BY NATE SMELLE
Friends and family of Canadian flying ace Dorothy Rungeling gathered in the main foyer of Lookout Ridge Retirement Home on last Friday to celebrate her 106th birthday. Prior to the celebration, Rungeling took time to speak with the Voice about her remarkable life story.
Rungeling’s passion for flying, and her love of the community where she grew up, have changed the face of Canadian aviation and helped shape the local landscape. Credited for her work helping to save the Niagara Central Airport, it was renamed the Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport in 2015. In 2003, Rungeling was awarded the Order of Canada for her many accomplishments in aviation. Despite these honours, Rungeling’s path to becoming a pilot was not a simple one. Out of fear that people would be upset by the idea of a female pilot, Rungeling said she didn’t tell anyone — including her family — that she was training to get her pilot’s licence.
“It was a secret of mine,” she said.
“Nobody knew I was learning to fly because I thought everybody would be against it, but they weren’t.”
The last time Rungeling piloted an airplane was in the early 1970s, however she recalls her first flight in 1948 as if it were yesterday.
“My first flight up, there were very few instruments on the panel at that time” Rungeling explained.
“I looked at them and I don’t know what happened. I was scared to death when I first got in the airplane and then when I came out I was all for learning.”
She remembers how odd it felt in the beginning, sitting stationary at the controls while flying.
“[Up in the sky] there’s a strange feeling of not moving,” she said.
“I remember asking the instructor, ‘When are we going to start moving?’ He started to laugh and said we were doing 120 miles per hour.”
Rungeling went on to have an illustrious career as an air-racer and an advocate for women in aviation. Throughout her life, Rungeling has been a pioneer for women in aviation. She was the first Canadian woman to attain a commercial air license, and to compete in international air races. She entered several Canadian and International aviation contests, including: All Women’s International Air Races, the Women’s Transcontinental Air Races, and the Canadian Governor-General’s Cup Air Race. At the age of 99, Rungeling added to her list of firsts by becoming the oldest Canadian woman to fly a helicopter solo.
In 1964, Rungeling’s pioneering spirit led her to pursue a career in municipal politics. She became the first woman to serve as a Councillor in Pelham. Though looking back, she appreciates having the experience and having the opportunity to serve the community she loves, Rungeling said she wouldn’t do it again even if she were younger.
“They seemed to take so long to make decisions, and the place was full of tobacco smoke. Everybody was smoking in those days. It wasn’t pleasant.”
In her 106 years, Rungeling said she has seen the Town change tremendously. Acknowledging that the community has fundamentally transformed during her lifetime, she is content with today’s Pelham. She does, however understand that others do not feel the same about how the community has changed.
“There seems to be two sides to it. I was talking to someone just the other day and they were saying they didn’t like Fonthill at all anymore — they liked it the way it was 20 years ago. Now, I like it the way it is. I think the Mayor has done a good job and the place looks nice and clean and not as though it’s going to fall down in the next tenminutes.”
For some years, Rungeling shared her passion for life with the community she loves each week as a columnist with the Voice. These pages, however, were not the first place her writing appeared. Rungeling was only 11 when she began following in the footsteps of her mother, Ethelwyn Wetherald — a published writer and poet.
The young Rungeling’s first article was featured in The Farmers’ Sun, and was about her experience at the Toronto Winter Fair.
“The Farmers’ Sun had some kind of a contest and I won a free week at the Fair. I didn’t stay the whole time because my folks thought I shouldn’t miss that much school.”
“I didn’t agree with them,” she said with a smile.
That same year, Rungeling’s parents bought her a bicycle for her 11th birthday. Her love of riding her bicycle evolved into a passion for riding motorcycles and driving in general.
“My parents bought me my first bike and things from there just seemed to grow mechanically,” said Rungeling.
“I was always interested in anything mechanical. Getting my first car in 1927 was a big thrill. It was just wonderful.”
It wasn’t until she turned 102 that she decided to turn in her licence.
“I hadn’t got to the point where I was dangerous or couldn’t see or any of those bad things, so I just kept on driving,” she said.
“But then I thought about being a person that was a 102 years old, and how most of us aren’t fit to be on the highway. That’s when I decided to stop.”