Civil Air Patrol

Bucking Tradition

Iowan One Of CAP’s First Female Pilots

By Kristi Carr

One-hundred years old — is it the new 80?

For Sgt. Ruth Beard Fuller, who turned 100 in April, redefining roles and standards has been a constant theme throughout her long life.

So, it is not surprising she was among the first Iowa Wing recruits, within months of its establishment in 1943. In her memoirs (Ruth Beard Fuller Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries), Fuller wrote: “About the time I began flying, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. Wartime, remember? There were weekly drills and instruction on various civil defense matters.”

A compelling reason to join the Civil Air Patrol, she acknowledged, was the opportunity to do what she loved — fly. Flying mail or airplane parts to Midwest cities were some of her assignments.

A young girl dreams of flying

Her dream to fly was born, Fuller said, at the age of 12 when she attended the 1919 Iowa State Fair, where Ruth Laws appeared as a “barnstormer, taking passengers on brief rides. Because her name was Ruth, I took it as an omen.”

Fuller postponed her flying aspirations, however, for more than two decades. In the interim, she finished her secondary education while avidly playing basketball and writing for the Mount Ayr, Iowa, school newspaper. In the 1920s, she was in the minority as a female student at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa).

“For my life after school,” she noted, “I had three choices. One was to be a physical education teacher or go on to law school like my father. The other was not something I made public. It was to get married and have six children.” When she met Bernard “Barney” Fuller in a college physics make-up class, the decision became clear. But even in marriage, she tested tradition as she was Protestant and he was Catholic.

The dream becomes a reality

Lest anyone think Fuller was turning status quo, after marriage and the birth of her two daughters, Peg and Joan, she brought her dreams of flying back into focus at age 36, spurred by the arrival in Centerville, Iowa, where she was now living, of S.A. Hopkins, the town’s first flight instructor.

“The airport-owned plane was a Cub Coupe side-byside with an air speed of 65 miles per hour for cruising,” she recalled. “It had dual controls and could be flown from either side.”

Fuller’s memoirs chronicle her first lessons of “climbs and turns,” followed after only 14 hours of instruction and then the chance to solo. “I loved it,” said Fuller, “but was so scared I carefully did the dishes, made the beds and straightened the whole house before going for my morning flying.”


"A compelling reason to join the Civil Air Patrol was the opportunity to do what she loved — fly." — Ruth Beard Fuller 


After a successful solo flight, Fuller said the next step was to obtain a private pilot license, which involved practicing intentional stalls or spins to learn what to do “if found in that pickle.” Once she had her license in the spring of 1944, she joined the Civil Air Patrol. At that time, most women recruits joined because their husbands belonged, and they did the usual women’s work, as secretaries or radio operators.

Instead, Fuller was, of course, a pilot — the only female pilot in the squadron.

Even so, Fuller’s daughter, Peg, said women were restricted back then, which turned her mother into an “early feminist.” As Fuller wrote, “One last thought for women’s lib. All the other flyers in CAP were men and commissioned officers. I was a technical sergeant.”

Besides flying for the Civil Air Patrol, Fuller took to the skies to shuttle her husband to business meetings in their private plane, and she figures she treated at least 88 friends and relatives to their first flight. In fact, she reported a scare when she took her husband’s 77-yearold Uncle Tony for his first ride. “We were only up about 400 feet, making the first turn of the takeoff pattern, when suddenly he turned toward me and put both arms around me,” she said. “I thought he was panicking. Instead he said, ‘Ruth, I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you for getting me off the ground.’ ”

Dreams turn to memories

Sgt. Ruth Fuller ties down her plane after landing at the Iowa City airport to speak at a luncheon.

By early 1951, after logging more than 400 hours, Fuller left her flying days behind when she and her husband sold their private plane. At the time, her husband had his student license and Peg was doing landings and takeoffs, but, as Fuller noted, “To fly, one has to trust the ground crew completely. At that time we couldn’t, so we thought it best to get out of flying.”

Even without flying, Fuller continued her life with a full plate of activities — working with the Democratic National Committee; the Catholic Church, to which she’d converted; and the activities of her two daughters.

According to family legend, as related by her daughter, Fuller’s father had consistently encouraged her when she was young, telling her “she could do anything she wanted.” It was obviously a lesson Fuller never forgot, because, in her 90s, she taught herself how to use a computer so she could write her memoirs.

 

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