Ruth Elder

During the era known as the Golden Age of Flight (1919-1939), Alabama native Ruth Elder (1902-1977) overcame social prejudice that branded aviation an inappropriate activity for women and became the first female aviator to attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane in October 1927. Although she and her copilot were forced by engine problems to ditch in the sea, she still set a record for the most miles flown and longest flight up to that time by a woman.

Elder was born in Anniston, Calhoun County, on September 8, 1902, to James Oscar Elder Sr., and Sarah Jane McClellan Elder; she had three siblings. Following graduation from high school, she initially relocated to Birmingham, Jefferson County, before moving to Lakeland, Florida, where she gained employment as a receptionist in a dental office.

Captivated by the perceived romance and glamour of aviation, the 23-year-old Elder visited the Lakeland airport, where she attempted to convince flying instructor George Haldeman to accept her as a student. Believing females to be unsuitable as aviators, he refused her request. After enduring weeks of persuasion, Haldeman relented and agreed to assist Elder in her goals.  

Elder’s life took a dramatic turn in May 1927 when Charles Lindbergh astounded the world by completing the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. The flight not only served as a catalyst for an emerging aviation industry but inspired Elder to become the first female aviator to attempt the feat.

Elder’s proposed flight soon received unexpected support when a group of West Virginia entrepreneurs, recognizing an opportunity to profit from publicity generated by the extraordinary endeavor, agreed to finance the flight. Elder proved to be the perfect face for the venture. A reporter for the New York Times described Elder as the fairest of the brave and the bravest of the fair.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean by air in 1927 was an extremely dangerous endeavor. The lack of accurate weather forecasting and reporting and rudimentary communication and navigation equipment made transoceanic flying extremely demanding. In August 1927 alone, 16 people died attempting trans-oceanic flights. Because of her relative inexperience, Elder recruited Haldeman to accompany her as a crewmember.

For the flight, Elder chose a Stinson Detroiter single-engine monoplane manufactured by the Stinson Aircraft Company of Dayton, Ohio. The company was founded by Eddie Stinson, brother of early female aviator Katherine Stinson. Prior to receiving authorization to make the flight, Elder was required to obtain a license to operate the aircraft, complete a thorough physical examination, and demonstrate her proficiency as a pilot in the plane, which she christened the American Girl.

Taking off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, on October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman began their historic journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Fifteen hours after takeoff, the flight began to experience problems. In addition to stronger than anticipated headwinds, the engine of the American Girl began leaking lubricating oil, increasing the potential for a mechanical failure.

After 32 hours aloft, with the engine oil almost depleted, Elder and Haldeman began preparing for the possibility of ditching their aircraft in the Atlantic Ocean. They observed a Dutch oil tanker, the Barendrecht, the only ship they had seen in more than 12 hours. After steering their aircraft to a touchdown on the surface of the ocean beside the tanker, the wet and fatigued aviators were hoisted to safety aboard the ship.

Elder’s flight has been described as a glorious failure. Even though she did not achieve her goal, the attempt represented an over-water endurance record of 2,623 miles, the longest flight ever made by a female aviator. In recognition of her achievement, Elder was celebrated in Paris and New York and hosted by Pres. Calvin Coolidge at a White House luncheon. Amelia Earhart ultimately accomplished the feat in 1932.

Her fame as an aviator led Elder to a career as a vaudeville performer and movie star, appearing in the silent films The Winged Horseman and Moran of the Marines. Although her career occupied most of her time, Elder continued to maintain her flying skills. In August 1929, she joined 19 other female aviators in the inaugural Women’s Air Derby flight from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Overcoming an engine failure that resulted in an emergency landing, Elder finished fifth of the 14 aircraft that completed the 2,759-mile race.   

During her life, Elder struggled to overcome alcohol addiction, a string of failed marriages, and financial problems. She would eventually find permanence in her sixth and final marriage to Ralph King, a retired Hollywood camera operator. On October 9, 1977, two days before the 50th anniversary of her historic flight, Elder died at her California home. Fittingly, her ashes were scattered from an airplane over the Pacific Ocean.  

Further Reading

  • Jensen, Gene Nora. The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, The True Story of the First Women’s Cross Country Air Race. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002.
  • Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986.
  • O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls, How Five Daring Women Defied Odds and Made Aviation History. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thorndike Press, 2018.

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Photo courtesy of Billy Singleton
Ruth Elder