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Pearl White Ward abandoned business school for the cockpit, then made a living jumping out of it.

“I always told my mother I was going to make something of myself,” Pearl White Ward said in a 1997 interview in the Ritchie County Gazette. But neither Pearl nor her mother imagined that she would become one of America’s pioneer female pilots and parachutists.

Born in Cumberland, Md., on April 4, 1914, Pearl lived with her grandparents in a small community near Smithville, W.Va., after her parents divorced. By age 12 she was already earning money doing housework, washing and ironing, and taking care of children. After her mother remarried, Pearl also worked in the family’s grocery store in Smithville. But she dreamed of becoming a secretary.

At 14 Pearl traveled to Marietta, Ohio, to attend business school. When that school abruptly closed just two months later, a classmate invited Pearl to return with her to Washington, D.C., to attend a school run by her father, Strayer’s Business College. Pearl recalled, “I didn’t have anyplace to stay, so the director of the school gave me the name and address of a student, Sunny Olson, whose parents wanted to keep a student as a companion for their daughter.” When she arrived in D.C., Pearl re membered, “I walked up to that big front door and was let in by a woman in a uniform. She was a maid, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’d never heard of such a thing.”

She did very well in school. “The teachers were extremely encouraging,” she said. “They would stay after hours to help me.”

One day Pearl saw a newspaper advertisement that read, “Learn to Fly! $45!” She went to Beacon Airport in Alexandria, Va., and signed up for lessons, paying for them with her lunch money and a small sum her father had given her. Though the minimum age for lessons was 21, no proof was required—so the 15-year-old got away with claiming she was 21.

Instructor Johnny Evans taught her to fly in an Aeronca C-2, an ultralight nicknamed the “Flying Bathtub” because of its odd fuselage shape. Equipped with a 36-hp engine, the C-2 topped out at about 75 mph. Pearl soloed after just 2½ hours of instruction. “Johnny and I had landed and I started to get out,” she recalled, “and Johnny hollered: ‘Sit where you are! It’s all yours!’ I yelled out, ‘Oh no!’ but he just repeated himself, and off I went.”

Flying became Pearl’s new passion, and she soon dropped out of business school. As her skills increased, she found work as a barnstormer. “I’d fly the plane upside down over a field and grab a rag off the top of a 30-foot pole,” she said. “I’d also do spins and loops, wingovers, S turns and wing-walking.”

Pearl’s frequent performances brought her public recognition and bolstered her confidence. “My head grew so big I couldn’t scratch it,” she observed with a laugh. That changed when she encountered Amelia Earhart at a New York airport. “She was very mannish looking with short red hair and a freckled face,” Pearl recalled. “I asked her in a smart-aleck tone, ‘Well, what do you think of my flying?’ She said, ‘Well, young lady, if you live long enough, you might make a good pilot.’ She took some of my ego away, which was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

In 1928 Pearl met Eddie Butler, owner of a traveling airshow, who offered her a job parachuting out of an airplane for $300 per jump. She had no training or experience before she jumped in public the first time. Butler simply explained how a parachute worked, saying: “Here’s the rip cord. When you leave the plane, count to 10 and pull it. Don’t lose it, or it will cost you $5.” Of her first performance, Pearl recalled, “There was a big crowd, and I gave them quite a show.”

She traveled up and down the East Coast from 1928 until 1935, doing aerobatics, wing-walking and parachuting. To heighten the drama at one show, she jumped while holding an open sack of flour, sending a white streak across the sky.

All went well until her 27th jump, in Galax, Va. “I had a feeling about the two parachutes I was to use at the airshow in Galax,” Pearl said. “They were old and all patched up.” Pearl told the pilot she didn’t want to jump, but “When I got up there and over the place to jump, he said, ‘Jump or I’ll push!’ I didn’t think he would, but he put his hand on my back and pushed me out. From 2,000 feet, if the chute doesn’t open you only have 20 seconds.”

The first time she pulled the rip cord, nothing happened. Spinning through the air, she pulled it a second time—again, nothing. And still no chute on the third pull. Seeing the ambulance racing across the field and hearing the crowd’s screams. She yelled, “I’m going to get killed!” then pulled the cord a fourth time. Finally it opened, but not in time for a safe landing.

“When I woke up in the hospital a week later with everything white and flowers all around, I thought I had gone to heaven,” Pearl recalled. She learned that she had a broken back. Pearl was soon flown to Washington, where she would spend three months in the hospital. Her mother, who until then hadn’t been aware of her daughter’s barnstorming career, visited her, and Pearl vowed that she would never jump again—a vow she didn’t keep.

She would make one more jump, her 28th, in the summer of 1935, while attending the Ohio River Festival in Ravenswood, W.Va. When parachutist Babe Smith, who was scheduled to jump, didn’t show up, Pearl agreed to take her place. Despite landing in a crab apple tree, she escaped injury this time.

Pearl moved back to West Virginia late that summer and married Exell Ward. They started two Ward’s Sandwich Shoppes, one in Smithville and the other in Harrisville. In the early 1940s, the couple moved to Lake Charles, La., where they operated several eateries before acquiring an exclusive spot on Broad Street for an establishment they named Ward’s Plantation House. Its menu featured a photo of Pearl in her parachuting outfit.

Despite all the work involved in running their restaurant, Pearl didn’t give up flying completely. The Wards purchased a Luscombe airplane, and Exell took flying lessons. Pearl soon became involved with the Lake Charles chapter of the Civil Air Patrol, serving as squadron commander for eight years. In addition she belonged to the OX5 Aviation Pioneers, a group whose members had to have soloed a plane with a Curtiss OX5 engine prior to 1941, and the Ninety-Nines, the women pilots’ organization founded by Amelia Earhart.

In 1973 Pearl and Exell sold their restaurant and returned to West Virginia, where they bought a house in Parkersburg. Just 10 days later Exell died. Pearl remained involved in aviation late in life, serving as squadron commander of the West Virginia Civil Air Patrol from January 1, 1977, to April 1, 1980. A 1980 article in the Parkersburg Sentinel summarized her contributions: “Colonel Ward obtained four new aircraft for use in search and rescue, added several vehicles for use in ground search, and made extensive improvements to the wing headquarters building and its furnishings at Kanawha Airport in Charleston during her tenure as wing commander.” Pearl White Ward died on April 10, 1999, at 85.


Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.