Achill’s queen of the skies
Nancy Corrigan was just 17 when she, like many others, left her home in Achill for Cleveland – but once there, she blazed a trail all her own
In 1929, at the age of 17, Nancy Corrigan left her home in Owenduff in Achill for Cleveland, Ohio, following in the footsteps of many of her fellow islanders. For young women from Achill of that era, life in Cleveland meant getting a menial job, sending money home and eventually settling down and getting married. But Nancy was no ordinary woman, and the life of a housemaid did not appeal to her adventurous spirit.
Instead, she decided that the sky was her limit and she became the second female commercial pilot in the US. She also took part in high-speed air races, and during World War II, was employed by the US Air Force to train many of their fighter pilots.
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Nancy also worked as a fashion model for nearly ten years with the prominent New York, John Robert Powers modelling agency.
LIFE started off very differently for Nancy, however. She was born in 1914 in Owenduff in a small stone house close to the Achill-to-Westport railway line. She was just a toddler when her father, John, was killed on the railway in an accident that was to change her family’s destiny. Soon after, her two oldest siblings emigrated to Cleveland, and when they had money saved, her mother, Maggie, and the rest of the family, including Nancy, joined them.
“It is such an extraordinary and amazing achievement – to have left Achill for America with only a national school education, and then within a short space of time to become a pilot,” Achill resident John Corrigan, Nancy’s second cousin, told The Mayo News.
When Nancy arrived in America, she did initially work as a housemaid, but in three years, she had left that life in Cleveland behind and headed for New York to become a model for the John Robert Powers modelling agency. At the time Powers was one of the largest modelling agencies in the US, and the women on its books were known as ‘Powers Girls’. So famous was the agency that in 1943, its story was made into a Hollywood movie.
While many a girl would have killed to have the glamorous life of a New York model, Nancy had her eye on a bigger prize, and she used the money she earned from modelling to take private flying lessons. So unusual was her decision that she soon became a local celebrity in Cleveland, appearing in newspapers when she astonished instructors by making her first solo flight at the age 19 – after just five hours of training.
“The family never even knew she was taking lessons,” John explained. “They only found out about it the next morning when it hit all three Cleveland newspapers.”
MEANWHILE, back in Achill, John heard very little about Nancy and her exploits when he was growing up. “I heard my father talk about these Yanks and their aeroplanes, but I had no idea about what she did and heard nothing about it,” John explained. “It was only when I went to America a few years ago and met her sister, Kathleen, in Florida that I discovered her full story.”
Kathleen, who is now a hale and hearty 98-year-old living in Orlando told John all about her sister’s exciting life and gave him newspaper cuttings that recorded her achievements.
“The story goes that soon after arriving in America she saw a plane in the sky and she said that one day she hoped to do the same thing,” said John.
Nancy’s story fascinated Cleveland at the time, and she regularly appeared in the local papers, where she was described as an ‘attractive raven-haired slip of an Irish colleen’.
During World War II, she was given the responsibility of training the air cadets in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and later at Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri.
“For the Air Force to have the confidence at that time to give a woman the responsibility of training their cadets during the height of the war just goes to show how good she must have been,” said John.
However tragedy struck Nancy’s life again during the war. Her ‘only true love’ – another pilot –– was killed when his plane was shot down. Heartbroken at the loss, she never married.
WHEN the war was over, Nancy took up racing high-speed planes, and took part in numerous competitions. In 1948, she finished third in the Kendall Trophy Race at the National Air Races in Cleveland in her AT-6 military trainer, sponsored by the Corrigans of Cleveland, who were a prominent legal firm in the city.
She later renamed her plane ‘Right Way’ as a nod to Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan, famous for his ‘wrong way’ flight across the Atlantic.
Nancy’s star continued to rise in the aviation world, and she went on to became the second female to earn a commercial pilot’s licence, and went on to enjoy a commercial flying career spanning 30 years. She logged more than 600,000 miles on commercial jets before becoming a pilot for the Erie Resistor Corporation in 1953 flying executives around the US and Canada.
The Cleveland newspapers’ fascination with their queen of the skies continued too, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporting on March 23, 1959, that “One half of all the women commercial pilots in the United States was visiting Cleveland yesterday.”
Asked how men feel when they find out they have a woman pilot, Nancy responded, “Some are scared, but I’ve never had any trouble flying and they soon relax.”
Nancy Corrigan retired in the early 1960s and moved to Florida. She died suddenly in 1983 at the age of 69.
The story of Nancy’s life also appears in the Tonragee NS Centenary book, which is available in shops in Achill and Mulranny.