Aviation legend Margaret Ringenberg of Leo-Cedarville was doing what she loved most shortly before her death late Sunday in Oshkosh, Wis. She was at the AirVenture Show, mentoring young women in an aviation program, “encouraging them to be all they could be, to not be afraid of becoming pilots. She was doing exactly what she wanted to do,” said Ringenberg's only daughter, Marsha J. Wright.
Ringenberg was 87.
From her first airplane ride at age 7, the girl with wings took to heart what she once said her father told her, “You can be anything you want to be,” and became one of the most honored female pilots in the country.
Tom Brokaw's book “The Greatest Generation” contains a chapter on Ringenberg, who began her aviation career in 1943 as a ferry pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
In 1945, after the group disbanded, she became a flight instructor, “although no one wanted to take lessons from a woman back then,” Wright said.
“Her determination. Her courage, courage that far outstrips mine, is what I'll remember,” Wright said.
On Sunday, Ringenberg had driven to Oshkosh to join other former WASP members at the air show, Wright said. When Ringenberg failed to show up for breakfast Monday, a member of the WASP group went to check on her and found she had died in her sleep.
“It is how she would have wanted it,” Wright said. “God had his fingerprints all over this.” Wright and all five of her children flew in races with Ringenberg. In 2002, Ringenberg and her granddaughter, Jaala Wright, flew to Houston, where Ringenberg spoke to astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.
As a pilot, Ringenberg logged more than 40,000 hours and raced in every Powder Puff Derby - a transcontinental women's air race - between 1957 and 1977, when it ended. She had also flown in every Air Race Classic since 1997, including the most recent just a month ago. Ringenberg and her teammate, Carolyn Van Newkirk, finished third among 30 teams, flying from Bozeman, Mont., to Mansfield, Mass.
In 1994, at age 72, she was the oldest entrant in the Round-the-World Air Race. In 2002, she was one of six people honored by the Indiana Historical Society as a Living Legend, and in March was inducted into the Pioneer Hall of Fame during the Women in Aviation International Conference in San Diego. It was one of more than 150 awards she received as an aviator, author, speaker and leader for women everywhere.
A book about Ringenberg and other WASP members, “Maggie Ray, World War II Air Force Pilot,” written by Wright, was published in 2007. Before that, Ringenberg and Jane Roth wrote “Girls Can't Be Pilots: An Aerobiography.”
Perhaps her only regret, she once said, was not being the first senior in space.
“John Glenn beat me to it,” she said. “When I saw him at Bob Dole's 80th birthday and library dedication, I told him I had a bone to pick with him,” she told The News-Sentinel in March.
Although Ringenberg's name is almost synonymous with aviation locally, Wright said her mother's life was much more than flying. She was a Girl Scout leader, band mom and member of Grabill Missionary Church.
“She did a lot of speaking and not as much flying in these last years. There were insurance issues. The companies would say, ‘You want to fly in this race and you're how old?' ” In 1998, she spoke to 1,000 Air Force Academy graduates in Colorado Springs, Colo., and at the time of her death was a speaker for NASA's Distinguished Lecture series. “Because so many people knew her, I realize she belongs to the community,” Wright said.
Ringenberg's legacy is far-reaching in so many ways, said Marilyn Moran Townsend of CVC Communications in Fort Wayne, who, along with Ringenberg, was featured in a calendar book in 2000 about Indiana women in nontraditional fields.
“I'm so saddened. I feel like we've lost an important piece of greatness that so many people in the community and in Indiana had the opportunity to get to know,” said Moran Townsend. “She achieved wonderful things early in her life in so many nontraditional ways, and she continued on doing so throughout her life. She was such an inspiration.”
In addition to Wright, Ringenberg is survived by a son, Michael J. of Leo-Cedarville, four grandsons and one granddaughter. She was preceded in death by her husband of 56 years, Morris J. Ringenberg, in 2003.
Visitation for Margaret Ringenberg, who died late Sunday in Wisconsin at age 87, is 2-5 and 7-9 p.m. Monday and one hour before the funeral at 10 a.m. Aug. 5, Grabill Missionary Church, 13637 State St., Grabill.