WORTHINGTON — Did you know Ruthy Tu was the first woman airplane pilot in the Chinese Army? This was 1932. Believe me, I did not know either. I have a magazine in front of me.
I also never knew this: Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman to obtain a pilot’s license. Bessie’s story is notable. She was working at the Chicago White Sox barber shop giving manicures and listening to young white guys tell stories — some of them World War I stories — of shooting down airplanes and of circling Chicago in airplanes. Bessie could not get even pilot training in America because she was female, and because she was black. She went to Paris and learned to fly. June 15, 1921. Bessie Coleman earned an International Pilot’s License that permitted her to fly anywhere in the world, even in the United States.
Bessie came to a sad end. She purchased one of the famed Flying Jennies and, although she was warned the plane “needed work,” she flew above Jacksonville, Fla., with a co-pilot (male). The rickety plane rolled over and Bessie, with no seat belt, fell to the ground from 2,000 feet. This was in April 1926.
These stories brought to mind — I know I never should attempt to tell a joke or a riddle if I can’t tell it well. Nevertheless: there was a joke many years ago that posed a puzzle most people could not solve until they heard the punch line, which was, “The doctor was a woman.” That is what I remember. I couldn’t solve the puzzle because, who ever thought of a doctor as a woman?
Let me tell you something from the earliest days of Worthington Municipal Hospital, a smaller version of today’s hospital with parking along Sixth Avenue. The new hospital hired an administrator after considering several applicants. It turned out the first administrator also was a pilot who could fly to Minneapolis for a weekend. You know I am going to ask, “Hospital administrator, flier: what was his name?” He was Dorothy Petsch. SHE was Dorothy Petsch. Dorothy was not a pioneer Worthington pilot, but her flying attracted attention.
This is where a story might be told of flying in an airliner from Sioux Falls to New Orleans. I was surprised to learn the pilot out of Minneapolis was from Worthington. You’re going to say, “Oh — what was his name?” Then I could repeat that punch line once again: the pilot was a woman.
I made this up but we do, nearly always, think of airline pilots as men. My reading tells me that, in all the world, there are 130,000 airline pilots and only 3,000 of them are women. Of course I can’t explain this. It is surprising for Worthington residents, I believe, because of the associations the community has had with women as pilots. There’s that familiar old story — Amelia Earhart, first woman in America to earn a pilot’s license, spent five summers at Worthington.
It is seven blocks from Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium to the Hotel Thompson. This is not a long distance, but if you are a little girl on roller skates making that run is quite a feat. Talk of women pilots brings Ruthy Sterling to mind once again. It was Ruthy Sterling on roller skates, Ruth Sterling after she was grown. Worthington’s Ruth Sterling was among the first 200 women in America to receive a pilot’s license.
The Oscar Sterling family lived at 1310 Seventh Ave., the big, two-story stucco house in the middle of the block across from Memorial Auditorium. Like Bessie Coleman, Ruth wanted very much to fly. By 1931, white women were permitted to take pilot training. By 1932, Ruth Sterling was flying above Worthington doing spirals and figure eights.
In August 1929, Worthington’s crude airport with sod runways hosted an air show. This may have inspired Ruth. What was called the feature event of the carnival in the sky was Nona Malloy’s parachute jump from an airplane at 2,000 feet above Worthington’s north city limits. It was reported a thousand people watched. Nona left many local onlookers with mouths open wide.
Nona Malloy, pilot and performer. Nona jumped from airplanes before Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.