Oct. 19 2016 12:26 AM

Upcoming event looks back on one of Lansing’s early female pilots

In an odd historical coincidence, Lansing had its own Babe Ruth. But while the Great Bambino was swatting home runs for the New York Yankees, Marion “Babe” Weyant Ruth was lying in her backyard, just west of what is now Capitol Region International Airport, watching the planes take off and land.

Born Marion Weyant in 1918, she went on to become the youngest female pilot in Michigan and one of the youngest in the U.S. at 19. She was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame during her lifetime. Weyant earned the nickname “Babe” from other pilots who were amused by the novelty of a female pilot. In 1947, she married Dale Charles Ruth, leading to the moniker she shares with the Sultan of Swat. She died in 2004 at 86.

According to local historian Craig Whitford, who helped write the aviatrix’s memoir, “Airport Kid: Learning to Fly,” a young Weyant assembled large scrapbooks filled with clippings about aviation and aviators. But before she could take to the sky, she had to overcome two formidable barriers: her father’s objections and the substantial cost of flying lessons.

Weyant was not above using subterfuge to feed her obsession. In 1930, after her father found out that she had snuck out of the house to attend the first-ever Lansing Air Circus, he forbade her from going to the airport. The next year, the Lansing State Journal offered a promotion for the second annual Air Circus. The oldest person to attend the Circus would get a free plane ride and a $5 bill.

“When the 13-year-old Babe found out, she asked her 87-year-old great-grandfather to take her to the Air Circus,” Whitford said. “He won, and she got to ride along,”

Despite her father’s continued objections, she began raising chickens to pay for ground lessons. An article in the Capital News profiled her as the first female member of the Capital News Sky Cadets. In 1932, for a school assignment, Weyant was asked to prepare a “career book.” The book she turned in, titled “Aviation as a Career,” was over two hundred pages.

In the preface of the career book, which is now owned by Whitford, Babe writes, “My greatest desire is to become a flyer.”

Her father eventually gave in to Weyant’s persistence. Soon she was spending every Sunday at the airport and constantly scheming ways to make money to pay for lessons. When the Detroit Times ran a contest for recipes, she sent in one for “Pilot’s Dish,” which featured alternating layers of onion and bacon. She won $1.

In 1934, Weyant got a big break when the airport gave permission for her and her mother to open a concession stand at the airport.

“Business was good at her refreshment stand,” Whitford writes in “The Airport Kid,” “and it didn’t take long before she saved enough money for one hour of flying.”

On Aug. 3, 1934, Weyant took her first lesson from Johnny Matthews in a WACO Taperwing. In October 1936, at 18, she took her first solo flight.

Whitford will discuss Ruth’s career and show photographs of Lansing’s early aviation history Wednesday at the East Lansing Public Library, one day short of the 80th anniversary of Weyant’s first solo flight. Whit ford purchased most of Ruth’s memorabilia before her death and considers himself the keeper of her legacy. He has about 500 cubic feet worth of material on Ruth and is looking for the right time and place to put it on exhibit. Along the way, Whitford has become an expert on Lansing’s early aviation history.

“It was an exciting time,” Whitford said. Lansing saw its first flight in 1911, when Jimmy Ward performed stunts in his Curtis biplane, the Shooting Star, with 20,000 fans watching.

After World War I, the skies were filled with local daredevils like Clem Sohn, known as the “the Batman” for his stunts with a self-made wing suit, who died in 1937 at an airshow in France. In 1928, Christopher V. Pickup flew a Stinson Detroiter into Lansing for the city’s first airmail delivery.

“Pickup looked almost like a movie star and was the poster child for flight,” Whitford said.

Whitford cites 1928 as a pivotal year for flight in Lansing. A newspaper article from that year calls aviation the “new village habit.” On Aug. 28, REO Motor Car Co. added to the excitement when it arranged for 18 airplanes to fly 10,000 pounds of dealership flyers out of Lansing.

Other high points include a flyover of the State Capitol Building by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and Earhart’s two visits in the 1930s for speaking engagements. But neither pilot touched down at Lansing’s airport.

One of Ruth’s most cherished items was the letter she received from Earhart in 1933, encouraging her pursuit of a career in aviation.

“I believe that if you are not afraid to work very hard and really wish to enter aviation, you will be able to do so,” Earhart wrote.

Babe Ruth: Airport Kid

With Craig Whitford, hosted by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26
East Lansing Public Library 950 Abbot Road, Lansing
(517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org