08 March 2018

The Short Flight of Pennsylvania's First Licensed Female Pilot

A 25 year old Pittsburgh resident named Rose C. Collins was reported to be the first woman granted an aviator's license in Pennsylvania in 1929. Rose attended flight school at the Morris Flying Service at Rodgers Air Field in O'Hara, and flew at Bettis Field in West Mifflin.

In the Context of Pittsburgh's Early Aviation History
You're forgiven if you can't place any of those locations, or if you didn't think Pittsburgh had much to contribute to aviation industry. You'd be misinformed about the latter, though. As far back as the 1880s, Allegheny Observatory director Samuel Pierpont Langley experimented with making a piloted, heavier-than-air flying machine. Pittsburgh even has a contested claim to the first piloted flight of a powered airplane, that of 25 year old Gustave Whitehead, an Oakland resident whose steam-powered airship supposedly sailed in 1899 from Bates Street up what is now the Boulevard of Allies. The flight ended when the vehicle crashed into the third floor of an apartment building and Whitehead's assistant was scalded by steam from the busted plane (which would presumably make him the first injured airplane passenger).

Whitehead's alleged first flight is officially unrecognized as such in historical annals. But his other documented flight experiments place him among Pittsburgh aviation pioneers. There were plenty of those, as many record-setting pilots called Pittsburgh home. This city's industrial infrastructure has also proven critical to the production of aluminum, propellers, and airplane technologies.

In the 1920s when young Rose Collins was earning her wings, there were many small airports in rural areas surrounding Pittsburgh. Bettis Field, originally known as Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport, was renamed in 1926 to honor fallen local aviator Lt. Cyrus Bettis of the US Army Air Corp. In Rose's day, Bettis' most famous visitor would have been Charles Lindbergh, who landed there August 1927 in the Spirit of St. Louis on his national good-will tour. After a 2.5 hour flight from Cleveland, Lindbergh was greeted by 100,000 excited Pittsburghers on the hills surrounding the air field. Another 30,000 Pittsburghers saw him off the next day.

Air travel was new and exciting, and aviators were the heroes of the interwar years.

Charles Lindbergh landing at Bettis Airfield, 1927 with onlookers on the hill behind
Pittsburgh City Photographers Collection, University of Pittsburgh

(Click photos to enlarge; stretch on touchscreens to see details).

The Bettis Field airstrip was active from 1924 until eclipsed by Allegheny County Airport, which opened a mile away in 1932 and is still in use today. In the late 1940s Bettis was transformed into the Bettis Laboratory, now a US government-owned research and development facility devoted to Navy nuclear power design and development.

Bettis Terminal, circa 1920s. Source

William J. Austin
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
10 March 1929

Rose Collins flew at Bettis, but she was taught to fly through the Morris Flying Service at Rodgers Air Field in O'Hara. Owned and operated by a Scottdale native who had also lived in Beaver County, Colonel Jack Morris got his start training pilots during WWI. Rose's teacher, Captain William J. Austin, was a veteran instructor -- literally. Like Morris, Captain Austin had been one of the first Pennsylvanians to enlist as a pilot in the Great War.

Morris Flying Service ad, 1928, Pittsburgh papers
In the pre-war years, airplanes had been regarded as intriguing novelties, the standards of thrill shows at fairs and circuses. Their practical applications in the United States hadn't been explored much beyond random airmail deliveries and limited military experimentation.

Aviation truly came of age during WWI when military necessity forced technological advances in construction, navigation and engine power. Despite the United States' official policy of neutrality and its lack of a military aviation combat unit, American fliers wanted to fight from the air. The first Americans to fly during the Great War actually volunteered for service with other Allied forces. A group of Americans and ex-pats partnered with the French to form the Lafayette Escadrille in 1916, a unit which included William Thaw, son of the wealthy Pittsburgh family (who was later killed on one of its missions).

Once the US officially entered the war in 1917 it became painfully obvious that this country lagged behind Europe in combat aviation development, with only 30 surviving of its 40 trained military pilots and 16 of an original 28 functional government airplanes. But by war's end 40,000 young men had answered the national call for pilots, and some 13,000 had received their wings in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

Rose's flight instructor William J. Austin was a commissioned officer who held ratings as a military pilot. As one of the nation's first 400 US fliers, Captain Austin was a Founder Member of the prestigious fraternal and professional order of American military pilots, Order of Daedalians. He became a pioneer in civil aviation in Pittsburgh, and later served during WWII as a base commander.

Young Rose Collins thus breathed in the same rarefied atmosphere as Pittsburgh's highest fliers. This was the era when anything connected with air flight was big news.

And in June 1928 women suddenly realized they had a role to play in air flight, too. That's when Amelia Earhart became the first woman airplane passenger to cross the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from New York to London on a 20+ hour flight.

Rose is Ready to Solo
What compelled Rose to strive to become Pittsburgh's Amelia Earhart?

Born near the coalfields of Connellsville in 1904, Rose was the daughter of Thomas Collins and his wife Mary. Her father was born in Scotland to Irish parents in 1867 and immigrated with his family to the US as a toddler. In 1888, he married the former Mary Louise Soisson, a Connellsville native two years his senior. The couple had 13 children together, of whom 7 survived to adulthood. Mary suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1908 at age 37 of the illness, although her death certificate notes that "childbirth" was a contributing cause of death. Six months later, their infant son died of the same illness. These deaths left four year old Rose as the baby in the family. By 1910, with seven children to care for ranging in age from 18 to 6, Thomas had remarried a widow with one adult son; they later had a son of their own.

At some point the reconstituted Collins family moved to Beaver County, where in 1920 at age 15 Rose worked as a department store clerk. That year, she lost a 27 year old sister to tuberculosis.

Such circumstances was not unusual for the times: child mortality was common, big families the norm, teenage employment was typical, and tuberculosis was a scourge.

But what brought Rose to Pittsburgh? She doesn't show up in city directories, so it's hard to know when she moved to the city. The newspaper articles about her say she worked at the Pittsburgh Country Club as a secretary or clerk for 3 years, roughly 1926-29, and that it was also her residence in 1929. Rose wouldn't recognize the clubhouse where she lived and worked, as it's been restored, remodeled and redecorated many times over (most recently facing demolition and replacement). The Pittsburgh Country Club had been established in 1896 as the private Pittsburgh Golf Club at Schenley Park by local industrialists and businessmen such as Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick.

Pittsburgh Country Club postcard from the 1920s

It is tempting to speculate that there was some connection with the man who owned and operated the flight school Rose attended. Jack Morris grew up in Scottdale, which is near Connellsville, and like the Collins family he lived for a time in Beaver County. Those possible connections are intriguing, but not conclusive. We may never know what prompted this young woman to leave her family for Pittsburgh and decide to get a pilot's license, but her decisions likely drew inspiration from Amelia Earhart's life. Rose may even have seen the famous aviatrix when Earhart briefly passed through Pittsburgh following her transatlantic record-setting in 1928. Greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, Earhart commented then about the future of flight and the place for women in the clouds:

Pittsburgh Press,  24 July 1928

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette July 1928
Earhart would spend much of her career promoting women's opportunities in aviation. She led by example to challenge the prevailing notion that flying was unladylike, and that female aviators were somehow outside appropriate feminine norms.

But being a poster girl for independence had its challenges. While everyone was fascinated with Amelia Earhart, her femininity was sometimes called into question. This woman, with her boyishly short hair, clambering around wearing overalls without regard for her vanity or seeming respect for the sanctity of men's work? Well, she made some people uncomfortable. Earhart bore such a startling resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, with her tall and athletic figure, broad forehead, strong bone structure and hooded eyes, that she was nicknamed "Lady Lindy" as much for her appearance as for her accomplishments. Earhart fascinated, but she also discomforted. A society column entry by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Woman's Editor Margot Sherman, published in July 1928 shortly before Earhart was so enthusiastically greeted upon her first visit to Pittsburgh, illustrates the bemusement that greeted Earhart. It alludes to how Earhart's attitudes don't quite fit with the "natural" order of things, while acknowledging her support of women's career opportunities. It could be construed as damning with faint praise.

Earhart's "feminist" advocacy may well have been an inspiration for Rose Collins. Women had done men's work on the homefront during WWI and, having enjoyed financial independence for the first time, had a hard time going back to the socially prescribed pre-war career limitations. Earhart showed women that the sky was literally the limit; after she crossed the Atlantic in 1928, there were plenty of Amelia-wannabes.

At the same time, flying was dangerous business no matter the gender of the person behind the controls. In news reports and editorials of the day, there was a certain protective chivalric standard in place when it came to reporting on the exploits of girl pilots. And then as now, even with Earhart to pave the way, women experienced barriers to entry and sexist attitudes in the tropospheric workplace. While the social strictures of the day stretched to embrace aviatrixes, they couldn't stretch too far: girl pilots could be delightfully daring and glamorous, but of course they shouldn't be TOO daring or  -- heaven forbid! -- sexy.

With an engaging smile and pretty face, and presumably a winning personality, Rose Collins was quickly established as Pittsburgh's own glamorous aviatrix poster girl. She seemed to personify the sporty, independent progressive "new woman" of the post-war era. Rose made her first appearance in local papers on 21 January 1929 when she was featured in a 2/3 page Gimbels Department Store spread, showcased in a full length photo posing beside a plane at Rodgers Field in a sharp flying ensemble. Rose is described as "about ready to solo" and it was said that she "found pleasure in flying and intended owning an airplane after competing her mastery of the finesse that made Amelia Earhart famous."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  21 January 1929. Rose is profiled in the left sidebar (detail below).

That evocation of Earhart may have pleased Rose. It certainly established a powerful connection for Pittsburghers. Amelia Earhart had actually managed to visit Pittsburgh twice in the preceding year. Two months after her record-setting trip as the first female passenger across the Atlantic, Earhart returned to Pittsburgh less triumphantly when she crash-landed at Rodgers Field on 31 August 1928. The 45 acre Rodgers Field had opened in O'Hara in 1925, where Fox Chapel High School is today. It was named for Pittsburgher Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who in 1911 became the first aviator to fly coast-to-coast. Earhart and her eventual husband George Putnam had flown from Ash, NY on 31 August 1928, refueled in Bellefonte PA, and planned to touch down in Pittsburgh. Not having overflown the field before landing, Earhart misjudged the landing distance necessary on the Rodgers grass runway. She hit an unmarked ditch, her landing gear collapsed, and the Avian II plane went up on its nose, breaking the propeller and leading edge of its left lower wing. It was a bad crash but fortunately no one was seriously injured. A chagrined Earhart wrote in her diary that night:

What a landing. The headlines will be dreadful, 'Lady Lindy cracks up.' Several men have cracked up on this part of the field. I am going to form a club and dedicate white flags to marking the place to save others from a similar fate.

Mechanics worked around the clock to complete repairs, scavenging parts from another Avian that Putnam purchased and had flown in from New York. Earhart and Putnam whiled away their time at Oakland's Schenley Hotel. They reportedly lunched on hot dogs from the Rodgers Field refreshment stand before taking off for Dayton 36 hours after their rude landing (I could find no follow up about whether they later regretted those hot dogs).

Undated aerial view looking west at Rodgers Field showing hanger & 2 grass runways, circa 1928-29. Source

Six months later, with Earhart's recent visit fresh in collective Pittsburgh memory, Rose channeled her "finesse" and style, modeling the latest gal pilot fashions at Rodgers complete with the era's requisite leather aviator jacket. And, perhaps, aspired to someday casually eat hot dogs while her own plane was being repaired after various adventures.

On 25 February 1929, Rose was photographed about to spin the propeller on the first plane that had arrived for the Pittsburgh Aircraft Show, scheduled for March 9-16 at Motor Square Garden in East Liberty. This photo made the front page of the Post-Gazette.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette,
25 February 1929

It was noted that Rose, who had by now accrued enough flight hours, was "waiting for better flying weather to make her first solo flight."

This air show was a first for Pittsburgh. Sponsored by the Aero Club of Pittsburgh, a hundred themed exhibits along with 23 actual airplanes were displayed at East Liberty's Motor Square Garden for the eight day convention. Many additional visiting planes were on view at Bettis Field. The largest plane displayed, a Ford tri-motor, had a 75 foot wing span. Once it had arrived at Mayer Field in Bridgeville from New York, the wings and side motors were removed. Having secured multiple permits and police escorts, the plane was then towed through the South Hills, Liberty Tubes and Bridge, and narrow East End streets to its newly-built custom entrance at Motor Square Garden.

Pittsburgh Press, 10 March 1929

The show was open from 11 AM to 11 PM each day, with 50¢ admission for adults and half that for children. Visitors were greeted by live music from the Flying Orchestra, so-called because its 11 members actually flew to gigs -- a novel concept in 1929! The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sponsored a model airplane competition for boys under 18 (presumably, no girls were interested). Rose's teacher William Austin was one of the contest judges, and various trophies and prizes were awarded. Local aviation schools used the opportunity to recruit new students, all competing and touting their enrollment numbers. One such school was the Pittsburgh School of Aviation, which proudly boasted 5 women students of its hundred total enrolled. Even advertising tie-ins were tentatively explored by some local businesses seeking to capitalize on aero-mania.

Ad, Pittsburgh Press, March 1929

Ad, Pittsburgh Press, March 1929
Ad, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1929

A preliminary map of the new proposed county airport to be built in West Mifflin was unveiled during the course of the air show. Each day featured programming for special guests, running the gamut from "Disabled Veterans Day" to "College Night" to "Women's Day". The latter honored achievements by women in aviation "at afternoon and evening performances."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
20 March 1929
The week's festivities culminated in a formal society ball attended by 1000 guests at William Penn Hotel. Motor Square Garden was described as having been transformed into a "temple to aviation" and by show's end 70,000 visitors had wandered about this temporary hangar ogling planes and flying gear. But most importantly to Pittsburgh's aero aficionados, the convention showcased their passion in a positive light and attracted national attention to the potential for air flight development in the city.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7 March 1929

Rose's name was linked with the event at the very beginning. On 8 March 1929, she issued the official invitation to the event's formal ball on behalf of the Aero Club to Pittsburgh Mayor Charles H. Kline. She got to visit the major's executive office and was described by the Post-Gazette as "Pittsburgh's only woman aviator, who is ready to solo." Her name did not appear in any of the daily mentions of the show after that, and it is not known if she attended the society ball as a guest of the Aero Club.

Rose was next featured in the press in "Women Take to the Air," a Pittsburgh Press photo montage on 28 April 1929. As the local girl included among international woman pilots, Rose was described as a "student flier."

Pittsburgh Press excerpt, 28 April 1929

Grounded by the Glass Ceiling
Despite the repeated promises of local news coverage, it seems Rose never got to make her first solo flight. She made front page news of a different sort on 14 May 1929.

Pittsburgh Press, 14 May 1929

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
15 May 1929

According to reports in the Press and Post-Gazette, the 25 year old died on 13 May 1929 at Passavant Hospital in the Hill District "following an operation said to have been performed by a woman" on May 5.  Rose refused to name the woman. The family member who claimed her would have been married sister Bertha Grogan.

The Post-Gazette added to the story the next day on its front page, noting that "County Detectives....questioned relatives and friends of the girl and hunted the Homestead-Duquesne district for an unidentified woman reported to practice illegal operations."

Six weeks later, testimony was submitted at the coroner's inquest by Sergeant Leo Herman, chief clerk of the Rodgers Field air corps, who identified himself as Rose's fiance. Leo said he had "urged her to marry him and not undergo the surgery." He said she subsequently told him that the surgery had been performed by a woman in Homestead, whom she did not identify.

Although detectives had been investigating the case since Rose's death, no arrests had been made.

The coroner's jury recommended that the district attorney continue to investigate.

Rose's death certificate fills in the blanks, and uses words that newspapers of the day dared not print. She never made her solo flight because she died at Passavant Hospital of "acute purulent peritonitis following septic endometriosis" secondary to a "probable criminal abortion."

We may never know how Rose came to achieve all that she had. But public records tell part of her story for her, and we can guess the rest.

Imagine: You are 25 years old. You came from the impoverished coal fields of Fayette County. Due to a combination of your own particular charms, savvy, connections, lucky opportunities and talents, you have achieved what no other woman in Pittsburgh has. You have a pilot's license. Your face is in all the papers. You meet the Mayor. You have enough hours to solo and once you do that, the sky will be the limit on your career.

But you are pregnant.

And, lousy Pittsburgh weather aside, every time you get in a plane, you feel sick. So you keep postponing your solo flight because you know you can't manage it. Your boyfriend begs you to marry him, but as dear as he is, this is absolutely the wrong time to add a baby and husband to your life. The skies beckon...

"Illegal operation" may seem like a cumbersome euphemism to us, but in 1929 people knew exactly when that phrase meant and would have understood why Rose took her secrets to her grave. Consider: the words of the dying are legally admissible in court. A woman in Rose's circumstances was informed by police and physicians of her imminent demise. She was harassed on her deathbed until she admitted to having had an abortion and named the people connected with it. If she, like Rose, was unwed, that admission should include the man responsible for her pregnancy, who in turn might be arrested and even imprisoned as an accomplice.

Rose's story is a perfect example of the consequences of criminalizing sexuality.  Fear of coerced "confessions" kept women from seeking timely treatment when they needed medical attention following abortions -- often, as in Rose's case, with fatal results. And Rose's tragedy was not hers alone; in the late 1920s nearly 15,000 women died annually from abortions.

While the newspapers of the time regularly reported on deaths resulting from these "illegal operations," most of those stories didn't make the front page. But Rose had achieved much, and so her life story became an example. Once, she likely dreamed of being another Amelia Earhart, a girl others wanted to emulate, a courageous aviatrix who reached for the skies.

Instead, hers became a cautionary tale of a woman who reached too high and who fell hard.

It wasn't made explicit, but it didn't need to be: Rose Collins was what happened to girls who flaunted the moral order and conventional values of the time. Hers were circumstances that only women could experience. And women of the time, whether they sympathized or tsked in judgement, understood that.

The month Rose died, a column in Popular Aviation and Aeronautics magazine written by the first woman to hold a commercial flying license in Britain, Lady Heath, asserted that there were currently only "18 women in America who hold official licenses as pilots."  That number dropped by one after Rose's death, but only briefly. Other young women pilots from Pittsburgh soon became household names here and around the world, so that future girl pilots would aspire to emulate Freda Zuend, Katherine May Edwards, Helen MacCloskey, Kay Janner, and Helen Richey.

Rose Collins was buried with her mother at St Joseph's Cemetery in Connellsville. No charges appear to have ever been filed against the mystery woman in Homestead.

1 comment:

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