Alberta Hunt Nicholson, Full Speed Ahead

She raced Airplanes across the country. Eight times
She served her country in World War II as a pilot
She is the only woman in the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame
She grew up on Colorado Avenue in south Baker City

Full Speed Ahead
Alberta Hunt Nicholson got out and got going!

     Nicholson was inducted into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame--Located at Hill Air Force Base Aerospace Museum near Ogden, Utah on May 26, 2001.
     Nicholson was born in Baker City on April 20, 1914 and grew up in the south end of town on Colorado Avenue. 
     Her brothers, Date and Tom Hunt, stayed in Baker and two of her nieces, Marge Kerns of Haines and Maretta Jones of Union, still remember keeping their ears open for the buzz of an airplane over head.
     "When Alberta was coming you could feel it in the air.  I'd know she was there because my mother would be laughing.  Then we'd run down the stairs, we knew if she was there, it'd be a good eavesdropping time," Jones said with a smile.
    
The story of Nicholson's life in flight starts in 1927.
     She first took to the sky at age 13 as a passenger in a Ford Tri-motor.
     The flight, however, proved to short for young Alberta, so she walked right up to the pilot and demanded a refund.
     "She said, 'you just took off and landed, that wasn't no ride," Walter said.
     Nicholson's venture into the pilot's seat didn't come until a few years later.
     She graduated from Baker High School in 1932.  after earning a degree in music and education in 1937 from the University of Utah, she taught elementary school for three years in Hunstville and Hooper, Utah.
     But the cockpit called.
     She gave piano lessons during the summer to raise money for flying lessons, where she was the only woman in the ground instruction class of 100.
     She finished in the top 10 percent and qualified for a federal scholarship that would fund flying lessons.
     "They decided they were going to give the top 10 or 12 a grant so they could learn flying," Walter said.
     But her application was returned, marked "No Females."
     She wasn't deterred, and continued teaching music lessons to raise money for flight lessons, Walter said.
     She had more than enough drive to overcome such a small barrier as gender discrimination, her niece Jones says.
     "I don't think she felt there was anything she couldn't do.  Whatever she wanted, she moved the earth to get it,' Jones said.
     Nicholson got her chance in 1943.
     With World War II in full swing, the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) formed to free up male pilots for combat duty.
     According to the WASP Web site (www.wasp-wwii.org) 1, 830 women were accepted into the program out of 25,000 applicants.  Of those, 1,074 earned their wings.
     Nicholson began training at Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, in August 1943 and received her wings in January 1944.
     The women completed the same training as every male cadet in the Army Air Force, and were the first females ever to fly military aircraft.
     Tasks for the WASPS included ferrying aircraft within the United States, towing targets for gunnery practice, flight instruction and transporting cargo and personnel.
     Nicholson's missions were a tad more risky.
     She was stationed at Luke Field in Phoenix, Arizona, and assigned to test fly repaired aircraft to make sure they were air worthy for the male cadets.
     "She wasn't afraid of anything," Jones said. "Most of us are held back by some sort of fear or worry.  She didn't have any of those, she went full speed ahead."
     The WASP disbanded on December 20, 1944, to open up jobs for the men returning from World War II.
     They were never made regular military, and weren't recognized as veterans until 1977.
     Though short-lived, it was Nicholson's war time service that influenced her inclusion in the Aviation Hall of Fame.
     "Alberta was nominated and selected for her outstanding contribution to the national defense by her service as a WASP during World War II, and her continuing contribution to aviation during her remaining years," said Tom Cox, Hall of Fame director.  "She was a remarkable lady and a pioneer in the aviation industry."
     After the war, Nicholson worked in Germany where she served as administrative assistant to the Chief of Civil Aviation.
     "I don't know exactly what she did, but I know any plane coming or going had to check with her," Jones said.
     She later returned to the US to teach piano at the University of Utah, owned her own plane, a Cessna 182, and held instructor and commercial licenses.  She competed in eight transcontinental all women Powder Puff derbies from 1955 to 1982 as a member of the Ninety Nines, an organization fro women pilots founded in 1929 by Amelia Earhart.
     Nicholson's name appears along with other members of the Ninety Nines in International Forest of Friendship at Earheart's birthplace at Atchison, Kansas.
     In addition to flying, Nicholson continued with her music and worked as a recreational therapist at the Veterans Administrative Hospital in Salt Lake City from 1952 to 1977.
     She married Walter, a fellow flyer who served in the Air Force for 14 years, on November 23, 1957.
     "We had two cars and six different airplanes," he said.
     Her induction into the Hall of fame did come as somewhat of a surprise to the family.
     "We were all thrilled.  We didn't have a lot of medals in our family," Jones said with a laugh.
     Alberta, too, was pretty pleased. "She wasn't saying much then, she was so ill, but she was pleased.  It was probably the great honor for her." Jones said.
     And the recognition seems a fitting honor for this woman who pursued her passion no matter what the obstacles.
     "I think people like her must be born with some predestined course and they don't give up.  She was a super woman, she really was," Jones said. "I'm about as different from her as I can get, but she's still an influence.  Don't sit there and do nothing, get out and get going!
She unveiled her plaque on June 12, 2002 at the age of 88, and passed away two weeks later on June 25, 2002, at her home in Salt Lake City.

Baker City Herald, August 2004, used with permission

Baker City

 

 

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