The Aviatrix Whose Name Lives in Infamy
Laura Houghtaling Ingalls might well have been one of those rare children capable of being whatever she wanted to be.
Born to the heirs of a tea fortune, she led a privileged life that included New York private schools and time studying music and language in Paris and Vienna. In an era where women had limited options outside the home, she worked not only as a secretary and nurse, but also as a pianist and vaudeville dancer. Then Ingalls found her calling in a relatively new field — aviation.
That choice initially made her a celebrity among the likes of Amelia Earhart and Ruth Elder. Ingalls set numerous records as a stunt pilot and achieved multiple firsts as an aviatrix. Eighty-seven years ago this month, she set a record of 714 consecutive barrel rolls, and a few years later she earned an international award for a solo flight around South America.
But as war with Germany loomed in the late 1930s, Ingalls made some choices that sent her aviation career into a nosedive from which she never recovered. She ended up in trouble with the Civil Aeronautics Authority and eventually spent time in jail for ties to the Nazis. For the rest of her life, Ingalls lobbied unsuccessfully for a presidential pardon.
A ‘darling of aviation’ soars
It is perhaps fitting that controversy surrounds the birthdate of a figure as controversial as Ingalls. She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., sometime between 1893 (the date on her headstone) and a decade later, according to conflicting documents and her own vague court testimony in 1942. Ingalls was the daughter of Francis Ingalls and Martha Houghtaling, whose father was a wealthy tea merchant. The Ingalls family later gained another connection to affluence when Laura Ingalls’ brother married a granddaughter of powerful banker J.P. Morgan.
Although no known historical accounts explain why, Ingalls turned her attention to aviation in 1928. On Dec. 23, she flew solo for the first time over Roosevelt Island in New York and then went to the Universal Flying School in St. Louis. She was one of the first women to earn a federal commercial transport license from the Department of Commerce’s Aeronautics Branch, a classification that authorized her to fly any airplane on approved transport routes.
Less than a year after enrolling in the flying school, Ingalls set her first record in women’s aviation — 344 consecutive loops over Lambert-St. Louis Field. Although she bested the previous record of 46 loops by nearly 300, she told reporters she was “terribly disappointed” that a pause to pump gas from a reserve tank meant another 66 loops didn’t count.
She overcame her disappointment like the overachiever she was — by shattering her own record less than a month later. Ingalls flew 980 consecutive loops over nearly four hours in the air at Hatbox-Municipal Airport in Oklahoma, a feat that won her hundreds of dollars. “I was offered a dollar apiece for every loop I made over my record of 344,” she told one reporter.
That was just the beginning of a years-long stretch of records and firsts for Ingalls. The record for consecutive barrel rolls came next. Ingalls did 714 of them, besting the women’s record by 647 and the men’s mark by 297.
She shifted her aviation focus to speed and distance records after that milestone. Over the next several weeks, she finished third in the Women’s Dixie Derby from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and then set the women’s transcontinental round-trip record — 30 hours and 25 minutes to get from New York to California, and 25 hours and 20 minutes to return. In that age of daredevils, Jessie Maude Keith-Miller and later Amelia Earhart quickly broke Ingalls’ record, but Ingalls reclaimed the west-east transcontinental record in 1935.
Ingalls also made aviation news for her 1934 solo flight around South America. It garnered so much media attention that the Florida Times-Union noticed when she didn’t land in Jacksonville as expected in the days leading up to that trip. Ingalls had veered off course because of a navigational error.
‘’Now I can have one little secret, if I want to,’’ she told the newspaper after landing in Miami. ‘’Put it down to anything you like, but not to romance. That’s out.”
Ingalls’ journey down South America’s west coast and back up the east coast actually began in Miami on March 8. Nearly six weeks later — after stops in Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago — she landed in New York at 3:50 p.m., on April 17. The consul generals of the 23 countries she flew over during the trip were in the crowd at Floyd Bennett Field.
Ingalls was the first woman to fly over the Andes Mountains (at 18,000 feet) and the first to fly from North America to South America. She easily surpassed aviatrix Amy Johnson’s distance record of 10,000 miles by logging about 17,000 in the air. She won a prestigious Harmon Trophy from the International League of Aviators.
Grounded for a D.C. propaganda flight
Ingalls had minor brushes with the law for traffic violations in 1934 and 1935, including a ticket while on her way to dine with New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. But her charming demeanor gave way to more destructive behavior as global tensions rose in Europe. A 1996 history of The Ninety-Nines, a group of women pilots, characterized her transformation from “the darling of aviation” to paid agent of the Nazis as “a melancholy chapter of the early years.”
As late as 1938, Ingalls was still the subject of glowing press coverage. A cover story in the magazine of Connecticut’s New Haven Sunday Register heralded her as a woman who sacrificed a future with men to “lift her sisters from the kitchen to a cloud.”
“I haven’t time for romance. There’s too much to do in the sky,” she said, giving voice to a future dream of opening a school of aviation for women. “Now women must train with men, and they hate to appear at a disadvantage because they do not have the same preparation with which to start. Instructors, too, often jolly a girl along instead of taking her work seriously.”
Vision like that no doubt contributed to Ingalls’ popularity on the speaking circuit. But outside the realm of aviation, her wisdom was questionable. It was one thing, for instance, for Ingalls to align herself with the Women’s National Committee to Keep the United States out of War; it was quite another to drop antiwar pamphlets on Washington, D.C.
Ingalls did that in a two-hour peace flight on Sept. 26, 1939, on behalf of the committee. She dropped one-page leaflets containing an appeal to Congress to take legislative action to keep the country out of war. The flight violated two rules of the Civil Aeronautics Authority: 1) dropping anything over a city from an aircraft without permission; and 2) flying in the restricted zone around the White House and most other government buildings.
CAA officials met her at Washington Airport with a threat to revoke her license. “In her defense, few pilots were aware of restrictions on where they could fly,” according to the account in the Ninety-Nines history, “and Laura maintained that she had done it out of love for her country.”
That same patriotic passion moved Ingalls to defiantly raise another ruckus outside a closed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing two days later. Rebuffed by committee leaders, she fumed: “And this is the government of the United States! I can’t understand it. Imagine! Holding hearings behind closed doors! This is a dictatorship already.”
Several days later, she defended her flight over Washington in hearings before the CAA. As recounted at the blog Pardon Power, Ingalls said the “unfortunate incident” was merely a technical violation motivated by “patriotic fervor.” She provided evidence of a similar 1935 flight over restricted airspace in Philadelphia without repercussions and said she didn’t consider paper pamphlets to be among the type of “objects” that couldn’t be dropped from aircraft.
The CAA disagreed, concluding just before Christmas that Ingalls had “disturbing deficiencies” in her knowledge of civil air regulations. It revoked her license “until she shall have demonstrated to the satisfaction of a designated representative of the authority that she is thoroughly familiar” with the civil air regulations through a written exam.
Egotistical patriot or Nazi missionary?
Although the flight over Washington tarnished Ingalls’ reputation, she was still a hero to some. Burbank High School included a photo of her in its 1940 yearbook, which recognized “the brave men and women who have dedicated their lives to the cause of aviation.”
But the details about her that emerged over the next few years did far worse damage to her public standing. Ten days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America declared war against Japan, Germany and Italy, U.S. officials charged Ingalls with being an unregistered agent for the German Reich.
Dorothy Thompson, the “first lady of American journalism” and also the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934, condemned Ingalls in her “On The Record” column. Thompson said Ingalls, a regular on the speaking circuit for the America First Committee, was part of a “Nazi fifth column” whose antiwar activities aided the U.S. enemy.
“She was one of a great network of conscious and unconscious agents, working on the mentality of a whole people,” Thompson wrote.
Ingalls went to trial in February 1942. Her lawyer, James Reilly, did not contest the facts of the case — that Ingalls had taken money from Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, the second secretary of the German Embassy, and his emissary. U.S. agents watched one such transaction from the bushes outside von Gienanth’s Maryland home.
His defense of Ingalls also acknowledged her publicly evident character flaws. He described her as “a fanatic” and even “a bit of a crackpot,” with “a burning ambition to make the front pages.” But on the question of her interaction with German officials, Reilly argued that Ingalls was “an egotistical patriot conducting a one-woman campaign of counter-espionage against the Nazis.” He said she decided to act alone after the FBI declined to hire her.
The jury didn’t buy the counterespionage theory, believing instead prosecutor M. Neil Andrews’ view that Ingalls took the money because she was “an intense German sympathizer” and “a missionary for the Nazi cause.” The evidence included testimony about Ingalls wearing a swastika bracelet, saturating her antiwar speeches with German propaganda, praising Adolph Hitler and his plans for a “new order,” and bashing President Franklin D. Roosevelt for siding with the British over the Germans.
One witness, Burbank Airport manager Dudley Steele, was so disturbed by a conversation with Ingalls that he had made notes about it. And a plastic surgeon said Ingalls spoke fluent German when she saw him under an assumed name.
The jury weighed the evidence for 80 minutes before convicting Ingalls. “Pilot friends were greatly saddened by her misguided involvement,” according to the history of The Ninety-Nines.
Ingalls was sentenced from eight months to two years in jail. She served more than a year in a Washington, D.C., prison and three months at the West Virginia Women’s Reformatory.
A few months into her jail term, the government refused to grant Ingalls parole, in part because of her “poor adjustment” in prison. A year later, the New York Daily Mirror tabloid reported that the denial of parole prompted even worse behavior by Ingalls. The anonymously sourced article said she praised Hitler and spewed racist rhetoric to other inmates, instigating “near-riots” that twice landed her in solitary confinement, once to protect her from other inmates.
The story, published right before Ingalls’ release from jail, said she had been transferred to the West Virginia facility after being badly beaten in the D.C. jail. Some prisoners reacted to Ingalls’ “pure Nazi policy of race hatred” by fracturing her ribs, breaking her nose, blackening both eyes, and leaving her with multiple cuts and bruises. When she was set free on Oct. 4, 1943, officials told The New York Times she had been a “model prisoner.”
Ingalls wasn’t done challenging the government, though. She spent years pleading for a pardon after the fact, badgering and cajoling everyone she could to try to get it. But her family and political connections weren’t strong enough to help the once-heralded aviation pioneer secure the symbolic mercy she coveted to restore a measure of her respectability.
After her release from prison, Ingalls did not resume her flying career. She died in relative obscurity in Burbank on Jan. 10, 1967.
A version of this story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.