Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pilot Betty Pettitt Nicholas: Pioneer in the Sky (Part 3)

Betty left the state aeronautics commission when the term of boss and close friend Cap Cornish, director, was ended by a newly elected governor in 1952. But, as Betty Pettitt Nicholas after her 1953 marriage, she remained busy in other aviation-related positions, and took frequent flights in the Cessna 170 that she and husband Ted had purchased. A trip in summer 1955 took them farther away from home than most: they journeyed to Quebec, Canada, and flew over her old haunts in the Adirondacks on the way home. She also took part in flying contests, and earned a bronze-and-glass candy-dish trophy in 1958 for winning a spot-landing competition (extreme accuracy in wheel touchdown).

Such was her life in the 1960s, flying for fun, taking part in air races sponsored by the 99s (in the first one in 1961, she finished sixth), and promoting aviation at every opportunity. She also found employment with the College Life Insurance Company, working as executive secretary to the president and chairman of the board. In 1967, she and Ted bought a new Cessna 150, and that summer enjoyed a trip to Montreal, where they experienced Expo 67 (the World’s Fair), one of the greatest events the city has ever hosted. How popular was it? In a nation of 20 million, and a province of about 6 million, attendance surpassed 50 million, a record that still stands.

On their return to Indianapolis, as they had done back in 1955, they “circled home via the Adirondacks and New Jersey. It was a lovely summer vacation,” said Betty. Sadly, it was the last such trip they enjoyed together. In February 1968, during a visit to her mother and sister’s home in New Jersey, Ted suffered a heart attack and died.

By that time, Betty was serving as secretary of WASP, where she remained deeply involved with activities, as well as with the Indiana Chapter of the 99s. Attending meetings, conventions, and reunions often involved travel to distant locations, including a visit to California (for WASP) in 1969, and again in 1971. It was a year that proved routinely busy for her: she won a cash prize racing her Cessna in the International Air Race in Indiana; was developing a word-processing center for the insurance company in a remarkable new complex known as The Pyramids; and was planning a vacation to Puerto Rico for February of the following year.

In 1972, besides the Caribbean trip, she attended the three-day WASP reunion in June at Sweetwater, Texas, where all members had received military pilot training in the early 1940s. At the age of 59, Betty showed no signs of slowing down.

She was elected secretary-treasurer of WASP in 1973, but gratefully declined with the explanation, “I regret that circumstances make it impossible for me to accept the job at present,” feeling that she had too many irons in the fire to do the job justice.

A year later, in the organization’s newsletter, Betty updated her status: “Still manager of a word-processing center and enjoying working in the local architectural wonder, The Pyramids. Still fly my Cessna 150 when time permits and enjoy taking up first-timers. Would enjoy hearing from or seeing other WASP as they come through or near Indianapolis.”

In 1974, WASP members expressed their collective outrage when the US Navy declared that women would be accepted as pilot trainees, marking the first time in the nation’s history that “women would fly US military aircraft.” That announcement ignored the tremendous work performed by WASP pilots during WWII, including Betty Pettitt Nicholas, and it didn’t go unnoticed. The organization redoubled their efforts to win recognition as military veterans.

She was again elected WASP secretary-treasurer in 1975 and became a member of the board of directors, increasing her influence in the fight for justice. With close friend and fellow member Madge Minton, she pressed forward, and progress was made. In 1977, WASP won military recognition, but were not yet deemed official veterans.

The war by then was 30 years in the past, and with no active WASP program, there was no source of new blood. But members wished the organization to remain “pure” in the sense that only actual WASP graduates could join, thus preserving their history. For that reason, they incorporated in 1978, making it a closed body. To an outsider, that decision may have seemed self-defeating: as aging WASP members died off, the group would eventually dissolve, while on the other hand, a larger membership would wield more power. But a two-stage plan was in place, and incorporation was merely the first step.

In early 1978, nine leaders of the group, including Betty, made an important strategic move, forming and incorporating the Women’s Military Pilots Association (WMPA), which welcomed new female navy fliers to join them. Women pilots from the past could now maintain their special, historic identity while uniting with modern-day pilots as a force to be reckoned with.

Later that year, Betty was elected vice-president of WASP for a two-year term. She spent much time aloft as well: there was a 2,100 mile, eight-day trip with several stops in Florida, including a meeting of the 99s; a flight to Denver, and then on to San Diego for a WASP conference; and a trip to New York City. Life remained busy on the personal front as well. She was promoted from manager of the word-processing center to Special Projects Coordinator, and began “preparing procedure manuals, users’ guides, and a dictating course for word processing,” which, she said, “takes the pressure off but isn’t half as interesting.” On the plus side, at age 64, she had a regular schedule, replacing the erratic work hours she had endured for years. A newsletter snippet mentioned that “Next February she looks forward to retiring and spending the following summer flying the 150 [Cessna] around the country.”

Although she worked hard, it was also true that Betty knew how to enjoy life. While attending meetings at different locations across the country to address organizational needs, women pilots made time for a number of “special” outings. A fine example was a 1978 gathering of WASP members that she joined in Chicago. It apparently was quite a time, as reported in their newsletter. “The weather didn’t cooperate at all! But that didn’t stop a bunch of P-47 Pilots. We were educated in the Industrial Museum, lived, wined, and dined in the Playboy Hotel, and shared drinks, beautiful views, and fabrications atop the John Mansfield Bldg.” Notorious American flyboys had nothing on those gals!

Betty made good on the plan to retire early in 1979, and reported celebrating “by ferrying a Cessna Hawk from Wichita to Indianapolis, and then a flying vacation via Bonanza [a six-seater] to Florida.” It also proved a pivotal year for WASP members: they were officially granted military veteran status by the federal government, ending decades of frustration. Many women, through persistence, were responsible for the victory. The Indianapolis Star recognized two of them, touting Madge Minton and Betty Pettitt Nicholas as “instrumental in winning military recognition for WASP’s contributions during the war.” They had helped right a wrong that had endured for 34 years.

She worked tirelessly for the organization, still serving as vice-president, paying WASP bills until all past commitments were met, and flying to several states, including Florida that year, to check in on members of the WASP community. In March of the following year (1980), she flew with her sister and a pilot friend, Esther Berner, to Florida, visiting Riviera Beach, spending 10 days at Pompano Beach, and meeting with friends in Fort Meyer and Venice before a final stop in Orlando, where they looked in on the hotel that would host their reunion in the fall. Shortly after, Betty flew with Berner to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City for the dedication ceremony of the Paula Loop Building. One of 38 WASP members to die in service, Loop was killed in 1944 when the plane she was delivering crashed near Medford, Oregon.

In 1981, Betty’s flights spanned the country, including two trips with Berner, one to El Paso in March, and another in April to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire for a critical meeting between two entities. As WASP members bent on solidifying both organizations, Betty’s contingent met and welcomed current women military pilots to the WMPA, and upgraded the bylaws “to more properly reflect the goals of the present rated officers who were to have this organization as their own.”

The two groups bonded with a common purpose, uniting behind the newly stated WMPA mission: “This corporation is formed to engage in strictly educational, charitable and benevolent purposes, for the prosecution of historical, literary, and educational purposes of the corporation, and to promote and preserve for historical, educational, and literary purposes the role of women pilots and navigators in the service of their country during times of war and peace.”

It was a goal Betty had been working towards, and at age 67, she was both a WMPA founder and a proud member of both organizations.

Next week, part 4: extreme travel, a crash, and returning to the Adirondacks.

Photos: Betty Pettitt (1944), Wings Across America; 1967 Cessna 150 (Cessna 150-152 Club, Oregon); Betty Pettitt Nicholas, back row, left, WASP Board of Directors (1975 newsletter); title of bill granting veteran status

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

Comments are closed.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox