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Mary Riddle: Native American Pilot and Parachutist


When the Wright brothers completed the first heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903, in a plane piloted by Orville weighing about six hundred pounds, the world became captivated with the airplane.

In the earliest days of aviation, women were not content to sit on the sidelines. Yet some held the belief that women didn’t have the physical or intellectual capability to pilot airplanes, and there were few places where women could obtain flight training.

Discrimination was worse for minorities. Bessie Coleman, an African America woman whose grandfather was a member of the Cherokee tribe, was unable to attend flight school in America. Despite the barriers, Coleman pursued her dreams of flying and received her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Leah Hing became the first US-born Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1907.

Willa Brown, born in Kentucky in 1906, became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the US.

The Aircraft Year Book of 1919 did not mention even one woman flier. By doing so, the publication disregarded the dozens of licensed women pilots.

Mary Riddle, also known as Kus-da-cha or Kingfisher, was born on April 22, 1902 to Albert "Doc" Riddle. A member of the Clatsop and Quinault tribes, she felt that public opinion was that women would never be successful pilots—she knew that she wanted to prove them wrong.

Riddle took up flying in 1929, saving up for two years to attend Rankin Flying School in Portland, Oregon, then applied for admittance to the Spartan School in Tulsa, Oklahoma... a training school for flyers and parachute jumpers. She was accepted under her Indian name, Kus-de-cha, only to learn on arrival that it was a boy's school and girls were not admitted. She persuaded the faculty to admit her on trial then finished the course with honors.

Mary Riddle made her first solo flight on May 10, 1930 then earned her commercial pilot’s license in 1933. She went on to parachute out of planes and executed over 40 parachuting jumps. She almost died in a jump when her parachute opened incorrectly and got tangled in her legs.

Through the 30's, women fliers were considered novelties by the established press and not suitable for "serious aviation" by the air transportation industry.

Commercial airlines refused to hire women as pilots and viewed them only as potential stewardesses.

In 1942, the Air Transport Command of the Army Air Force, still lacking sufficient pilots for its ferry operations, sent telegrams to 83 women pilots inviting them to join a new organization called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Division. Qualifications were that they be high school graduates, age 21-35, with 500 hours of flight time. At that time male pilots only had to have 3 years of high school and 200 hours of flight time.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was created on August 5, 1943 by the War Department. After an attempt to change the WASP status from civilian to military in March 1944 a militarization bill was defeated in Congress in June and by December the program was officially disbanded in 1944, and its official files sealed for 35 years.

Riddle was too old to join the WASP and was best known for being a performing parachutist. Ola Mildred Rexroat is believed to have been the only Native American woman to serve in the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

What drives us to invent, to create, to innovate? Why to quest to explore the skies, space? What drove innovators to create the automobile, what drives the evolution of communication?

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