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Nancy Batson Crews
Alabama's First Lady of Flight
By Sarah Byrn Rickman
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 2009 Sarah Byrn Rickman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Boys, I've Brought You a Real Lemon
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 (ATC), 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 tri angle. 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!"
Unbeknownst to Nancy, while she was flying around away from the airport pumping, the worried operations officer had called Nancy Love, commander of the women ferry pilots, to tell her of her pilot's plight.
"Who is it?" Nancy Love asked.
"Nancy Batson," he replied.
"Oh, don't worry about her. She'll be fine," said Love.
It was years later before Nancy Batson heard that story and learned the kind of confidence her commander, fellow pilot, and friend had in her. "She never said a thing to me. Never called me or asked about the problem I had. I was a trained professional ferry pilot, doing my job. She expected us to handle situations as they came up. That's what ferry pilots do. We never knew what kind of plane we would be flying. All we knew was, they told us to take care of those planes so that they'd be in good shape for those boys to fly in overseas."
That same November afternoon, Nancy Batson's friend and fellow ferry pilot Helen Richey was inbound to Pittsburgh, also en route on a delivery to Newark. She heard the exchanges between the tower at the Pittsburgh airport and the woman in the balky P-38, and she recognized that Southern accent immediately.
The hour was late. The dusk of a November afternoon was beginning to leach the light from the airfield. Ferry pilots, as ordered, flew only in daylight hours. Helen landed, called her home base, and told them that she was going to RON (remain overnight) in Pittsburgh, which happened to be her hometown. She was going to spend that night with her sister and planned to take Nancy with her. Helen figured her friend would be in need of a good night's sleep while the mechanics looked over her airplane.
In the meantime, Nancy was ready to land. "I called the tower and told them the nosewheel was locked in place, but they said they wanted me to slow-fly by the tower so that they could see for sure if it was down. "Shoot, by that time, I'd had enough of that P-38. Besides, I was really low on fuel! I told them I was coming in. They gave me permission to land. I decided right then and there that I was going to make this the best landing of my life.
"And I did.
"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.
"Then I turned the airplane over to the mechanics and told them what the problem was and they told me they would check it out.
"And there was Helen Richey waiting for me. She took me to her sister's to spend the night.
"I woke up in the middle of the night with this awful throbbing, aching pain in my right shoulder and upper arm. I had to wake Helen up and ask her if her sister had any aspirin. She found me some. I was OK the next morning.
"Two days later the airplane finally was ready. I flew it out of Pittsburgh and on into Newark. Coming in, I got my clearance from the tower to land and put the gear handle in the down position. Same damn thing! Two green lights and one red one.
"I wasn't gonna mess around anymore. I didn't think twice. I reached down and fired that CO2 cartridge. Fortunately, they had fixed it! The nosewheel locked into position. Three green lights!
"I landed, taxied it up to the line guys waiting, cut the switch, climbed out, and told them, 'boys, this time I've brought you a real lemon!'"
Chapter Two Daughter of Alabama
The young woman who "horsed back on the controls" in Pittsburgh that day and who "greased" her landing at the end of that harrowing flight came by her forthright approach to life and flying naturally. She came from hardy pioneer stock and she was, in her chosen profession—flying—a pioneer cast in their image.
Nancy's family roots ran deep in the Alabama soil. Her maternal grandparents were Jere and Mary Jane (Vandegrift) Philips of St. Clair County. Nancy's paternal grandparents were Nancy (for whom she was named) and Andrew Batson. Andrew, nicknamed Andy, was named for President Andrew Jackson. They were farmers from Jefferson County.
Nancy Elizabeth Batson arrived February 1, 1920, the third of four children born to Stephen Radford and Ruth Philips Batson of Birmingham. Her older sister, Elinor, was born in 1914 and her brother, Radford, to whom she was the closest and with whom she played and competed, in 1917. Younger sister Amy came along in 1926.
Nancy's parents had an uncommonly positive effect on her life because they were so liberal with all four of their children and their upbringing. Nancy remembered them being criticized by friends and neighbors. "They give those children everything!" was the common complaint. The senior Batsons thought nothing of buying ponies for Radford and built Amy a playhouse—her heart's desire—in the backyard. A few years later, their father would buy Nancy her first airplane. Then tongues really wagged!
"When I was seven years old, my mother took me by the hand to the municipal auditorium in Birmingham to see Charles Lindbergh. We stood there on the sidewalk outside—it was October 1927, just a few months after he flew the Atlantic solo, the first man to do that. We watched as he and some of Birmingham's notables got out of a car and walked into the auditorium. That's all. But we saw him.
"My mother knew then that I had a yen for anything related to airplanes. When I was little, my bicycle was my very own airplane and I pretended it had a double set of wings to match the biplanes I'd seen. I didn't want to be a ballerina in a poufy pink dress, I wanted to wear jodhpurs, jacket, boots, and a white silk scarf. That's what all the flyers wore."
Nancy's parents also believed implicitly in education and saw to it that all four children went to the college of their choice. Ruth Philips knew the disappointment of not being allowed to go away to the school she desperately wished to attend. It colored her thinking for life—to her own children's benefit.
Mary Jane Philips was pregnant with Ruth in 1891 when her firstborn, also a daughter, died in her arms. Mary Jane was shattered by the experience and turned not only her hopes but also her fears on her second daughter. Consequently, Ruth grew up sheltered—unable to stretch her wings. A brilliant young woman, she was scheduled to go to Wellesley, the exclusive women's college in Massachusetts. This was 1908, when most women didn't even graduate from high school let alone attend college. But her mother couldn't let her go. "I can't lose another child," Mary Jane said, and Ruth was sent, instead, to a small, "safe" teachers' college in Alabama, close to home.
Pretty and popular—truly a Southern belle—Ruth had lots of beaux. When Stephen Radford Batson met her, she was a young schoolteacher. He fell madly in love with her, pursued her until she married him in November 1912, and he never ceased to adore her. This scenario would be repeated a generation later by her daughter Nancy's husband-to-be.
Radford met his match in Ruth. She was a strong-minded, strong-willed lady. She had to be, otherwise Mary Jane would have smothered her with that consuming fear of imminent loss. This, in turn, colored Ruth's reaction to her own children. "She allowed us to be independent," both Nancy and Amy said. When Ruth's father died—not long before Amy was born— her mother came to live with them. They couldn't have two "Mamas" in the house, so Ruth became "Muddy" to her children and Mary Jane, their grandmother, became "Mama."
The family lived in Norwood, a "toney residential section of Birmingham," according to Amy. "Daddy bought the one-and-a-half-story house for cash money in 1926 when I was born." Their address was 1430 North 30th Street. The house is gone now, a victim of urban renewal. Industry built up and cut it off from other nice Birmingham neighborhoods and it started to go downhill.
Nancy remembered the house with considerable nostalgia. A wide, balconied front porch graced one end and a similarly balconied sleeping porch the other. Five beds lined the sleeping porch and the family slept out there much of the year—not unusual in the hot, humid Southland. Besides, "Muddy was a firm believer in fresh air."
A log fireplace adorned the living room and one whole end of the room was windows. A sitting room by the back staircase boasted a tile-based fireplace that burned coal. To the left of the living room was the kitchen and a breakfast nook. To the other side of the kitchen was a huge dining room. A Victorian glass chandelier hung over the drop-leaf table that could seat twelve people. Left of the dining room was the sun parlor. Upstairs consisted of but two rooms. One was young Radford's bedroom. When he went to West Point, Amy moved into his room. The other room was Mama's. The girls and their parents had downstairs bedrooms.
Eventually, the house was modernized from coal to gas heat. It was built at the bottom of a hill with a steep embankment on one side planted with several dozen rose bushes. The garage in back was big enough for two ponies and a Cadillac touring car. Archie, the family chauffeur, kept it in excellent running order.
This was good because Muddy was a woman ahead of her time. She liked to drive and took her children on frequent automobile trips—opportunities to get out of the house and away from her anxious mother.
Stephen Radford Batson was a big man from a farming family. His business was that of a contractor/builder. "He built roads and bridges," was Nancy's description. And he did well. Her favorite story about her father comes from long before she was born. As she told it, Rad Batson didn't like farming. He wanted to go to college and, he thought, become a pharmacist. Money was tight, but his father told him that whatever he could get from a watermelon patch he was raising, he could use for college tuition. Rad sold the watermelons and, with the proceeds in his pocket, went to Auburn to enroll in the university.
The president of the college was sitting outside under a tree enrolling students. "You look like an engineer to me," he told Rad, and promptly enrolled him in Civil Engineering, thereby setting him on a career path from which he did not deviate.
Excerpted from Nancy Batson Crews by Sarah Byrn Rickman Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Byrn Rickman. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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