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Meet Ruth Elder: Lakeland’s first aviatrix

This Lakeland pilot nearly made aviation history with a transatlantic flight.

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Opening the new terminal at Miami for Pan American World Airways featuring Ruth Elder (in white) and Amelia Earheart | Photo by Florida Photographic Collection

Have you ever heard about the two Lakeland residents that nearly made aviation history by flying across the Atlantic?

Ruth Elder, born in Alabama in 1902, came to Lakeland with her husband in the 1920s. After learning to pilot planes, Ruth became a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots, which was formed in 1929 by 99 women pilots.

During this time, George William Haldeman Sr. served in the Army Air Service during WWI. After the war, he returned to Lakeland and formed the Intercity Airline Corporation and later established an airfield on his family’s land. In the 1920s, he and his brother trained pilots, Ruth Elder being one of them.

In September of 1927, copilots Elder and Haldeman flew to New York and on October 11, they left from Long Island in their Stinson Detroiter monoplane named the American Girl in an attempt to make Elder the first woman to fly across the ocean. Amelia Earhart’s solo flight took place the following year in 1928.

For nine hours of the flight, Elder was at the controls. They were nearly finished with their flight to Paris when a ruptured oil line forced them to ditch the plane in the water, 336 miles off the coast of Spain, where they were rescued by the Dutch oil tanker Barendrecht. While they did not make it all the way across the Atlantic, their over-water, 36-hour course of 2,623 miles still set a new distance record.

On their return to the US, they were honored with a NYC ticker tape parade. Elder embarked on a 25-week speaking tour for $5,000 a week. She went on to have a career on the silver screen, starring in two movies, “Moran of the Marines” (1928) and “Glorifying the American Girl” (1929). Lakeland honored the two with the naming of the Haldeman-Elder Field. That airport was used as an auxiliary field for cadets of the Lodwick School of Aeronautics until August 1945.

Though many favored Elder’s venture, an equal number did not support the idea of a female pilot. Ruth continued to fly into the 1930s and died in 1977 at the age of 75.

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