Nancy Corrigan was a rare bird. She was born on Achill Island, Co Mayo in 1912. Her father, who was described as a “railway servant” in the 1911 census, died in a rail accident when she was a toddler. Her eldest sister left school at 10 years of age to help raise the family, who, bit by bit, left the island to immigrate to Cleveland, Ohio.
When Corrigan arrived in Cleveland in 1929 it was the sixth largest city in the United States and booming. She got a job as a “nurse-girl” to a rich family. Unbeknownst to her employers and her mother and sisters, she spent her savings as a nanny on flying lessons. They only found out about her flying bug when she broke a world solo flying record in 1932 after only 4.45 hours of training, a feat that made the front pages.
“It is unusual for a girl to handle a plane as quickly as Miss Corrigan,” the Cleveland press wrote. It was the start of an illustrious career in the skies, which she financed by moving to New York to work as a catwalk model for the famous Powers modelling agency.
Bernadette Masterson has produced and narrated a documentary about Corrigan that will be screened on TG4 next week (JAN 6). Masterson is a first cousin (once removed) of Corrigan’s, and grew up in the same village, but knew little about her as a child beyond the fact that they had a relative they referred to as “The Flyer”. The elongated cottage where Corrigan grew up, and where her mother was born, was Masterson’s hen house growing up. What strikes Masterson about Corrigan is her confidence.
“I know what it’s like to grow up in Owenduff and I know that you’re encouraged to be good at school and all the rest of it, but the extent of her ambition and determination. Where did that come from? Her sister said she had the ambition to fly from when she was a little girl; that she pointed at an aeroplane and said, ‘I want to do that.’
“The difference between the paradigm of people in the west of Ireland versus people in Cleveland, Ohio, and how you could shift from one worldview into another when, for example, in 1927 the bishops were getting together in Maynooth and saying a woman’s place was in the home, women shouldn’t have anything to do with fashion and people shouldn’t be going out to the dancehalls. Yet she transmuted from that worldview to Cleveland where the sky was the limit, literally and metaphorically.”
Despite the can-do attitude in the air in America, Corrigan had to overcome a lot of nasty discrimination. Aviation, which was in the middle of its golden age, was a man’s game at the time. In the 1929 “Powder Puff Derby”, the world’s first all-women air race, one of the contestant’s flying wires disintegrated in flight, almost causing her death.
“They investigated and found someone had poured sulphuric acid on them,” says Kim Jones, an aviation historian. “Others had their gasoline tainted with sugar or another additive. There was a lot of resentment, kind of like today with women combat pilots.”
The planes she piloted in the 1930s were rickety machines made up of a wooden frame, glue and cotton cloth. During the Second World War, Corrigan trained US fighter pilots. In 1948, “the raven-haired ex-model” made headlines for her part in the 1948 Kendall Trophy, a famous air race, which involved five laps around a 15-mile course.
Spectators looked on overhead at the drama as the planes vied for position at about 350 miles an hour. Corrigan was leading until another pilot cut across her. She was unsighted – sitting in a glass canopy in a plane without mirrors – but managed to avoid a collision by reacting in time.Corrigan was a noted instructor.
During six years as head of St Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri, she had the rare distinction of overseeing 600 women graduate their flight programme without a single failed test. She went on to become one of only two women with a multi-engine, commercial-rating pilot’s licence in the 1950s. She retired to Florida and died of a heart attack in 1983.
“Her focus was probably the greatest thing about her,” says Jones.
“Despite the obstacles, the least of which were economic, she persevered. Even in the ’50s, she was flying corporate planes, which was nearly unheard of. You had a bunch of chauvinistic businessmen – you know, we’ve all watched Mad Men on TV – but here’s this woman and they’re putting their lives into her hands to fly them around the country.
“She showed a lot of chutzpah. The thing about Nancy is that she was very understated. She wasn’t an Amelia Earhart. She wasn’t too big into tooting her own horn, as some of the other women pilots were. It’s made her a standout in that she didn’t stand out.”