National Native American Heritage Month – Kus-de-cha, Pilot

Mary Riddle won widespread acclaim as one of the first Native American women to earn an airplane pilot’s license. She was born in the community of Bruceport in Washington in 1902. A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Riddle was a member of both the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington and the Clatsop Tribe in Oregon. She was also known as Kus-de-cha, which means “Kingfisher” in the Quinault language. Riddle indicated in at least one newspaper interview that being named for a bird was indeed appropriate because of her strong interest in aviation.

By the late 1920s, Riddle was taking flight lessons from renowned pilot Tex Rankin in Portland, Oregon. “She has made marked progress in flying under his tutelage,” reported the Oregon-based Athena Press in 1930. (Rankin also served as the flight instructor for James Stewart, Errol Flynn, and Edgar Bergen.) Once Riddle reached the point where she could fly a plane solo, the sky was the limit for her aspirations. Her activities included participation as a popular barnstorming pilot in numerous air shows.

Riddle also received nationwide attention after announcing her plans for a transcontinental flight to deliver gifts from Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest to President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C. Various newspapers, featuring a photograph of Riddle in standard pilot attire and next to a plane, highlighted her ambitious coast-to-coast flight objective. Whether Riddle did in fact make that trip to the nation’s capital is unclear, but the coverage she received for her plans underscore both the extensive fame and derring-do reputation she had achieved by that time.

By 1937, Riddle had expanded her airborne skills to also include parachuting. She used this new skill to memorable effect during a national tour to promote aviation. As a key part of the tour, Riddle made a series of well-publicized parachute jumps from the tri-motored Boeing plane “Voice of Washington.” These performances only further strengthened her public appeal.

“Miss Riddle has a charming, quiet, retiring personality which belies her unusual courage and daring,” asserted the Bismarck Tribune in announcing plans for the tour in North Dakota in the spring of 1937. “Besides enjoying flying and parachute jumping, which have made her world famous, she is an accomplished swimmer and rider and thoroughly enjoys golf, tennis and ice skating.”  

During World War II, Riddle used her aviation experience to serve as both a civilian aircraft inspector and aircraft maintenance advisor. She died in Portland in 1981 at the age of 79.

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