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Documentary traces life of trailblazing northeast Indiana pilot Margaret Ringenberg

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 5:00 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — When Margaret Ray Ringenberg completed her first solo flight in 1941 at the age of 19, some people said women didn't belong in the cockpit.

But the Hoosier pilot proved them wrong, launching a long career in aviation that included service in World War II, a stint in airplane racing and shuttling Indiana senators to Washington.

"Margaret wasn't one of those people who set out to be a revolutionary," filmmaker Philip Paluso said. "She just wanted to do what she wanted to do, and her actions spoke for her."

And now Paluso has created a documentary about the pioneering aviator's life. "Wings for Maggie Ray" is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Jan. 10 on Indianapolis television station WFYI-20.

For the pilot's family members, it is a moment to appreciate her accomplishments and courage.

Ringenberg grew up on a farm in Hoagland in northeastern Indiana and became interested in flying at age 8 when she saw a plane land in a field near her family's home, noted Paluso, a Fishers resident. With her father's encouragement to chase her dreams, Ringenberg attended flight school and completed her first solo flight at 19.

In 1943, she was one of a select few women who flew in World War II as a ferry pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

"This was during a time when people had different attitudes about women flying for the military," Paluso told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/Tm0OKg ). "There were people who said, 'Women don't belong in cockpits.'"

Though the WASP pilots did not fly combat missions, Paluso said, "they did things that allowed the male pilots to be out on the front lines."

Ringenberg kept flying after the war. She started racing airplanes in the 1950s and flew for the rest of her life.

"She was a commercial pilot of choice for Dan Quayle when he was senator and also Dan Coats," Paluso said.

Ringenberg's daughter praised the documentary.

"I very much like to have her memory honored," said Marsha J. Wright, 65, who lives in the Fort Wayne area. "I feel like she was such an amazing person, even if she was my mom. ... She is very much an inspiration to a lot of people."

Wright, who has a brother, got her own pilot's license as a teen at her mom's urging. She never developed the same passion for flying that her mother possessed, however.

"She was very mechanical and very brave, and I'm not," Wright said. "But I wrote all her speeches for her, and I wrote a book about her. We always said that if my washing machine broke, I called her, but if she needed a speech, she called me."

Wright's book, "Maggie Ray: World War 2 Air Force Pilot," is available at Amazon.com and elsewhere.

Wright is glad that her mother's five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren will be able to watch the documentary about their trailblazing relative.

"When they were younger, our kids might have taken her for granted," Wright said. "They might have thought, 'Doesn't every grandma fly?' But as they are aging a little bit, I think they are becoming more aware of her significant place in American history."

Active until the last, Ringenberg was found dead in her hotel room bed in 2008 after driving from Fort Wayne to attend an air show in Oshkosh, Wis. She was 87. Her husband had died five years earlier.

A 22-year-old Greenfield native, Taylor Cortolillo, portrays Ringenberg in some re-enacted scenes in the documentary.

"I was thrilled to be part of it," said Cortolillo, who now lives in Salt Lake City. "She was extremely driven in a time when that wasn't something necessarily expected from women or even accepted. She's a very inspiring woman."