During WWII and the years following, an influx of women entered the field of aviation. Born during aviation’s golden age, Nancy Bailey Bushko was one of 50 female students enrolled in the flight school at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri from 1949 – 51. In a field that had been dominated by men, Bushko joined the rise of women who were stepping up in aviation. In 1950, she was one of 500 women flight instructors in the world.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel opposition from men in our department. They were very helpful. They were proud of us,” Bushko said. “But, we weren’t competitive. It was the men who were out of the Air Force getting the good jobs, and women weren’t going to be given any part of that. For a long time, the most they would let women do was be a stewardess for the airline. But then, some women started private airports, teaching and different things like that.”
Bushko flew in air shows doing aerobatic flying and won spot landing contests. Early in her career she worked with Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). As opportunities opened up for women in aviation, Bushko found her niche as a flight instructor, receiving her instructor’s rating in 1952.
Raised in Glenburn Township, she worked at many area airports after college, including the Scranton Municipal Airport.
During her time as a flight instructor, Bushko trained GI’s returning from WWII to become pilots.
“One of my students was a GI who survived the Bataan Death March,” she said. “The GI’s were remarkably dedicated students and wonderful to teach and work with.”
For three years, she worked on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts at an airport managed by WASPs. The airport was owned by Nancy Harkness Love, who, with Amelia Earhart, founded the Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots.
Bushko managed a fly-in coffee shop that delivered pancake batter to tourists who camped in their planes next to blueberry bushes and grills to cook on.
“Our airport was parallel to the ocean,” she said. “It was an excellent fly-in vacation spot.”
Bushko flew prominent guests, like Katherine Cornell, James Cagney and Walter Cronkite in the 1950s while she worked there.
In 1956 she married John Bushko, one of only three in his company to return from WWII. The Bushkos settled in the Abingtons and had three children: John, Todd and Ann.
In 1961 they purchased a Piper 160 Cherokee.
“We lived in that plane,” Bushko said. “I flew it a lot through the children’s growing up years. My son Todd took his private exams and passed his private pilots flight test in the Cherokee.”
During Bushko’s career as a flight instructor, she had some scary moments.
“One student froze on the controls,” she said. “We were flying the Ryan PT-22. It was open cockpit. I was in the back and he was in the front,” Bushko said. “He was strong and I couldn’t get the controls from him. If they are next to you, you can reach over. But when you’re tandem like that, it’s a different situation. He couldn’t hear me screaming at him. I finally got the controls free. We went through some trees and there were branches in the gears and we tore up a little fabric but nobody got hurt. … That was a scary moment.”
“I had one emergency landing,” Bushko said. “I was with a student at an airport that didn’t maintain their planes well. We went north so I could keep my eye on a storm front. It was all mountainous territory. … We were doing a power off stall and I saw we were getting ice in the carburetor. Then, the engine just stopped. The prop was parallel, and it was a terrible feeling. We were high – probably four or five thousand feet. I was very cool and said to my student, ‘Well, we have an emergency.’
“I knew we had to establish an orbital glide. I forget the ratio on that plane now, but I figured it out that day and thought I had enough to get us back.
“I had to make a dead-stick landing and glide back to the airport. I didn’t do a pattern, I just came right in the back side and touched down in a field behind the hangar, not even on the runway. But I was down. And everybody came running. They threw it open and found the wire to the carburetor was broken. I saw that and got all shaky and went right down in a heap.”
Bushko remembers the flood of 1972 and getting in the Cherokee Piper to go have a look at the vast damage to the area.
“It was almost wall to wall water between the mountains,” she said. “It was a terrible flood. Down in Wilkes-Barre, we flew over and could see the top of the courthouse and some of the fluorescent signs still blinking coming out of the water.”
Bushko has fond memories, too.
She was with a friend in a Seabee along the river near Wilkes-Barre and flew under a bridge, never touching the water.
The amphibious plane was equipped with floats. Another time they had a hard landing on Lake Wallenpaupack that popped the windshield out. “We stood on the floats and he popped it back in,” Bushko said, laughing. “Maybe he’d had practice.”
Bushko is a member of the Aircraft and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Ninety-Nines. She received her gold card as a member of the Silver Wings Fraternity in 1999 for 50 years as a pilot.
Bushko’s friend, Brian Jones told her, “in today’s world you did something special. ... your accomplishments are astounding; as if all of the work, sacrifices and time you invested weren’t enough, you somehow managed to accomplish all that you did as a woman, during a time when women had so few opportunities.”
Bushko’s husband John, many friends, and even the Scranton Municipal Airport are all gone now. She sold her beloved Cherokee Piper to good friend Denis Johnson, who named it “The Golden Girl.”
At 88 years old, Bushko still looks to the sky when she sees or hears an airplane.
“I really haven’t retired,” she said. “But I don’t go up alone anymore. I prefer to fly with someone.
“But if I get in it, I can still fly it, I’ll tell ya,” she said, laughing.