Friday, July 9, 2010
Lucile M. Wright, Early Aviatrix and Amelia Earhart's Friend
by Jean Henry Mead
Lucile Wright was one of the grand dames of aviation. Although not as well known as her friend, Amelia Earhart, the feisty redhead, with more than five million air miles to her credit, worked long and hard to improve the aviation industry as well as preserve Earhart’s memory. She was also generous with her time and money.
Her first plane ride was with the infamous General Billy Mitchell in 1922, when the aviator took her for a spin in his X-5 Jenny, a canvas-skinned, open cockpit, single engine plane with an OX5 engine. They flew over New York’s Long and Staten islands, and Mitchell allowed her to hold the control stick while in flight.
“It was the greatest thrill of my life,” she said. “As I was crawling out of the cockpit, he patted me on my shoulder and said, ‘I think you’ll be a very good pilot.'" Lucile’s father was horrified. He had persuaded his friend Mitchell to take her up to “scare the crazy notion of flying” out of her. But, from then on, she “couldn’t think of anything else but flying.” It was a number of years before she could earn her pilot’s license, however, and only after she bought her own plane.
Born in 1900, in Beatrice, Nebraska, she grew bored of living on her family’s ranch and wanted to attend medical school, but her father convinced her to become a lawyer. She married a medical student instead and worked in a lab where they conducted autopsies, which she photographed. She divorced her husband in 1940, and tried to enter a pilot training program in Buffalo, New York, but women weren’t popular at airports.
“They just didn’t want us around,” she said. She then met an airport secretary with a pilot’s license, and they decided to team up. Lucile bought a Rearwin single engine plane with side-by-side seating and the secretary flew with her until she logged enough hours to solo. In return, the secretary was allowed to fly Lucile’s plane long enough to earn her commercial license. The feisty redhead earned her own license in 1935 and served as a civilian courier for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during World War II. CAP officials tried to borrow her plane but she insisted that she and the Rearwin were inseparable. For the duration of the war she flew messages and supplies all over the country. She also raced in Powder Puff derbies.
She joined the “99s”, the International Association of Women Pilots founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929, and they became good friends. Lucile described Earhart as “warm and friendly, perfectly charming.” She didn’t think much of Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, though. “[Amelia] didn’t want to marry him, but he promised her the world. She was in love with a handsome aviator, but he didn’t have any money and she wanted to fly. Putnam had everything subsidized, some of it experimental. He was dead broke but a promoter, and if the flight had been successful, they would have been set for life. Unfortunately, he made some wrong calculations.”
Lucile drew her own conclusions about her friend’s disappearance, which didn’t include the theory that Earhart had been captured by the Japanese in 1937. She refused to identify the pilot who spent the better part of his life researching the disappearance in the area where the plan allegedly went down. “He’s in California,” she said, “and he’s positive that he’s charted it, and has taken soundings. He spent a lot of money and time researching [the flight] and has flown that route many times. The day will come when he can raise enough money to find the plane."
Lucile kept in close touch with Earhart's sister, Muriel, and founded the Amelia Earhart medal, which she awarded to outstanding women pilots every year until her own death. She also donated a large, impressive medallion plaque to Earhart's hometown library in Atchison, Kansas, and arranged financing for the monument erected to the aviatrix's memory in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where Earhart spent some time. (She's pictured above awarding the Earhart medal to Hideko Yokoyama, first Japenese woman pilot in 1959.)
Lucile Wright was a well known figure in aviation. She lobbied for new airports, helped to push through congressional legislation, awarded annual scholarships, and was a member of a number of important aviation councils and organizations.
I met Lucile in 1981 when she was hospitalized in Cody, Wyoming, with a broken arm and shoulder, suffered in a car accident on her way home from an aviation convention. She'd flown five million miles without a mishap when her late model Buick's steering mechanism locked and she drove into a ditch. She was 81.
When asked how she felt, she smiled and said, "You know, life's been good to me."