Margaret Ringenberg died doing what she loved: promoting women’s aviation. The World War II veteran was a Women’s Air Force Service Pilot and competitive racer. When she died in her sleep at age 87 in 2008, it was during a conference in Oshkosh Wisconsin, where she was presenting a talk about the legacy of women’s aviators.
The life “Maggie Ray” should be an inspiration for everyone who dreams of doing something extraordinary. Maggie grew up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. After witnessing a barnstormer landing an aircraft in a nearby field when she was eight, Maggie became determined to learn to fly. She had her first solo flight at age 19. When the USA entered World War II, she became a pilot for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, later known as WASP. The women were not allowed to fly in combat, but they performed test flights, ferrying bombers, target towing and other dangerous missions overseas.
Maggie thrived on the pressure of flying for WASP and was devastated when WASP was disbanded at the end of the War. She stashed her gear in the attic, convinced she would never fly again. Back in Ft. Wayne, she was answering phones at the airport when the word came that Japan had surrendered. Since both newspapers were on strike, a radio station asked Maggie to spread the news. She dropped 56,000 leaflets over Ft. Wayne proclaiming the end of the War.
Maggie married and had children but never forgot her passion for flight. She became a flight instructor, and was initially disappointed by how often men did not want to fly with her because she was a woman. She had accumulated more flight hours than any other instructor in Ft. Wayne. Eventually, Maggie overcame this by sheer force of will. Much later in life, she gave Tom Brokaw a flight lesson. He dedicated a chapter of his book, The Greatest Generation, to Maggie. Those who eventually learned to fly because of Maggie remembered that she worked her students incredibly hard, but was encouraging and inspiring to her students.
Maggie stoked her competitive drive by flying in cross-country races. Her racing career started in 1957 and she raced in every Powder Puff Derby from 1957 to 1977, every Air Race Classic until the year she died and many other races. She had a room in her home that had trophies and ribbons from floor to ceiling. Nothing could stop Maggie from flying. In 1994, she completed the Round-theWorld Air Race, an incredible feat of stamina and skill. Her two co-pilots were members of the Ninetynines, an association started by Amelia Earhart in 1929 that fought rules banning flights by women. Their radio actually gave out in the mid-Atlantic, they were beset by a typhoon, and even found themselves tracked by F-14 jets over Iran. At age 79 she raced from London to Sydney.
In fact, Maggie raced right up until the end of her life. One month before she passed away, she finished third in a race from Bozeman, MT to Mansfield, MA, with her co-pilot, Carolyn Van Newkirk. Maggie wrote her autobiography, Women Can’t Be Pilots. Maggie campaigned tirelessly for other women veterans to get the recognition they deserved, and she spoke frequently at conferences. On one such trip, she spoke to a group of NASA employees and then hopped on the Space Shuttle simulator, landing it perfectly each time.
Maggie Ray Ringenberg did things out of the ordinary. The WASPs went through the same training as male cadets and undertook dangerous missions. Maggie frequently had to tow or ferry damaged or cannibalized planes. On one solo run, the plane’s engine blew up, and she was ordered to parachute out. Instead, Maggie safely landed the plane. The incident is a perfect illustration of the way Maggie Ray lived her life: on the edge and with great bravery.