Margaret Fane Rutledge and The Flying Seven
Story by Tom Hawthorn
Denied a job as a pilot, she still managed to fly bush planes and landed a job as an airline radio operator. She also formed the Flying Seven, an elite group of Canadian aviatrixes.
Margaret Fane Rutledge founded the famed Flying Seven, a legendary group of pioneer aviatrixes from Vancouver who proved a woman’s place was in the cockpit.
Inspired by the wonders of flight after seeing an airplane aloft early in childhood, she became the first woman west of Toronto to earn a commercial pilot’s licence.
She was unable to earn a livelihood in the air, however, as even the smallest airlines refused to hire a woman pilot. She, instead, learned to operate a ham radio and is regarded as the first woman to do so for an airline in Canada, if not the world. Once in the airline’s employ, she managed to pilot several commercial flights without mishap.
Margaret Rutledge as a stocky, square-jawed woman whose considerable aviation skills elevated her above every roadblock placed in her path.
Born in Edmonton on April 13, 1914, a time when newspapers cheered the “dizzy doings” of daredevils performing loops in rickety biplanes, she enjoyed a birthright as the daughter of parents thrilled by the dawning of the age of flight. Both her mother and father had flown as passengers in the first airplane to arrive in the Alberta capital. Her father, who owned an automobile repair shop, later built a glider with his own hands.
Miss Fane first flew aboard an aircraft in 1928. Three years later, a tour billed as the Trans-Canada Air Pageant landed in Edmonton. The thrilling display convinced 17-year-old Margaret that her future was in the air. She scrimped for two years before enrolling at the Edmonton and Northern Alberta Aero Club, which had been launched with First World War ace Wop May as resident and chief instructor. Miss Fane became a prize pupil of Moss Burbridge, of whom it is said not one of his 700 students ever suffered an injury.
She trained on such biplanes as a Cirrus Moth, Gypsy Moth, American Eagle and Alexander Eaglerock, the latter a favourite of prairie barnstormers. On Oct. 2, 1933, she was issued private pilot’s licence No. 1317.
By doing the club’s books and handling chores such as stretching fabric over the wooden ribs of an aircraft, Miss Fane earned free flying time, according to aviation historian Shirley Render. The deal was a necessity for the ambitious pilot, whose earnings of $22 per week were not enough to cover lessons that cost $12 an hour. On Aug. 29, 1935, she was issued commercial licence A1236, becoming the first woman in Western Canada to be so qualified.
As the 21-year-old woman prepared to join her family in moving to Vancouver later that year, the male members of the aero club presented her with an engraved watch acknowledging her achievement. Pleased to discover six other licensed women pilots in Vancouver, Miss Fane travelled to Burbank, Calif., to meet Lauretta Schimmoler, a pilot from Ohio and one of the founders of the Ninety-Nines. The group, which took its name from the 99 licensed women pilots who attended its inaugural meeting, decided Canada had too few pilots to permit a chapter.
The journey was not an entire bust for Miss Fane, however, as she did get to meet the famed Amelia Earhart.
Rejected in the United States, Miss Fane returned to Vancouver determined to organize her own informal club. The Flying Seven, formed on Oct. 15, 1936, captured the imagination of Vancouver by staging a dawn-to-dusk flight the following month. A Golden Eagle and a pair each of Fleets, Fairchilds, and Gypsy Moths took 25-minute spins in the air, a member taking-off as another landed. The stunt began precisely at 6:59 a.m. when Tosca Trasolini took off without a hitch despite drizzle and a dangerous ground fog at Sea Island Airport, today the site of Vancouver International Airport.
Over time, the Flying Seven adopted a smart-looking uniform of culottes with a silk blouse worn beneath a wool jacket, topped by a distinguished Glengarry hat, all in gray.
After the outbreak of war, some of the women were rebuffed in their attempt to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as pilots or instructors. Instead, they appealed for “dimes or dollars to buy our boys more planes” as part of a Vancouver Air Supremacy Drive.
On a sunny midweek day in June, 1940, the Flying Seven staged a “bomphlet” raid over the city, dropping 100,000 “Smash-the-Nazis” pamphlets. As it was, a brisk southeast wind, combined with a city ordinance forbidding flight lower than 3,000 feet, swept many of the handbills into the waters of English Bay and Burrard Inlet.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, Miss Fane’s skills won her a small measure of fame. Ginger Coote hired her to handle reservations and operate the radio for his Bridge River & Cariboo Airways. She was posted to Zeballos, an isolated gold-rush town on the west coast of Vancouver Island where she was one of three unmarried women in a rambunctious town otherwise populated by 1,500 miners. Grant McConachie, who owned Yukon Southern Air Transport, and on whose recommendation Miss Fare had been hired, had a flare for publicity. He leaked word of the unusual job and its circumstances.
Newspapers across the continent ran an article on her duties, some including a photograph portraying the no-nonsense operator posed in front of a large console. A believe-it-or-not headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune was typical: Canadian woman pilot is operating a radio station.
“I was supposed to be the radio operator but I also dispatched, did the waybills for the freight, tied up and fuelled aircraft, and herded loggers and miners on and off the planes,” she told Ms. Render. “I took a dunking more than once while trying to push a drunk logger onto a plane.”
She described her reservation duties as simply counting the number wishing to leave. If three or less, she ordered the airline’s Waco to Zeballos. If 10 or less, she called for the Norseman, although a full load meant the seats would be removed and passengers would sit atop their luggage.
Mr. Coote sometimes allowed her to take control of the aircraft, making her the province’s only woman working as a commercial pilot. While he had confidence in her abilities, he had other motives.
She rescued him only with difficulty, as his breeches had filled with water. In Zeballos, Miss Fane would leave a million-dollars’ worth of gold bullion on a chair overnight in the airlines’ unlocked office.
“Nobody thought anything about leaving that stuff around loose,” she told historian Jack Schofield, “but you’d never leave a case of whisky unattended.” In addition to Mr. Coote’s Waco and Norseman, Miss Fane also flew Barkley-Grows owned by Yukon Southern. In fact, when Mr. McConachie invited her to join him in the cockpit on a test flight of a Lockheed 14 passenger plane from Vancouver to Edmonton, it would be her final flight as a pilot.
Mr. Coote’s bush company was one of 10 gobbled up to form Canadian Pacific Airlines in 1941. Miss Fane returned to Vancouver where she would enjoy a 20-year career, during which she became superintendent of reservations. In retirement, she lectured about the Flying Seven and offered her memories to a succession of aviation historians. She made her home within sight of the jets taking-off and landing at the much-expanded airport where she had once taken part in the dusk-to-dawn flight.
Margaret Fane Rutledge was born in Edmonton on April 13, 1914. She died in Richmond, B.C., on Dec. 2, 2004. She leaves her husband, Keith Rutledge, and a sister.