Flying pioneer

First Posted: 3/12/2015

LIMA — Three times the plane dipped out of the summer sky, skimming low over the St. John’s Cemetery in Delphos. Each time pilot dropped a spray of flowers.

“All of them landed near the grave and were placed on it by relatives and friends, a large group of whom gathered at the cemetery for the aerial tribute,” the Delphos Daily Herald wrote July 19, 1932, of Lauretta Schimmoler’s unique farewell to her aunt, Barbara Stephens, who had died a week earlier in California.

By the summer of 1932, the 31-year-old Schimmoler, a pioneering female aviator, was convinced the airplane could serve the living as well as the dead. The first woman to establish and manage an airport, Schimmoler was a friend of Amelia Earhart and would go on to originate and become the driving force behind the idea of the flight nurse to aid in the evacuation of wounded troops. In 1942, Schimmoler even had a role in a Hollywood movie loosely based on the work of flight nurses.

Born Sept. 17, 1900, in Fort Jennings, to Louis B. and Josephine Stephens Schimmoler, she caught the flying bug as a spectator at Lt. John Macready’s 1919 attempt to set an altitude record at McCook Army Air Service Field in Dayton.

“The thrill and excitement engendered by Macready’s near disaster and eventual success caused her to vow to become a flyer at the first opportunity,” according to an article in the Fall 2013 edition of the Friends Journal, a magazine of the Air Force Museum Foundation. “In the meantime she graduated from college, studied law, and owned her own poultry business. Apparently her energetic business career was a means to an end. That end was to become an aviatrix.”

Schimmoler graduated with honors from Bliss Business College in Columbus and found a job as Crawford County’s court stenographer assistant. After briefly flirting with the idea of a legal career, she made an unusual move — taking a job as secretary in a Bucyrus chicken hatchery. Schimmoler eventually ran her own poultry business.

“By 1929,” Friends Journal wrote, “she had found the necessary funds to apply for a student pilot’s license, which was granted by the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce Aug. 10. The form letter which greeted her as ‘Dear Sir’ gives evidence of the small number of women in aviation at that time.”

Schimmoler enrolled at a flying school in Sycamore and so impressed the school’s manager that he soon hired her as advertising manager, and she soon convinced him to move his business to larger Bucyrus. “She soon leased 64 acres outside of Bucyrus and supervised work on the new field,” Friends Journal wrote. “During that year and into 1930, Schimmoler continued to both manage the small airport and spend as much time in the cockpit as she could.”

On July 20, 1931, the Coshocton Tribune reported, “Miss Lauretta Schimmoler, the only woman airport manager in the United States, today hung out an ‘Open for Business’ sign at Port Bucyrus. Thousands gathered yesterday to witness the formal dedication of the airport. Roads were jammed for miles around by persons eager to witness the program of races arranged as part of the dedication ceremonies.”

Schimmoler, who obtained her pilot’s license Sept. 8, 1930, “became an enthusiastic supporter of aviation development … and spoke out vigorously on its behalf,” Friends Journal noted. “As one of the few female pilots in Ohio, and the only female airport manager anywhere, she became a celebrity throughout the state.”

In 1932, Schimmoler’s celebrity earned her induction into the 99s, the national organization of women pilots. She became the second secretary of the group and a participant in stunt and formation flying exhibitions. During this time, Friends Journal added, Schimmoler and Earhart struck up a friendship that lasted until Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific during her 1937 attempt to fly around the world.

Schimmoler, meanwhile, began working on another idea: to create a flying nurses’ organization. The idea was born in August 1930 when she was returning to Akron with her instructor from a training flight in a new Waco biplane she had just purchased. “As they approached the town of Lorain, Lauretta noticed that it bore the marks of a devastating tornado …,” Friends Journal wrote. “As they flew back to Akron, she began thinking of the casualties that must have occurred and how much more quickly they could have received medical aid if nurses trained in aviation could have been flown in to help.”

Following her mother’s death in 1933 (her father died in 1929), Schimmoler moved to Burbank, California, where she became secretary to the commanding officer of U.S. Air Mail Route Number 4. When the Army suspended air mail operations, she took a job with Lockheed Aircraft Corp.

“By 1936, she felt ready to undertake her self-appointed mission,” according to the Friends Journal article. “In September of that year, she and 10 nurses she had selected developed the structure of the Aerial Nurse Corps of America.” The corps, organized along military lines, debuted at the National Air Races in Los Angeles in 1936, delivering first aid to 220 persons over four days.

“More and more we are coming to need nurses who are available instantly to go by air with patients who need special medical service,” Schimmoler said in a Sept. 21, 1937, wire story.

The military, however, did not share Schimmoler’s enthusiasm for flight nurses. Her attempts “to see her organization accepted in an official or, at least, semi-official capacity by the military” were constantly rebuffed, Friends Journal observed.

Pearl Harbor changed all that. The first training center for Army Flight Nurses was established in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the nurses trained there were former members of the Aerial Nurse Corps of America.

Schimmoler, in her early 40s and not a nurse, wasn’t among them. Instead, she trained as an air traffic controller. After basic training, she was assigned to an Army airfield in California where air ambulances bringing casualties from Guadalcanal would land one night in 1944.

“I was overcome by it all for the moment,” Schimmoler wrote in an unpublished biography. “I said aloud, ‘and they said it couldn’t be done.’ There in the dark of the night, alone in the dispatch office doorway, I was witnessing the culmination of years of effort and hopes that had last become a reality.”

On May 13, 1966, the Mansfield News-Journal reported that Schimmoler, by then a resident of Glendale, California, “received her ‘official’ wings and a plaque from the office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Air Force, giving her the title ‘Honorary Flight Nurse.’”

Schimmoler died Jan. 21, 1981, at the age of 80. In September 2014, the Crawford County Historical Society dedicated a monument on Schimmoler’s grave at Holy Trinity Cemetery in Bucyrus.

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