“You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” That was Amelia Earhart’s verdict on rising up to the aerial view, where she thought the soul changes after a glimpse of the world from above. Earhart also said that “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” Here are a few stories from the early days of flight in the Hoosier State.
When folks in Indianapolis wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of their city circa 1915, they had several airports to choose from. At a time when aircraft were small enough to land in cow pastures, on ice and even on water — many early aircraft were pontoon planes — sophisticated landing strips weren’t essential. Passenger service as we know it didn’t really get underway until the 1930s.
One of the pioneers of aviation in Indy, and a friend to women who wanted to learn to fly, was Robert F. Shank. Born in 1891 in Hurricane, West Virginia — a funny name for a pilot’s hometown — Bob Shank was working odd jobs in county and state fair circuits all over the U.S. when World War I broke out. At a fair in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1915, he witnessed an impressive barnstorming stunt put on by a daredevil, almost certainly in a biplane. Transfixed by what he’d seen, Shank later helped the pilot repair his engine, the same one that had powered Louis Blériot’s flight over the English Channel in 1909, and immediately set out to become a barnstormer himself. Maybe Shank, who stood a full head shorter than most men, also wanted to impress all the pretty girls he’d seen at fairs.
One of the amazing things about early aviators is how fast they became skilled pilots. By 1916, the 27-year-old Shank was working as a civilian flight instructor at Love Field and Kelley Field, U.S. Army training schools in Texas. Charles Lindbergh was a student at Kelley Field, where Shank probably met him. A 1917 photo of Shank at San Antonio’s National School of Flying shows him with a group of female students. Though the use of critical manpower to send Christmas cards and get-well letters during wartime seemed like a waste to some, the fledgling U.S. Air Mail Service trained many distinguished American pilots and was created in part to get airmen flight time before they faced the Germans. In 1918 and 1919, Bob Shank was one of the first to fly the mail between New York and Washington. Katherine Stinson flew the New York-Chicago route. Taxiing around actor Douglas Fairbanks, Shank helped him raise $6,000,000 for the Red Cross.
Somehow, after taking Eastern tourists on sightseeing trips and doing barnstorming stunts at fairs in the South, Shank ended up Indiana. By 1927, he and Harold Brooks were operating Hoosier Airport, a tiny airfield less than a mile east of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, just southwest of the intersection of Lafayette Road and Kessler Boulevard. The first privately owned airstrip in Marion County, Hoosier Airport operated until about 1940. Indianapolis also had two military airfields in those days. Stout Army Airfield, called Mars Hill when it became a municipal airport in the late 1920s, sat just south of Eagle Creek near Speedway. Schoen Field, named for Karl J. Schoen, a flying ace from Indy who was shot down in France a few weeks before the armistice, was built in 1922 to serve Fort Benjamin Harrison on the northeast side of town.
America had plenty of places where you could pay a pilot three bucks or so for fifteen minutes of excitement in the sky — though most of these sightseeing businesses were technically illegal. When a young woman came to Bob Shank’s airport for such a ride in 1930, her pilot got more than he bargained for.
Area newspapers carried the story on April 1, 1930. Beulah Bivins, a 23-year-old “domestic” working for an Indianapolis family, showed up at Hoosier Airport one afternoon and asked to be taken on a flight over the city. Her pilot was French Livezey. Shank and Livezey later told reporters that the young woman was rather attractive, so they didn’t balk. Livezey and Bivins went out on one flight. It went fine, and the girl was thrilled. Forty-five minutes later, after taking a tour of Hoosier Airport, she asked for another flight. Ten minutes into that one, Livezey was shocked to see that she had unstrapped her safety belt and begun crawling out on the wing. And this was no barnstorming stunt.
“Livezey explained that he divined the woman’s purpose immediately,” reported the Kokomo Tribune. “He leaned out of the rear cockpit and seized her arm with his right hand as she was on the verge of jumping.” With his fiercely struggling passenger unbalancing the plane, the pilot knew they could easily crash. “He took the chance of sending the ship into a dive by releasing the stick for an instant while he cut off the ignition switch with his left hand. At the same moment the motor sputtered and stopped and the ship made a slight lurch, Livezey said, and continued the glide down to the field, making a perfect three-point landing. Livezey said that the woman sobbed, ‘Why didn’t you let me go ahead?’ as the plane came to a stop.”
Though she quickly disappeared, the distraught Bivins later showed up in an observation ward at City Hospital. What happened to her after that is a mystery. The Indianapolis News wrote: “Livezey, who has been a pilot at the Hoosier field for some time, received his transport license only a few hours before the near tragic flight.”
In the late 1920s, when many women sought to earn their pilot’s license, some took Bob Shank’s flight lessons at Hoosier Airport. One of his students there was the remarkable Debie Stanford.
She was born Debie Sara Tudge outside Manchester, England, in 1902. One newspaper later claimed that she had served as a nurse during World War I. If that’s true, Debie would have been only 16 when the armistice was signed in November 1918, the date she immigrated to Canada with her family aboard the Canada-Pacific liner SS Montcalm. Debie lived around Guelph, Ontario, until she met an auto efficiency engineer named Frank Wells Stanford. The two married in Goshen, Indiana, in 1929, then moved around a lot. In the late 1920s, the couple lived in Woodruff Place on Indy’s Near East Side, then at an address on West 30th Street, and finally at 1801 Kessler Boulevard in Broad Ripple, in a house at the corner of Kessler and Norwaldo Avenue that stood on the site of today’s Christ the King Catholic Church.
In 1929, Debie started flight lessons with Shank. The News recorded in 1932: “Mrs. Stanford had never been up in a plane until she went up for her first lesson. Less than two weeks later she made her [first] solo flight. After obtaining her private pilot’s license at the Hoosier field, Mrs. Stanford bought a biplane there and had it flown to Houston, Tex., where she opened a flying school. She obtained a transport license in Texas.”
In 1930, just a year after she became a U.S. citizen, Stanford’s Houston flight school apparently was catering exclusively to women. In 1931, she placed seventh in the Women’s National Air Derby, a race from Douglas, Arizona, to Cleveland, Ohio. Amelia Earhart had flown in this race in 1929.
Though she split her time between Houston, Indianapolis, Lansing, and Toronto, by 1931 Debie had become friends with a daring 26-year-old pilot from St. Louis, Ruth Stewart. The adopted daughter of William and Agnes Woerner, Ruth, who had married a wealthy Missouri lumberman and was called a “society woman,” rapidly took to the art of flying. The two young pilots made national headlines in November 1931, as it became known that they planned to beat the existing 5 1/2-day record on the flight from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perhaps they’d read a novel that came out that year, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit, by the French mail pilot who later wrote The Little Prince and crashed mysteriously into the Mediterranean in World War II. Saint-Exupéry’s book Night Flight was based on his own exploits flying the dangerous South American and North African routes in the 1920s.
Seeking to make aviation history, Debie Stanford and Ruth Stewart, aged 29 and 26, vowed to pilot a craft from Missouri to New York, stop there briefly, then set out for Havana, Cuba, before cruising down the length of the Andes and over to Buenos Aires.
Ominously, their departure from St. Louis on January 5, 1932, took place in a bad fog. Ruth’s mother Agnes later told papers that her daughter had been reluctant to set out at all in those conditions. From the banks of the Mississippi, flying in separate planes, the two headed east. Ruth had to make an emergency stop in a muddy field in Charleston, Illinois, and have her plane towed to Terre Haute, Indiana, where her parents joined Debie Stanford at a hotel. Taking off from Terre Haute’s Dresser Field the next morning, the pilots probably hopped over to Indianapolis. Their last New York-bound pit stop was at McKeesport, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, on January 6. No one ever saw them alive again.
Pennsylvania’s mountains were known early on as the “graveyard of aviation,” a distinction they have maintained among small-craft pilots. The first week of January 1932 had already claimed the lives two other aviators, Dale Jackson and E.H. Bobbitt, who crashed in West Virginia and Florida. Their death notices showed up in the papers next to the sensational coverage given to the disappearance of the two “aviatrixes” just after New Year’s Day.
Sometime on January 6, with Ruth Stewart at the helm, the women’s white Lockheed flew into thick fog over Perry County, just west of Harrisburg. Central Pennsylvania newspapers carried the gripping story under huge headlines for the next few days. Forced down by bad weather, the plane had crashed into the side of Bowers Mountain in the Tuscarora State Forest. Farmers and woodsmen later reported that they’d heard the crash and even seen a distress rocket fired, indicating the possibility of a survival. After a day’s search by Pennsylvania troopers, volunteers, and horsemen of the 104th Cavalry, an “autogyro” plane — hindered by persistent bad fog — finally spotted the aircraft. When investigators got to the crash site, they determined that Ruth Stewart had died on impact.
The Harrisburg Telegraph reported that “Mrs. Stewart had had the presence of mind to turn off the switch when she saw that the crash was inevitable. Undoubtedly the plane would have burst into flames had she not done this.” Horribly injured and covered in gasoline, Debie Stanford apparently had survived the crash, but died shortly afterwards, pinned in the wreckage. A coroner told the press that Ruth, the pilot, had been crushed beyond recognition. Curious spectators in cars streamed up the mountain road, hub-deep in mud, and slipped off into ditches.
Stewart’s body was sent back to St. Louis for burial. Debie Stanford’s husband, who was then living in Camden, New York, just west of Utica, had her remains taken there. She rests in Camden’s Forest Park Cemetery.
Back in Indianapolis, Bob Shank went on flying at Hoosier Airport, though with the development of Weir Cook Municipal Airport after 1931, his airfield was hardly a major port of call. During World War II, he trained Air Force recruits from Butler University. In 1940, Shank suffered an air tragedy of his own. His son Robert Shank, Jr., died in a midair collision, an event that devastated his father for years. When Bob opened up another airfield, two miles northwest of the Motor Speedway, he named it Robert Shank Airport after his son. Shank Field won an award for “most outstanding airport development” in 1946 and was in operation until the mid-1970s.
Former barnstormer, last surviving member of the original U.S. Air Mail Service, and the man who taught one of Indianapolis’ most adventurous aviatrixes, Robert F. Shank, Sr., died on April 16, 1968. He was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.
So many women aviators of that time deserve mention — how about the amazing Josephine Callaghan, who had no arms, yet also learned to drive a car and was a prize-winning horseback rider! But before we fly off into the sunset, one aviator who visited Indy deserves a quick introduction here, since her story might easily have inspired the feats of Ruth Stewart and Debie Stanford.
Ruth Bancroft Law, who earned her pilot’s license in 1912 and later broke the Chicago-to-New York flight record, wowed audiences at the 1915 Indiana State Fair. The Indianapolis News printed a long article about Law’s “volplaning” on September 18, 1915. Law was the first woman authorized to wear a military uniform by the U.S. Army and campaigned — unsuccessfully — to allow women to be fighter pilots in World War I. Though she was earning up to $9,000 a week for exhibition flights and was the first pilot to carry airmail to the Philippines, Law stopped flying in 1922 to spend more time with her husband — her exhibition manager — and start a family. The couple lived in Beverly Hills and San Francisco, where Law died in 1970.
Let’s hope they all fly on still, wherever adventurers go.