People & Events
Nancy Harkness Love (1914 - 1976)
In the mid-1930s a young woman from a prominent Philadelphia family found a job
in Boston selling airplanes on commission. Her long list of customers included
Joseph Kennedy, Sr., who, according to one account, was more concerned in
finding a wife for a future president, his son, than in buying a plane. The
young saleswoman, Nancy Harkness, apparently wasn't interested. She had her
own marriage in mind, one that would in its own way gain her local celebrity.
In 1936, she married an Air Corps Reserves officer called Robert Love. The
union was splashed all over the Boston papers -- "BEAUTIFUL AVIATRIX WEDS
DASHING AIR CORPS OFFICER" read one headline; "THE ROMANCE OF THE GLAMOROUS
YOUNG SOCIETY COUPLE MEETS THE ROMANCE OF THE SKY" announced another. The
marriage did more than give Nancy public attention. It placed the already
extremely capable pilot in an excellent position to lobby for a women's flying
squadron during the war.
Love was the daughter of a wealthy physician; she had been flying since she was
a teenager. Though she went to all the right schools, including Milton Academy
in Massachusetts and Vassar in New York, she was restless and adventurous. In
college she earned extra money taking students for rides in a plane she rented
from a nearby airport. Once she flew so low over campus, almost brushing the
treetops, that someone was able to read the plane's tail number. University
officials were not amused. She was suspended from school for two weeks and
forbidden to fly for the rest of the semester.
After their marriage, the Loves built a successful Boston-based aviation
company for which Nancy was a pilot. She also flew for the Bureau of Air
Commerce: In one project she tested three-wheeled landing gear, which
subsequently became standard on most planes. In another, she helped mark water
towers with town names as a navigational aid for pilots.
Love was not a headline-grabbing pilot like the famous aviator Jackie Cochran,
but her qualifications as a pilot meant that her first proposal for a women's
flying squadron, though rejected, was taken seriously. In May 1940, just
months after the Second World War broke out in Europe, Love wrote to Lieutenant
Colonel Robert Olds who was setting up a Ferrying Command within the Army Air
Forces. She said she had found 49 excellent women pilots who could help
transport planes from factories to bases. "I really think this list is up to
handling pretty complicated stuff," she argued. "Most of them have in the
neighborhood of a thousand hours or more -- mostly more, and have flown a great
many types of ship." General Olds was intrigued. He took the suggestion to
General Hap Arnold, who turned it down, though not permanently.
According to one account, a chance comment her husband made proved a decisive
factor in resurrecting Nancy's proposal. In the spring of 1942, Robert was
called for military duty in Washington as the deputy chief of staff of the
American Ferry Command. Nancy got an administrative job in Baltimore, to which
she commuted by plane. One day Robert happened to mention his wife's daily
flight to work to Colonel William Tunner, who was heading up the domestic wing
of the ferrying division. Tunner, who at that very moment was scouring the
country for skilled pilots, was amazed. He wanted to know if there were many
other women who could fly. Within days, he met with Nancy and asked her to
write a proposal for a women's ferrying division. Within months, the
28-year-old Love had become the director of the Women's Auxiliary Ferry
Squadron, or WAFS, with 25 experienced female pilots under her
From the very beginning, Love and the WAFS had problems getting the media to
take them seriously. One of the first newsreel stories showed Love welcoming
some of her new recruits. The announcer summed up the story saying: "What will
they think of next." "Life" magazine proclaimed that Love was one of the six
American women in the public eye who had beautiful legs. The War Department
tried to tone down the publicity, urging the press to treat the women pilots
with "diplomacy and delicacy." And Love tried to ensure that her pilots did
nothing to attract unwarranted attention. She knew that one misstep could turn
the tide of public opinion against her whole team. "If the WAFS are to succeed,
our personal conduct must be above reproach," she told her recruits. "There
cannot be the faintest breath of scandal. Among other things, this means you
may not accept rides with male pilots." She went on to explain why. "If a male
pilot and a WAF were seen leaving a plane together there would be suspicions
that they were playing house in government property."
The following summer, Love was asked to fly an important mission which, if it
had proceeded as planned, would have greatly expanded the scope of her
operation. The British had asked for the delivery of 100 B-17s in order to fly
deep into Europe. Colonel Tunner suggested to Love that she become the first
woman pilot to fly a military plane on an intercontinental flight. The day
Love and her co-pilot were to set off, General Hap Arnold got word of the
mission. Fearing a tremendous backlash if a woman pilot was shot down by enemy
fire, he moved immediately to ground the women. As Love started the engine on
the B-17 and was about to taxi down the runway, an officer came screeching down
the runway in a jeep with an urgent telegram in hand. The message was from
Arnold. It read: "CEASE AND DESIST, NO WAFS WILL FLY OUTSIDE THE CONTIGUOUS
U.S." Love and her co-pilot shut down their engines. The photographer who was
on hand to record the takeoff, took a still of the two women anyway. The
picture captures the disappointment of two frustrated aviators trying
desperately to smile.
In the summer of 1943 Love's squadron merged with a women's pilot training
program that had been set up under Cochran's leadership the previous fall.
Cochran was named director of the combined units, which was known as the
Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Love was put in charge of all WASP
ferrying operations. Under her command, female pilots flew almost every
military aircraft then in the air. In some instances, they were even asked to
demonstrate to the men that a particular plane was safe. According to Colonel
Tunner, the women were instrumental in rescuing the tarnished reputation of the
high-speed P-39 pursuit plane, which the men had named the "flying coffin."
The men, Tunner claimed, were having so many accidents in the ship because they
weren't flying it "according to specifications." He ordered a group of female
pilots to begin deliveries of the P-39. "They had no trouble, none at all,"
Tunner noted years later. "And I had no more complaints from the men."
After the war, Love received an Air Medal for her service to the country. She
then retreated from public life and raised three daughters. The family moved
to Martha's Vineyard, where they frequently hosted WASPs who had been under
Love's command. Love died of cancer at the age of 62 in 1976, so she didn't
live to see the WASPs being accorded military recognition three years later.
But right up to her death, the women she had commanded remained some of the
most important people in her life. Among the things she left behind was a box
she had kept for more than 30 years. Inside was a handwritten list she had
compiled in 1940 of women pilots. It also contained clippings and photographs
of each of the women who had died under her command.