In June 1982, Betty Pettitt Nicholas was awarded the Nicholas Trophy by the Indianapolis Aero Club as the previous year’s “most deserving woman pilot of the year.” It was the second time she was chosen for the honor, and as happened on the first occasion back in 1952, unusual circumstances surrounded the award. The trophy given 30 years earlier was named in honor of Dee Nicholas, who had been the wife of Ted Nicholas, a pilot and TV executive. A year after winning the award, Betty Pettitt married Ted, a union that ended 15 years later, in 1968, when he died of a heart attack.
Since that time, the Dee Nicholas Trophy had been retired, and was replaced by the Ted Nicholas Trophy. Which means Betty Pettitt Nicholas won a trophy named after her husband’s first wife, and another trophy named after him. To mark the occasion, a photograph of the honoree with seven of her good friends, all previous winners, appeared in the 99s newsletter. The Seymour Daily Tribune noted that the award was given “to the most deserving licensed woman pilot for her outstanding achievement and service in the field of aviation.” No doubt she was a good fit on both occasions.
In May 1983, as WASP convention chairwoman, Betty organized the first national convention uniting the two women pilot groups, WASP and WAMP. The event, held at Indianapolis, welcomed 60 pilots, 30 of them WASPs from WWII, and 30 currently flying for the US Air Force. As noted in the WASP newsletter, “Betty chaired this convention, offering a great program with ample time for visiting,” which proved a key factor in the event’s success, allowing strong bonds to develop as pilots old and new shared their experiences and ideas. (The two groups eventually combined in 1988 to become Women Military Aviators, Inc., as they are still known in 2018.)
In September 1984, Betty arrived to plenty of friendly ribbing at the WASP reunion held in San Diego. Roughly five months shy of her 71st birthday, she had crashed the night before her planned departure from Indianapolis. Undeterred, she showed up on time in California sporting a shiner and other minor injuries. Much to the relief of her many friends, she had survived what the pilots referred to among themselves as an “I walked away from it” plane crash.
She later thanked everyone through a note in the newsletter, and issued an open invitation to visit her new digs. “Many thanks to my concerned WASP friends after my aircraft accident…. Got the stitches out over my eye in Carmel [an Indianapolis suburb] and am now fully recovered. Have sold the airplane and hope to have another—or access to another — in the spring.
“Anyone in the vicinity of upper New York State is welcome to give me a call … and come and have a drink on the deck of the summer house my sister and I bought last year. It looks out over Upper Saranac Lake. We’ll be there from June 1 through September 30. I don’t have another plane yet and am considering whether it is wise to invest in one, or part of one, at this point in my life. But we can’t have everything — like a house in the Adirondacks and an airplane, too!”
The location of their home — Panther Mountain Road on the lake’s western shore — was no accident. One mile across the water on the eastern shore was Douglas Point, where the Pettitt family had spent the first seven years of Betty’s life beginning way back in 1914. During the next several years, fellow pilots and WASP members took her up on the offer, including one of her closest friends, Esther Berner, who commented, “I went to Tupper Lake, New York, and had a great visit with WASP Betty Nicholas. That is a beautiful spot. I hated to leave the gorgeous fall colors.”
Although she had a lovely place to spend summers (and some winters) in her twilight years, Betty never seemed to sit still for long, and wherever she went, the reason behind going was usually a connection to her life and love of flying. Age was no deterrent, and her travels were many. There was a WASP “mini-meeting” on the shore of Lake Champlain in 1988. In May 1989, she was one of seven WASPs to attend the P-47 Thunderbolt Pilots Association 27th Annual Reunion in Minneapolis, joining “several hundred flyboys in the celebration, which included an airshow as part of the entertainment.” In late July she left on a two-week visit to Sweden, the homeland of her mother (Mary Ostlund Pettitt). On Labor Day weekend, as reported in the WASP newsletter, she was in Washington, D.C., at the Women Military Aviators Convention “in the capacity of director.”
Not all her time traveling was spent in the air. In late 1992, Betty and several other members of the Indianapolis Aero Club went to Hawaii, where they boarded the ocean liner SS Constitution (not the historic ship USS Constitution) for a five-day tour of the islands. At Maui, several of them drove over what they described as “a torturous, narrow road/trail across the island” to visit the grave of Charles Lindbergh on the southeastern shore. They then returned to Honolulu “for a special WWII Veterans Pearl Harbor Cruise.”
In mid-September 1994, with 32 fellow WASP members, she attended a memorial dedication at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. It was a momentous occasion for the women, acknowledging their efforts during the war with the unveiling of a bronze statue depicting a WASP in full uniform, with wings. The presenter, Dawn Seymour, spoke well on their behalf: “From all the WASPs who flew in freedom’s cause during 1943–44 with the US Army Air Forces, may this statue inspire future generations of visitors who come here from around the world.”
Three months later, approaching her 81st birthday, Betty took over the position of WASP Historian, maintaining and expanding old records while documenting the recent recognition of women pilots’ critical contributions to the war effort a half-century earlier.
Because of difficulties walking, she had hip-replacement surgery in January 1995, which improved her mobility. She continued attending events too numerous to recount, and at many of them, she and other WASP members received the royal treatment. A typical example occurred in August, when they were invited to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, for the 10th Annual Sentimental Journey of the Piper Aircraft Corporation. Betty noted later that “Marty Wyall and I flew over with Margaret Ringenberg in her Cherokee, the only WASP who arrived in their own plane.” Forty members were quartered at Lock Haven University and shuttled back and forth to the airfield. There was a home-cooked buffet, she said, plus a “free breakfast at The Market, a buffet at the Restless Oaks Restaurant, a tea hosted in the gazebo at the Comfort Inn; yes, it was hot, but the welcome by local people was even warmer….
“Outside our WASP tent, stocked … with many interesting items for sale [as fundraisers], were some unusual ultralights, a huge truck as a rolling Piper Museum, ancient automobiles, and a number of vendors. WASP were given rides in Stearmans [biplanes from the late 1920s], autographed an endless number of books and other memorabilia, and visited with other pilots.
“At 2 pm each day, the WASP conducted forums on their experiences…. At the final banquet on Saturday night, we all sang three of our old songs and were then greeted with a standing ovation. It was certainly a happy event for all of us who were able to go, and we warmly thank the committee and all the people of Lock Haven for a tremendous reception.”
Among her other trips that year were to Oshkosh, Wisconsin (“I am impressed with their great hospitality,” she wrote), and with Madge Minton to Indiana University in Bloomington to present WASP history to Air Force/ROTC cadets there (“We were delighted a little later to be made honorary members of the unit”).
Another significant event in Betty’s life occurred that year: for the third time, the Indianapolis Aero Club awarded her the Nicholas Trophy as the year’s outstanding pilot. She was 81 years old, the WASP Historian, and maintained such a high level of activity that no one was deemed more deserving.
Next week, the conclusion: culminating events in a distinguished career, and greater heights for WASP
Photos: Betty Pettitt Nicholas, from WASP reunion in 1964 (newsletter); letterhead of 99s newsletter; letterhead of WASP newsletter; WASP statue, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB Museum); the Nicholas Trophy (Indianapolis Aero Club).