Pioneering pilot earns belated praise from her country

CORNWALL — Peter Oxford has a favorite photo of his grandmother, the late Nancy (Hopkins) Tier. The beaming young woman is sporting a light-colored aviator’s cap, her old-school goggles strapped snugly on her forehead as she smiles for the camera.
The photo captures the essence of a woman who was indeed way ahead of her time. Only seven years after American women had won the right to vote in 1920, Hopkins earned her aviator’s license, signed by none other than Orville Wright, then of the Civil Aeronautics Authority. She would embark on a storied career in the clouds that saw her buzz the inaugural parade of President Herbert Hoover; rub shoulders with Amelia Earhart; participate in the 1930 Ford Reliability Tour, a rigorous cross-country airplane race; and stand guard over the Northeast coast of the United States during World War II as commander of the Connecticut Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
“We are very proud of her,” Oxford, a Cornwall resident, said on Monday of his grandmother’s lifelong interest in flying. Born in 1909, she first took to the air in 1927 and last took the controls of her Cessna 170A single-engine plane during the early 1990s, not long before her death in 1997.
Oxford, along with Tier’s other descendants, have had recent cause to dust off some of Nancy’s considerable memorabilia in preparation for adding to her legend. Nancy Hopkins Tier and other alums of the Civil Air Patrol, known as CAP, will soon be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for their volunteer service during World War II, when citizen members flew scores of missions in their own aircraft along the East Coast of the U.S., keeping a lookout for German submarines and/or survivors of merchant ships sunk by enemy fire.
Oxford and his uncle Ben Tier — one of Nancy’s sons who resides in Shelburne — are readying for a medal ceremony to take place at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn. The ceremony was to have taken place on Jan. 24, but was postponed due to bad weather.
Ben Tier, 78, is understandably proud of his mom and shares what has become a common refrain among fans of the Civil Air Patrol.
“Why didn’t this (award ceremony) happen 20 years ago when a lot of these people were still alive?” said Tier, who recalled his mother being away quite frequently during the early 1940s while she and other pilots kept aerial vigil.
NANCY HOPKINS TIER, who rubbed shoulders with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, is seen here in her flight gear in the 1920s.
Nancy Hopkins was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, the daughter of Alfred and Anne (Gibson) Hopkins. Her dad was related to the same Hopkins clan that established Johns Hopkins University, while her mother was a niece of Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to serve in the British Parliament.
It was during her high school years in the 1920s, that Nancy became passionate about flying. The nation was fixated on this relatively new mode of travel, an enthusiasm heightened by Charles Lindbergh’s first solo crossing of the Atlantic in May of 1927. She knew Lindbergh but was more familiar with his wife and fellow aviatrix, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Oxford noted.
Nancy and her contemporaries received little encouragement, as women, to fly. But she persevered, flying her own single-engine aircraft, gaining a good reputation and some notoriety. That led to a contract with Bob Gross of future Lockheed fame, demonstrating the new Viking Kitty Hawk airplane, according to Oxford.
Hopkins moved to Long Island, N.Y., in 1930 and began working at the Old Curtiss Field. She continued to take flying lessons there and entered a series of races, including the Women’s Dixie Derby, a 2,000-mile air race from Washington D. C. to Chicago. She was also invited in 1930 to enter the Ford Reliability Tour, created by Edsel Ford in 1924 to promote the reliability of Ford’s airplanes. Hopkins finished the 5,000-mile, multi-stage race in 14th place out of 19 pilots, in spite of some technical problems she had to solve herself along the way. For example, the engine of her 90-horsepower Kinner engine conked out in flight near Memphis, Tenn., forcing Hopkins to glide to a landing in a tree-stump-filled field. She went through the engine, diagnosed the problem and solved it with her trusty screwdriver and some wire. She fired her plane back up and completed that leg of the race.
Her exploits drew the attention of the press, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle of World War II fame. Pyle wrote some feature stories about Hopkins.
TIER TALKS WITH William B. Mayo, head of the Ford Motor Co.’s Aircraft Division, during a Ford Reliability Tour in 1930.
It was around this time that Nancy Hopkins found someone with whom to share her love of flying: Irving Vanderroest Tier, an aerial photographer, whom she married in 1931.
“She was an attractive woman who wanted to fly; he was a dashing young man with an airplane,” Oxford said with a smile. “It was love at first flight, as they say.”
Irving and Nancy would often fly together, she at the controls and he snapping photos of the terrain below. His clients included governmental agencies and property owners seeking a birds-eye view of their real estate.
Nancy would spend the next 60 years logging thousands of hours in the air, both solo and with passengers. She possessed no lack of daring-do and sangfroid.
Old newspaper clippings recount one of her most harrowing experiences. It was a flight sometime in 1931, and Nancy was flying her Kitty Hawk at an altitude of about 1,000 feet when it stalled and entered a flat spin. Unable to extricate the plane from its spin, Nancy decided she would have to parachute out of the airplane. She stepped out of the cockpit onto one of the wings to prepare to jump. The act of stepping onto the wing stabilized the plane, allowing her to climb back behind the controls and fly back to safety.
Nancy began to reduce her risk-taking as she and Irving started a family. They would have three children together, two boys and a girl. Their daughter, Mary Anne (Tier) Oxford, is Peter Oxford’s mom. The late Mary Anne Oxford used to run Cornwall’s kindergarten class out of her own home.
The young Tier family laid down roots in Connecticut. Raising three children did not prevent Nancy Hopkins Tier from pursuing her love of flying — or serving her country. She joined the Civil Air Patrol during the early 1940s, and became the organization’s section leader based at the Meridian (Connecticut) Airport. She became the first female wing commander of the CAP in 1947, eventually achieving the rank of colonel.
“The country had its back up against the wall at that time; they wanted anyone who could help,” Oxford said. “It’s hard for us to realize now how there was genuine fear of a German invasion.”
Oxford noted his grandmother and her fellow CAP pilots used their own planes to keep eyes on the U.S. coastal waters in the Atlantic. Nancy Hopkins Tier was assigned missions along the coast of Maine. Oxford explained that while the CAP pilots kept log books of their reconnaissance and findings, that information was kept under close wraps so as not to compromise the war effort. So Nancy spoke little of what she saw, and was in no position to strike against any hostile forces if she ever encountered them.
“Grandma’s little plane was armed only with a radio,” Oxford said.
TIER IS PHOTOGRAPHED DURING the 1949 change of command ceremony when she took over the leadership role for the Connecticut wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
Nancy’s flying was largely recreational after the war, and she made the most of it, according to her family. She also lobbied for various aviation causes, including recognition of women pilots. Among her decorations of distinction:
•  She was a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots that promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support. The Ninety-Nines were established in 1929 by 99 women pilots, including Nancy Hopkins Tier.
•  She flew the first-day covers of the Amelia Earhart stamp from Atchison, Kan., to New York City, when it was issued in 1962.
•  She was elected to the Pioneer Women In Aviation Hall of Fame in 1992, and was an honorary member of the U.S. Air Force’s 38th Strategic Missile Wing.
•  She was a driving force behind the creation of the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, and presided as its president on its opening day in March of 1986.
Oxford stressed that his grandmother’s talents went far beyond flying. She was a talented craftsperson and artist, could handle a rifle with the best of them, enjoyed riding horses, was a good cook, and belonged to a number of different clubs and organizations.
“She taught me how to sail, and of course flying,” Oxford said, recalling a cross-country summer trip he took with his grandmother that included stops at several national parks. “The list of her activities is mind boggling. Before television, people actually did stuff.”
Nancy’s last plane, the Cessna 170A, is still in the family and still occasionally takes flight.
She passed away in January of 1997. Her grave is at the Hopkins family plot in Washington, D.C.
David Tier, Nancy’s youngest son, resides in Middlebury, where he owns and operates The Bike Center in Frog Hollow. He is most impressed with his mom’s longevity in flying, noting that many of Nancy’s contemporaries stepped away from their airplanes long before she did.
“She stuck with it for over 60 years,” Tier, now 64, recalled.
As the eldest surviving offspring, Ben Tier will become the custodian of the citation that his mom receives for her Civil Air Patrol service. He remains impressed by her resume and what she was able to accomplish in an era when women’s opportunities outside of the home were limited.
“My mother was the adventurous type; it was in her DNA,” Tier said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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