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Nancy Batson Crews

Alabama's First Lady of Flight

Sarah Byrn Rickman, Jane Kirkpatrick

Publication Year: 2009

A riveting oral history/biography of a pioneering woman aviator.

This is the story of an uncommon woman--high school cheerleader, campus queen, airplane pilot, wife, mother, politician, business-woman--who epitomizes the struggles and freedoms of women in 20th-century America, as they first began to believe they could live full lives and demanded to do so. World War II offered women the opportunity to contribute to the work of the country, and Nancy Batson Crews was one woman who made the most of her privileged beginnings and youthful talents and opportunities.

In love with flying from the time she first saw Charles Lindbergh in Birmingham, (October 1927), Crews began her aviation career in 1939 as one of only five young women chosen for Civilian Pilot Training at the University of Alabama. Later, Crews became the 20th woman of 28 to qualify as an "Original" Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) pilot, employed during World War II shuttling P-38, P-47, and P-51 high-performance aircrafts from factory to staging areas and to and from maintenance and training sites. Before the war was over, 1,102 American women would qualify to fly Army airplanes. Many of these female pilots were forced out of aviation after the war as males returning from combat theater assignments took over their roles. But Crews continued to fly, from gliders to turbojets to J-3 Cubs, in a postwar career that began in California and then resumed in Alabama.

The author was a freelance journalist looking to write about the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) when she met an elderly, but still vital, Nancy Batson Crews. The former aviatrix held a reunion of the surviving nine WAFS for an interview with them and Crews, recording hours of her own testimony and remembrance before Crews's death from cancer in 2001. After helping lead the fight in the '70s for WASP to win veteran status, it was fitting that Nancy Batson Crews was buried with full military honors.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Series: Alabama Fire Ant


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

It’s said that place and space both border and define us. Historically this was true for women who typically found their place in the workings of the kitchen, the family, the near community. Within their life span, women often migrated only miles from the landscape of their birth. ...

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pp. xv-xvi

Nancy Batson Crews’s three children have worked with me, in full cooperation, throughout my research and the writing of this book. My heartfelt thanks to Paul Crews Jr., Radford Crews, and Jane Crews Tonarely. My thanks also to other members of Nancy’s family for their help: her late sister Amy Batson Strange; ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. 1-5

Nancy Elizabeth Batson was number twenty to qualify for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which was made up of the first twent-yeight women to fly for the U.S. Army in World War II. ...

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Ch.1: Boys, I’ve Brought You a Real Lemon

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pp. 6-10

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. ...

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Ch.2: Daughter of Alabama

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pp. 11-19

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. ...

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Ch.3: Flight!

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pp. 20-28

“‘There’s going to be a Civilian Pilot Training Program here at the University of Alabama,’ she announced. ‘They will take one woman for every ten men who sign up to learn to fly. Professor Fred Maxwell is the man you need to talk to if you are interested.’ ...

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Ch.4: The WAFS

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pp. 29-38

Cornelia’s room was down the hall from Nancy’s on the second floor of the women’s barracks. “I was fascinated by the array of liquor bottles lined up on the dresser. I felt quite sophisticated. When she asked me what I wanted, I said ‘bourbon’ like I had been drinking it for years.” ...

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Ch.5: The Best of All Jobs

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pp. 39-50

“I developed an inferiority complex.” Unlikely words to come out of Nancy Batson’s mouth. “I was supposed to go to Dallas in January 1943, but Betty [Gillies] pulled me out and kept me in Wilmington. She never told us why the orders were changed. I thought I was being left in Wilmington because I wasn’t any good. ...

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Ch.6: Women in Pursuit

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pp. 51-62

By December 1943, the United States had been involved in World War II for two years. Warplanes were rolling off the assembly lines, in particular those swift, powerful single-engine, single-cockpit planes known as pursuits. The Army needed pilots to ferry those airplanes from the factory to the docks for shipment abroad. ...

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Ch.7: The Question of Militarization

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pp. 63-67

Militarizing the women pilots had been the plan from the beginning. The question was, how? And why militarize the women pilots? Because military status would give them military insurance, death benefits, hospitalization, and pensions. And continuity of their service would be ensured. ...

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Ch.8: The Best and Worst of Times

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pp. 68-74

Nancy’s memories of the assignments in Farmingdale throughout 1944 are her fondest from the WASP years. The small contingent that went up there each month was like family. Between July 24 and September 12, 1944, Nancy, Gertrude, Teresa, and Sis Bernheim more often than not were stationed in Farmingdale flying P-47s to Newark daily. ...

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Ch.9: Beyond the War: Life Goes On

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pp. 75-82

Nancy Batson and Paul Crews may have known they were destined for each other when the war separated them for four years, but Nancy had no romantic strings attached to her while she was in the WAFS. As one who enjoyed the company of men, she dated throughout her service career and enjoyed the mixed-company social life ...

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Ch.10: The Pain of Change

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pp. 83-91

“When she got down, she went right back up again and this time she took Radford and me with her. My brother and I were in the back seat. My mother was in the front with the pilot. She told him she had flown in World War II and he let her fly the plane while we were up. That poor woman got hooked all over again.” ...

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Ch.11: Gliding: Better Than Sex!

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pp. 92-97

B. J. London, Nancy’s friend from WAFS days, and her business partner, Barney Frazier, operated Barney Frazier Aviation at the Long Beach airport. B.J. bought and sold airplanes and provided that service for several of her WASP friends over the years. She also belonged to the Ninety-Nines chapter there in Long Beach. ...

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Ch.12: Paul and the WASP

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pp. 98-107

Paul Crews was not an Alabama native; his family came to Birmingham from Elgin, Illinois. His father, Fristoe Givens Crews, was a store manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co.—but he was a specialist at what he did. He had the skills to improve the profitability of a store and he was sent to Birmingham in the 1930s to do just that. ...

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Ch.13: Passing the Torch: Radford Learns to Fly

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pp. 108-114

Nineteen seventy-five was a pivotal year for Nancy Batson Crews. She attended the WASP reunion in Reno and handed over the presidential duties to Bee Haydu. She also took part in her third and, as it turned out, final Powder Puff Derby. Once again, she flew the Super Cub solo. ...

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Ch.14: California City

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pp. 115-120

With Paul’s death, Nancy’s life changed drastically. She had lived in a holding pattern as his condition worsened. Now she had to make the best of her situation. Paul left a pension and Nancy had her own business as well as land holdings in Alabama. All this figured in making her financially independent, but far from well off. ...

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Ch.15: Lake Country Estates

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pp. 121-128

“There I was in California and we had this big hunk of property back in Alabama. The other family members wanted to realize their money from this land we held. Until Jane got married later in 1980, I had to keep things going from California City. So, I got this big real estate firm to help me decide what to do with it. ...

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Ch.16: Enhancing the Legacy

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pp. 129-136

In 1979, Sally Van Wagenen Keil, the niece of one of the seventeen women pilots Jackie Cochran sent to Lockbourne Army Airfield for B-17 transition in the fall of 1943, published the first popular history of the WASP Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines. ...

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Ch.17: Nancy and the Planes She Ferried

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pp. 137-140

Early in May of 1999, Nancy called yours truly. She was coming to Dayton for the reunion, May 24 and 25. Could we get together? Nancy and I had met in 1992 when she came to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) for the WASP program. ...

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Ch.18: The Reunion

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pp. 141-148

The house, as Nancy had described it, sat at a ninety-degree turn in the road. As I rounded the corner and pulled into the drive, two women sitting on the front porch rose from their wicker chairs, waving. One of them was Nancy. The other, I knew the minute I got a good look at her, was Teresa James. ...

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Ch.19: From Cub to King Air

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pp. 149-156

Being Nancy, she planned ahead. Prior to the airplane’s arrival, she accompanied her friends Ed Stevenson and Jim Harris, past president of the Birmingham Aero Club, to Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, in April 1999. They flew down in Jim’s Cessna 182. Nancy went for the fun of aviation’s annual spring fling, ...

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Ch.20: Pneumonia, or Something Worse?

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pp. 157-164

The cough rattled deep in her chest. A chilly wave of apprehension washed over the scene, leaving me with a sense of dread. We sat facing each other in a booth in the bar of the Hope Hotel, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, nursing glasses of Killian’s Red. ...

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Ch.21: Terminal

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pp. 165-171

Treatment was out of the question. Her illness was terminal and she had accepted that. She was permanently on oxygen and several auxiliary tanks lay on the floor next to the dining room table. A deliveryman appeared twice a week to remove the used tanks and bring fresh ones. ...

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Ch.22: Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame

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pp. 172-175

Back at Nancy’s house after the service, family members and friends gathered to talk and, thanks to neighborly Southern hospitality, have a bite to eat. There, I had a chance to talk at length with Jane and Radford. ...

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Ch.23: Redemption

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pp. 176-180

Beginning with Nancy’s induction into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in October 1989, relations between Nancy and Paul began to thaw, if only slightly. Radford had called Paul to tell him that, on the advice of her lawyer, their mother had written him back into her will and that he needed to sign some papers. ...

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Ch.24: Paul Jr.

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pp. 181-202

After Nancy’s death, Paul began a spiritual journey. The two months he spent with his mother to help make the process of dying easier for her deeply affected both of them. Nancy’s Christmas Eve awakening made it possible for her to be at peace—with herself and with her son. ...

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pp. 182-184

Nancy Batson Crews had a profound effect on many people’s lives. Her life and her death probably had their greatest impact on her elder son. Paul now uses the special gift his mother gave him—the lessons of forgiveness he learned from living through her death—to help others. ...


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pp. 185-196


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pp. 198-202


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pp. 203-208

Index of Airplanes that Nancy Flew

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pp. 209-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780817382933
E-ISBN-10: 0817382933
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355531
Print-ISBN-10: 0817355537

Page Count: 230
Illustrations: 24
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Alabama Fire Ant