An Irishwoman’s Diary on Nancy Corrigan, aviation pioneer and model

From Achill to a life on the runways of the US

“With fewer than five hours of training, ‘the brunette colleen’ made her first solo flight”

“With fewer than five hours of training, ‘the brunette colleen’ made her first solo flight”

 

There were two sorts of runways in Nancy Corrigan’s life; one relating to aviation, the other to fashion. This remarkable Mayo woman, who was born in Owenduff in Achill in 1912 and who became one of the most successful aviation pioneers in the US, funded her career by modelling in New York. She was one of the four daughters of John Corrigan, a railway worker on the Westport to Achill line (now the Greenway) who died in a train accident, leaving his wife Maggie Ward and their children destitute.

Following in her sisters’ footsteps and in the timeworn Irish emigrant route, Nancy left Ireland at 17, sailing from Cork to New Jersey and from there to Cleveland, where she found work as a nanny with a wealthy family in Shaker Heights. In a new documentary by GMarsh TV about her life, Spéirbhean Acla, to be broadcast by TG4 tomorrow at 9.30pm, Bernadette Masterson, herself an Owenduff native, traces the history of her famous relative (to whom she bears a remarkable resemblance) and who was a cousin of her mother’s. “She aimed for the sky and got what she wanted”, says Masterson.

World records

In 1932 – the same year as Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic – Nancy began to take flying lessons in her off-duty hours completely unbeknownst to her family or her employers. With fewer than five hours of training, “the brunette colleen” made her first solo flight, breaking world records for flying solo in 4.45 hours and making the front page of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper. “I wasn’t a bit afraid. It felt like a million dollars,” she told reporters.

Where her drive and persistence came from, no one knows, and it is family speculation that the landing of Alcock & Brown in Connemara might have triggered her ambition or she may have been inspired by Earhart’s success and by Cleveland’s National Air Race event.

Flying may have been a glamorous pursuit then but it was hard and expensive work. Private flying lessons cost around $700, a huge sum in those days for a young nursemaid earning around $10 a week.

So Nancy moved to New York and joined the Robert Power modelling school, the first of its kind, representing many models who later went on to develop successful movie careers in Hollywood. To be a “Power’s Girl” was a much sought after position and the beautiful Nancy Corrigan also specialised in hand modelling, which earned enough for her to continue her aviation career and acquire the necessary piloting certificates.

When war broke out Nancy obtained a position with Spartan College in Tulsa as an instructor training US and civilian pilots and joined the Women Flyers of America, quite an achievement at a time when aviation was considered a men’s club and women had a hard time getting recognition. “They faced discrimination, sabotage when racing and there was a distaste generally for them”, one commentator recalled.

For the Kendal Air Show in 1948, and with a record of 5,000 hours in 16 years, Nancy ploughed all her savings into purchasing an AT6 trainer twin engineering aircraft for the event. So many successful Corrigans in Cleveland – lawyers, doctors and officials clubbed together to help with the purchase, that she painted “Corrigans” on the fuselage of the plane.

“It was a test of skill, aircraft management and bravery – and very dangerous”, according to a man who had been instructed by Nancy and who at the age of 85 is still flying. “She was a natural instructor and patient and one of only two women at the time who managed to break into the commercial corporate field”, he says.

Corrigan went on to fly 600,000 miles in a commercial flight career that ended with her retirement and retreat to Florida in the 1960s. “She used all her gifts, her charm, savvy and contacts to get what she wanted,” says Masterson.

A little museum devoted to Nancy and a coffee shop are being built along the Greenway by John Corrigan, Masterson’s cousin, near the spot where the family lived and which is due to open next summer. It will forever commemorate a Mayo woman for whom the sky was the limit and who died at 69 from a heart attack sitting on her porch in Florida.