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."

14 comments:

Sun Singer said...

Great article. I hadn't heard of this fine lady even though I've always been fascinated by Earhart's life and times.

Malcolm

Jean Henry Mead said...

Lucile Wright wasn't a publicity hound. She worked behind the scenes to improve conditions in airports in North America. And because she had no children of her own, she awarded annual scholarships to underprivileged girls around the country, among other charitable endeavors. I liked her immediately.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Very interesting, Jean. In all my years of aviation, I've never heard of Lucile before. Seems appropriate that her last name is "Wright".

Lucile, and many like her, set the foundation for women pilots. Today, women fly everything from fighter jets to space shuttles. The first officers I fly with are outstanding. Incredibly, in the last decade or so, even China and Mexico have added women airline pilots. Truly, the sky is the limit.

Jean Henry Mead said...

It's a shame that our pioneering women pilots had to fight so much prejudice to gain the right to fly. Of course, that was also true of journalists and many other occupations previously dominated by men.

Beth Terrell said...

Jean, I always learn something interesting from your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

Sounds like this woman would make a good subject for a book herself.

Tim said...

During the summer of 1957Lucille M Wright came to Denmark as a tourist leader of a group of Americans. She contacted me, the youngest of 3 women pilots for a chat, which lead to her on her next visit on the 28th July 1958 awarding me with the Amelia Earhart medal at a meeting at Kastrup Airport, which the press covered. She also invited me to join her group for a dinner in Tivoli Gardens one evening of their stay. That year she was herself The US Woman Pilot of the Year. She explained that so far I was the 3rd recipient of the medal in Europe. All I had done was to persevere, find the money and learn to fly at the young age of 19, when it was so very uncommon for ladies to do so.
I flew from 1953-1959, when I got married to an Englishman and felt it was not right to expect him to pay for my hobby. I feel I was very lucky to be able to experience the wonderful feeling of flying in the days when one could head in whatever direction one wanted to take, feel free of the cares of the world, share ones deligt with friends, who paid half the cost!!! that was the only way I could afford to keep my licence going.
Would there be any other recipient of the Amelia Earhart Medal, somewhere in the world, who would like to respond to this comment? my email address is timothy.mugford@googlemail.com
I still treasure my memories. Kirsten Mugford, nee Lund.

Jean Henry Mead said...

It's wonderful to her from you. Tim. I wish I knew of other "Women Pilots of the Year," but Lucile Wright was the only one I knew and I enjoyed talking to her. Congratulations on the title. Every pioneering woman pilot deserved a medal as far as I'm concerned. I hope you're able to contact more of them.

Jason Sample said...

There's a small museum with antique aircraft in Jamestown, NY. It is called the "Lucile M. Wright Air Museum"

Jason Sample said...

I forgot to add that this is a wonderful article. There isn't a lot on Lucy's life available on the Internet. Thanks for sharing.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you for letting me know, Jason. I enjoyed my visit with Lucile so much. She was a terrific gal!

Harry Waterson said...

I have seen the Amelia Earhart plaque in the Atchison Public library and Lucile Wright, 99, AEEE, ZONTA, AWA. is the donor of the plaque. I can decode 99 and ZONTA but I wonder if you have any idea what the other two acronyms stand for. I am compiling a catalog of mostly aviation medals and I would be happy to share my Amelia Earhart entry with you privately. It would tell you where the Earhart medal came from. It was not founded by Lucile Wright but she did award it on many occasions.
By the by, the 1940 date in your blog doesn't quite track.
Your blog filled in some context for me and I appreciate the writing.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Harry, all the information in the article came from my interview with Lucile Wright. I have no idea what the other acronyms mean. You can contract me privately at JeanHenryMead@aol.com.

Tanya Sanchez said...

In 1977, i was honored with the Lucille M. Wright/Girls Clubs of America Citizen of the Year Award. At the age of 15, Ms Wright had a profound impact on my life. 4 years later I attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to pursue an aviation career. I think about her often, especially when I hear or see any mention of Cody, Wyoming or see someone put ketchup on their eggs. An amazing woman and dear friend. She was the angel on my shoulder when I took my first flight, the wind beneath my wings when I accepted my current position in the boardroom of a major US airline; holding the employee's seat. She gave me courage and taught me to release fear from my vocabulary. Forever in my heart....

Tanya Sanchez said...

In 1977, i was honored with the Lucille M. Wright/Girls Clubs of America Citizen of the Year Award. At the age of 15, Ms Wright had a profound impact on my life. 4 years later I attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to pursue an aviation career. I think about her often, especially when I hear or see any mention of Cody, Wyoming or see someone put ketchup on their eggs. An amazing woman and dear friend. She was the angel on my shoulder when I took my first flight, the wind beneath my wings when I accepted my current position in the boardroom of a major US airline; holding the employee's seat. She gave me courage and taught me to release fear from my vocabulary. Forever in my heart....