“My mother, partly through ill health, was extremely emotional and without adequate self-discipline; spoiled by her parents who thought she was wonderful and could do anything. Brilliant along certain lines, she possessed the trait I find most exciting in the American character, the ability to hurdle difficulties and achieve the reputedly impossible. I grew up under such influence.” Those words were spoken by Laura Houghtaling, born December 14, 1903, about her mother. That influence gave her the courage to venture into areas no one else would dare.
Laura was born into a wealthy family in New York. I have not been able to find anything on her early life, why she learned to fly, or how she met her husband, Ingalls. (By the way, this is Laura Houghtaling Ingalls, not Laura Ingalls Wilder, and no relation between the two that I could find.) She did, however, learn to fly in 1928 and began setting records shortly thereafter.
On May 3,1930, she performed 344 consecutive loops over St. Louis (my stomach gets queasy just thinking about that). Then, she broke her own record by performing 930, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on May 26. She also broke both the men and women’s record on August 14, by doing 714 consecutive barrel rolls. All of these were done in her Gypsy Moth.
She also began to set distance records. In the 1930s, she held more transcontinental records than any other woman. She flew across the continent from east to west in 30 hours, then returned from Los Angeles to New York in 25 hours. In 1935, she became the first woman to fly non-stop from the east coast to the west coast. Then, she broke Amelia Earhart’s non-stop west to east coast record with her flight from Los Angeles to New York, in 13 hours and 34 minutes.
Her most ambitious and famous adventure was flying solo around South America, in 1934. She departed from North Beach Airport, Jackson Heights, New York for Miami on February 28th, in a Lockheed Orion. She told reporters she, “just had a yen to fly the Andes.”
On the first leg of her trip she stopped at Charleston. From there she headed to Jacksonville, Florida. She never arrived in Jacksonville, and was not heard from until she landed in Miami about 24 hours after leaving Charleston. She never explained where she was during those 24 hours. Her only comment was, “Now I can have one little secret, if I want to. Put it down to anything you like, but not to romance. That’s out! You see, a friend gave me a six-shooter when I left New York, so I just had to dip off someplace and use it. I knew I would never have a chance to use it on the South American trip, so I went off, looking for adventure!”
Apparently she had become lost and had landed in Lake Butler, a few miles southwest of Jacksonville. It is interesting that someone intending to fly to and around South America, could not find Jacksonville! Later, the Florida Times-Union reported, “While aviators scoured the coast between Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville for some sign of Laura Ingalls, the ‘missing’ aviatrix was calmly eating roast beef in this tiny Florida town. Armed with her hefty six-shooter and a pot of coffee, she spent the night alone in the cabin of her trim plane at the airport near here.
“Late Friday an airplane circled the airport and made off, only to return some time later and land. Out stepped a young woman who was willing to talk about anything other than her identity. She had her plane refueled and then rode to the restaurant on the gas truck, asking Deputy Sheriff R. B. McKinley to keep an eye on the airplane . . . she told him she was en route from New York to Miami and had become lost.”
Sheriff McKinley had no idea who she was until he saw her picture in the Times-Union the next day. Why she spent the night before her adventure alone with a pot of coffee in her airplane at a lonely airfield, no one knows. She continued her record setting trip the next morning.
From Miami, on March 8th, she flew to Havana, Cuba. Then she crossed the Caribbean to the Yucatan Peninsula, and on down through Mexico to Cristobal, Panama. On March 13, she left Cristobal and flew to Talara, Peru. This leg was 1,296 miles, 460 out over open seas. She continued down the west coast of South America to Santiago, Chile. On March 21, she crossed over the Andes, at an altitude of 18,000’, through the Uspallata Pass to Mendoza, Argentina, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. On April 17th, she arrived in Trinidad and Tobago. She continued to Miami on April 22, and arrived back in New York on April 25, having completed a 17,000 her mile solo flight. It was quite an achievement at the time, especially for a young woman!
This flight set several records and won her the 1934 Harmon Trophy as the most outstanding female aviator of the year. She was the first American woman to fly over the Andes; the first solo flight around South America in a land plane; and the first woman to fly from North America to South America. It also set a woman’s distance record of 17,000 miles, breaking Amy Johnson’s record of 10,000 miles.
In 1936, Laura flew the Bendix Trophy Race and came in second, behind Louise Thaden.
With Hitler’s rise, and war looming in Europe, Laura became interested in the political scene. She joined the America First Committee. It is unclear to me if she knew this was a pro-Nazi organization, or if she was simply an isolationist. However, in September of 1939 she ‘bombed’ the White House and Capitol Hill with anti-war leaflets. In 1942 she was arrested by the FBI and charged with being an unregistered German Foreign Agent. She was found guilty and sentenced to 8 month to 2 years in prison. She served time in the West Virginia Women’s Reformatory. She was released on October 5, 1943. Her application for a presidential pardon was refused and she never received clemency. Perhaps that is why so little is known of her. She died on January 10, 1967, in Burbank, California, at age 66.
Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer © February 2013
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all you ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3: 5,6
Nancy Welz Aldrich
Available for speaking engagements