that the main gear was down, but the nosewheel light was red. That meant it wasn’t down and locked.
“Now the P-38 has these aluminum reflectors on the side of the two engine nacelles and they acted as mirrors–so the pilot can check and see if the nosewheel is in the down and locked position. This nosewheel was just hanging there.
“I called the tower and advised them of my situation.
“They asked me to do a fly-by–low–and raise my left wing so that they could see for sure that the nosewheel wasn’t in the landing position.
“I did the fly-by and they looked and they determined that no, it wasn’t locked in place. By then the coolant needles seemed to have stabilized. So I flew out away from the airport and away from traffic. I was going to try to pump the wheel down manually.
“The hydraulic pump, called a wobble pump, was there for the pilot to use to do exactly what I had to do, pump the faulty nose gear down by hand. Well, I started pumping. Then I stopped and looked out at the mirrors. That wheel hadn’t moved. So I pumped some more. Nothing!
“The tower called periodically and asked, `how are you doing?’
“I told them, `I’m still flyin’ over Pittsburgh and still pumpin’ and I still have a red light.'”
Every airplane within earshot of the Pittsburgh radio frequency heard the exchange between Nancy and the tower. A woman–particularly one with a Southern accent–flying around in a P-38 wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.
“I tried climbing to eight thousand feet and diving the airplane, to see if centrifugal force would push it down. I did that several times. It didn’t work.”
Nancy had one more tool in her flight kit. Under the pilot’s seat in the P-38 was a button connected to a CO2 cartridge–there to aid a combat pilot trying to land a shot-up airplane with both a damaged hydraulics system and a useless wobble pump. The cartridge could be exploded as a last resort to force the nosewheel down.
“At the factory, they told us very emphatically not to use the CO2 cartridge because it might damage the landing gear. They told us that it was there to save some combat pilot’s life.”
Nancy figured the pilot whose life might need saving was the one currently flying the airplane. She wasn’t flying combat, but she very definitely had a life-threatening situation.
“I could see that what I was doing wasn’t working. I was all pumped out and by now the needle on the fuel gauge was telling me that I was getting low on gas. Now, I was going to have to do what I call creative flying. As a last resort, I decided to shoot off that CO2 cartridge. I climbed back up to eight thousand and dove the P-38 one more time, horsed back on the controls, pulled up sharply, pumped the manual pump, reached under the seat, and fired the cartridge.
“When the smoke cleared, there they were–three green lights! Then I looked down at the aluminum mirrors on the nacelles and that nosewheel was down and locked, just like it was supposed to be!”
“I was cleared for a straight-in approach and I greased it! I put that sick airplane in the proper landing attitude and touched down on the main wheels. Then I held that back pressure on the stick–back, back, back, all the way into my stomach–and kept that nosewheel up as long as possible. Then finally I let it touch down and did the roll out. I was pleased!
“As I was rolling down the runway, out of the corner of my eye on my left I noticed this Jeep running alongside, and this guy signaling me to stop. I thought, oh my golly, NOW what have I done?
“So I stopped. This guy jumps up on my wing. I push back the canopy. `G-g-get out, I’ll taxi it in.’ He was kind of wild-eyed and nervous.
“I said, `Well, no. I’ll do it. I’ll taxi it in.’ I wasn’t fixin’ to get out at that point.
“When he got off the wing, I looked over my left shoulder and here came a couple of fire engines, an ambulance, several Jeeps–a whole line of vehicles, all following me.
“I taxied it on in, stopped, and cut the switch. Now here was a line of people waitin’ for me–photographers, Red Cross ladies who said, `we’ve been prayin’ for you, honey,’ airport officials, and lots of other people. That’s when they took that picture that ran on the front page of the Pittsburgh paper the next morning–along with the news that Roosevelt had been reelected.