Saturday 17 November 2018

Remembering Nancy Corrigan, Achill Island's aircraft model

Recalling an age when pioneering female flyers risked not just male discrimination, but sabotage

Nancy Corrigan sits proudly in her cockpit.
Nancy Corrigan sits proudly in her cockpit.
Nancy Corrigan portrait
Nancy Corrigan beside her plane

Damian Corless

'She had pluck." That's the verdict of one veteran US flyer heard in a new TG4 documentary on the remarkable Irish aviatrix Nancy Corrigan. In 1929 the teenage Nancy left her Achill Island home in Mayo to settle in Cleveland, Ohio, where many of her fellow islanders had established a strong community in the decades since the Great Famine.

Aged 19 she took the job as a nursemaid to a well-to-do family. In the normal course of events, it would have been a nice comfortable way to pass a couple of years before settling down to marriage and children. But Nancy had a very different path in life planned out for herself. Born just 11 years after the Orville Brothers made the first powered flight, she entered her 20s as the world was entering what would become known as The Golden Age Of Flight.

It was a time when women were casting off the prim and proper shackles of Victorian and Edwardian society. The more adventurous wore their hair short, threw off suffocating layers of clothing, took up drinking and smoking, and challenged the norms of the Man's World surrounding them. For those with the money, flight offered the opportunity to compete with men on an equal footing. Almost. As one contributor to the documentary puts it: "Women flyers suffered discrimination, and sometimes sabotage, by men who didn't like what they were doing."

But Nancy was not to be put off. In 1932 she made headlines as the "nurse girl" who had made her first solo flight after fewer than five hours in the air, slashing the normal training time in half. The lessons, and the business of putting a plane in the air, cost a pretty penny, so she supplemented her income as a nursemaid by working as a sought-after fashion model in New York, pouring her handsome earnings into her real passion.

It was a time when even the most alluring fashion model couldn't hope to compete with the glamour of the female aviatrix. For a handful of years a handful of women outshone their male rivals as symbols of stylish derring-do. A key factor was the advent of the cinema newsreel. Flyers were glamourised on the silver screen, newspapers, cigarette cards and advertising billboards. In 1930, after Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, over one million people lined the streets of London to welcome her home. Such was her celebrity that one item of fan mail posted from Australia arrived in her letterbox marked simply "Amy. England."

Nancy took particular inspiration from two Irish female high-flyers - Mary Bailey and Mary Heath - who had already made world headlines by the time she took her first lessons. Although the Irish Free State had recently come into being, Monaghan's Mary Bailey was inevitably claimed as "one of our great British aviatrixes" by the neighbouring island, which sealed the deal by making her a Dame of the British Empire. Within months of getting her pilot's licence in 1927, Bailey became the first woman to fly across the Irish Sea and she set a new world altitude record. She followed up with an 18,000-mile distance record.

From Knockaderry in Limerick, Mary Heath's superstardom was cut tragically short. As an aviatrix, she made world headlines in 1928 as the first pilot of either sex to fly from Cape Town at the tip of South Africa to London in an open cockpit plane. Married to a Lord, she had the world at her feet before she attended the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929.

It was that same year that the young Nancy Corrigan arrived in Cleveland fresh off a ship from Ireland. The documentary doesn't record whether Nancy witnessed Mary Heath crash her plane shortly before the competition, which left her with horrific career-ending injuries. Mary eventually returned to Ireland with her third husband, setting up a private airline where many of the first Aer Lingus pilots would earn their wings. The money ran out and the woman who had soared to the highest heights died penniless in a hapless tumble from a London tram in 1939.

By the time Nancy Corrigan had established herself as a top flyer, many of the great challenges of the Golden Age Of Flight had been conquered, so she set her sights elsewhere. With the onset of World War II she was snapped up by the US Air Force for a role that would gain her recognition as one of its greatest pilot training experts. Her record for bringing her cadets up to scratch was second to none.

With the return of peace she went on to became only the second woman to earn a commercial pilot's licence in the US. Over the decades that followed she logged millions of miles on commercial jets.

But the thrill of the race never left her. The documentary features extensive footage of the 1948 National Air Races in her adopted hometown of Cleveland. Nancy desperately wanted to compete, but the price of putting a plane in the air was beyond her. So she turned to the town's community of Achill expats, who came up with the required funding.

Witnesses to the race testify that Nancy was leading when a reckless competitor swooped from above in a move that would have resulted in a mid-air collision and the death of both pilots. Nancy swerved to avoid a crash and finished third.

As one of the racers climbs from the cockpit, the on-course commentator can be heard on the documentary saying: "Don't lose your handbag!"

It was still that sort of world, but Nancy Corrigan never gave up on challenging and changing it.

'Nancy Corrigan - Speirbhean Acla' airs on January 6 (Nollaig na mBan) at 9.30pm on TG4.

Ireland's female stars of the sky

At the start of the 1930s Nancy Corrigan had no fewer than three internationally famous Irish role models to show her the way.

Taking to the skies as early as 1910, Belfast's Lilian Bland designed her own aircraft, Mayfly, and had it assembled to the point where all she awaited was the fuel tank. She couldn't wait. With can-do spirit she concocted a jerry-built tank using a whiskey bottle, and her deaf auntie's ear trumpet as the fuel feed.

Mary Bailey from Monaghan became the first woman to fly across the Irish Sea in 1927, shortly after gaining her pilot's licence. She went on to set a new world altitude record, followed by a new 18,000 mile distance record.

From Knockaderry in Limerick, Mary Heath was a force of nature who stormed through life at breakneck speed. Leaving school on Dublin's Mespil Road, she served as a WWI dispatch rider, had her portrait painted by Sir John Lavery, became British javelin champion, set a disputed world record for the high-jump and became a delegate to the Olympic Council. As an aviatrix, she made world headlines in 1928 as the first pilot of either sex to fly Cape Town to London in an open cockpit plane.

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life