Nancy Batson — The PT-26 Trip to Calgary
Colonel Tunner had four PT-26s — PT-19s with canopies — that needed to be delivered to the Canadian RAF near Calgary, Alberta, before Easter. It was now the Friday afternoon before Palm Sunday. Knowing the importance of the assignment, Colonel Baker chose his WASP squadron commander, Betty Gillies, to make this important mission happen. Betty chose Nancy Batson, Sis Bernheim and Helen McGilvery.
PT-26s have a cruising speed of about one hundred miles per hour. When Betty told her crew where they were going and how long they had to get there, the three stared at her in total disbelief. “I know, that’s more than 2,500 miles,” Betty said, “but I promised Colonel Tunner and Colonel Baker we’d get them there before Easter.”
Easter was nine days away. Batson let out a long, low whistle. “That doesn’t allow for any weather along the route.”
Betty nodded. “I know.” What she didn’t tell them was she had great faith in their abilities.
‘We’re Goin’ to Canada!’
Very early Palm Sunday morning, they were in Hagerstown checking out their aircraft. “Eeeeyow!” Nancy let out a Rebel yell as she climbed into the cockpit of her PT-26. “We’re goin’ to Montana and on to Calgary, Canada!”
They left Hagerstown early, headed west across spring’s shades-of-green patchwork quilt of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The four ran out of daylight in Joliet, Illinois, but not before they had flown an astounding 697 miles. Nancy noted that the weather was improving. From Alabama, Nancy felt like winter lasted forever in Delaware where they were statiioned. But spring was on the way. Besides, these airplanes had canopies so they didn’t have to contend with wind in their faces andicicles forming on their runny noses.
That night at the hotel, Betty informed them that we would be up at four in the morning. “We’re going to get an early start,” Betty said. “I want to be sitting in our cockpits with the engines running when the sun breaks the horizon. Now get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a long day.”
Sis and Little Mac began to howl — “Today was a long day,” said Sis. “We went seven hundred miles!” said Little Mac.
“Four a.m.,” said Betty.
Also Known as ‘O’ Dark Thirty’
Batson, on her way to bed, overheard Sis and Mac grumbling. They said there was no way in you-know-where that they were going to get up at four o’clock in the morning. Well, I listened to them bellyache for a few minutes and I got mad. Betty was putting her reputation on the line and here these two were saying they were too good and too tired to get up in the morning and get a move on and help get those planes out to Canada on time like Colonel Tunner wanted.
I marched into their room and gave them what-for. Well, when I got through, they just stared at me. Then I turned on my heel and walked out and went to bed. The next morning, I was in the lobby at four a.m., dressed and ready to go. And you know what, so were they!
We were sitting in our cockpits when dawn broke and we were off in a flash, headed due west again. This time our destination was North Platte, Nebraska, a six-hundred-mile flight. We crossed the Mississippi and pretty soon we were looking down on the cornfields of Iowa and later on the wheat fields of Nebraska. It was like I’d never seen corn and wheat fields before.
We crossed the Missouri River below Omaha and kept on cruising until we hit North Platte. We were beginning to enjoy ourselves by then. Here we were, three Easterners and a Southerner, and we were crossing this great big country of ours. This country we were fighting for. We were so proud of that fact. And, by golly, we were headin’ west in the cockpits of sleek new Army airplanes and somebody else was paying for the gas.
Just Doin’ Their Job
Up at four again the next day. That night, we made Great Falls, Montana, a whopping 850-mile flight from North Platte. When we got there, Betty reminded us — rather proudly, I think — that we had just done it in airplanes that had an average ground speed of one hundred miles per hour.
“Did you see those mountains!” said Sis.
The next day, up at four again, we flew along those majestic snow-capped Canadian Rockies. What we had seen the previous day was nothing compared to this. The last leg was only 275 miles from Great Falls. We had delivered the planes from Hagerstown in a record four days — and four days before the Easter deadline. Betty had done her job — so had the rest of us. And done it well. We talked a lot on the train ride back.
The four of us were back on base by Friday night, April 23 — Good Friday. And do you know what that sweet Colonel Baker did? He gave us all a Commendation — “for our efficient and prompt delivery which included not only flying the planes but also the paper work involved in such deliveries, flight logs, gasoline reports, RON messages, etc.” I gotta tell you, I’m real proud of that!”
What Betty and the others had proved was what their leader Nancy Love already knew — that women made excellent ferry pilots. Now Nancy could point with pride to their accomplishment and tell the men to whom she answered that there was a lot more where that came from.
Sarah Byrn Rickman here: I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Chapter 17 of The Originals.