Pearl Carter Scott – America’s Youngest Aviator
Folks along the old Chisholm Trail in rural 1927 Stephens County rarely saw an airplane in flight. So when a monoplane circled Marlow one morning and landed on blind entrepreneur George Carter’s spread just east of town, a crowd gathered to investigate. The pilot who stepped out of the aircraft was himself blind in one eye, as evidenced by the black eye patch he wore. An unknown ex-convict who had just completed his first solo flight, Wiley Post had a brother named Joe who lived across the road from Carter’s pasture.
Pearl Carter Scott, Oklahoma City artist Christopher Nick’s (www.cnickstudio.com) rendering of the teenage female aviatrix from Marlow, her Curtiss Robin monoplane, and her flying mentor, Wiley Post. Used with permission from the Oklahoma State Senate Collection and the artist. Courtesy Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund, a project of Charles Ford.
Living with Carter was his eleven-year-old daughter Pearl, whose thirst for learning and adventure seemed inexhaustible. Already, she not only drove automobiles, but served her father as his business chauffeur. After lunch, Post asked Carter would he enjoy a ride aloft. Carter, despite his blindness, accepted. When they returned, Pearl peppered them both with questions, then announced she would like to go up next. Her biographer Paul F. Lambert described what followed:
With George’s permission, Pearl became Wiley’s next passenger that day. Wiley could see that Pearl was fearless and eager to learn. The plane had dual controls, so Wiley decided to give her a basic flying lesson. First he had her put her feet on the pedals that controlled the ailerons so she could feel how they moved and how the plane responded when Wiley manipulated them. He also told her to hold her stick “real light.” Pearl was enthralled. She knew immediately that she wanted to learn all about flying.
Over the next months, Post returned to Marlow to see his brother, visit with George—their eye problems strengthened the two’s bond—and coach Pearl as an aviator. The next year, when Pearl was twelve and under five feet tall, George spent nearly $5,000, a hefty amount of money in the 1920s, to build her a state-of-the-art Curtiss Robin airplane. He spent additional money to clear a small airfield on his land and construct a hangar. Nearly twenty-six feet long and forty-one feet in wingspan, the Curtiss Robin weighed close to three-quarters of a ton and featured a powerful OX-5 engine. The model gained fame as the aircraft of choice for the era’s daredevil barnstorming pilots, who traveled through the American heartland staging flying shows.
Teenaged Pearl Carter (center) with her half Chickasaw-half Choctaw mother Lucy; her white father, entrepreneur George Carter, Sr.; and Pearl’s red Curtiss Robin airplane. The circa 1931 scene depicts the Marlow pasture that George converted into an “airport” for Pearl.
Courtesy Pearl Scott Collection, Chickasaw Nation Archives.
The following year, at age thirteen, after continued coaching from Post, Pearl flew solo, thus becoming the youngest aviator in American history. For the next five years, she gained fame, first for that, then as a daredevil stunt flyer at popular southern and western Oklahoma air shows. She excelled in barrel rolls, spins, dives, and other airborne feats. She even attempted to parachute out of a plane, though her parents vetoed that effort.
Riches to Rags
During that time, Pearl’s exceptional relationship with her father ruptured when she defied his wishes, and married Marlow farmer Lewis Scott and bore him daughter George and son Billy. Another son, Carter, arrived in 1936. Pearl thus had three children by the time she was twenty. These developments led to one of the most difficult decisions of her life. She gave up flying at the peak of her success and popularity, and still only eighteen years of age. She explained the momentous decision by calling herself “just too much of a daredevil” to be a young wife and the mother of little children.
The Great Depression, meanwhile, ruined her father’s financial fortunes as it did multitudes of other Americans, including many wealthy ones. He died in 1935, before his economic malaise lifted, though he and Pearl had reconciled. Lewis’s limitations as a provider, his and Pearl’s long separations due to his itinerant jobs, and his struggles with alcohol compounded her economic challenges. For decades, she experienced the “riches to rags” part of what she would later call her “riches to rags to riches” life story.
Blaming Scottie for losing “my farms, my home, my everything. Even the pickup was wrecked on a drunken spree,” she divorced him in 1961, despite his urging her not to end their thirty years of marriage. In later years, she realized that she still loved him, how much he had loved her and their children, and that he was the love of her life. She wept deeply upon his 1975 death.
Pearl Carter Scott, honored by the Chickasaw nation.
George Carter had imbued in his daughter a fearlessness and sense of the possible that, coupled with her own audacious spirit, helped propel her to feats early as well as late in life that few people could have accomplished. Post impacted her life greatly as well, beyond his flying prowess. Kindling her confidence and willingness to take on unprecedented challenges, he considered her a “ born flyer.” He admonished her not to let “anything deter you from what you want to do. You may fall down once in a while, but don’t give up. Get mad, and get up and show ‘em that you can do what you can.”
Angel of Mercy
In 1972, at the age of sixty-five, when most people are settling affairs and winding down for the final chapters of their earthly pilgrimage, Pearl embarked on a new venture. It proved one of the greatest accomplishments of her long and storied life. She hired on as a Community Health Representative (CHR) for the Chickasaw Nation. Her devout Methodist mother Lucy possessed half Chickasaw and half Choctaw blood, and Pearl grew increasingly devoted to the tribe in her later years. Of her American Indian heritage, she declared: “It has meant everything.”
Pearl’s ostensible job aimed to help connect needy tribal members with health, diet, sanitation, and other services. According to her, however, “We vaccinated dogs. We vaccinated cats. We gave people shots. We’d take their temperatures. Well, we’d go with them and help them get anything they needed. We were even taught how to deliver babies.”
The work grew more personal still for her. She did not merely “make the rounds” or call on appointed lists of people. She drove up and down remote hills and explored dirt and mud roads in order to find suffering folks across the Chickasaw Nation of southern and southwestern Oklahoma. The clinically depressed…the alcoholically-enslaved…the hopeless…
Poster from the 2010 motion picture Pearl. Website: http://www.pearlthemovie.net
Pearl paid for extra gas and expenses for her car out of her own pocket. She impoverished and financially jeopardized herself to buy hungry children groceries, and many was the Chickasaw father who put his arms around her neck to “just cry because I got their kids something to eat. It was just pitiful…When you see kids hungry, you’re going to feed them.”
Granddaughter Beverly Louise Parker lived with Pearl during much of this time. She recalled the telephone often ringing in the middle of the night, “and it would be somebody needing help. She’d jump up, get dressed, get in the car, and go break up a family fight” or respond to someone being “drunk or in jail. She just worked all the time. That phone never stopped ringing.”
Her grandson Craig delivered Pearl one of the great gifts of her later life when, in 1970, he took her flying. When he turned the controls over to her and she piloted the aircraft, she did so for the first time in thirty-seven years. Then, at eighty years of age, she flew a King Air plane.
Pearl Carter Scott weathered much grief in her long life. She lost both her parents, her still-beloved former husband, all her siblings, close friends like Wiley Post, and even her son Carter before her own passing in 2005, at the age of eighty-nine. But she died as she lived, rich in friends, honors, and accomplishments. Overcoming so much, and helping so many, her life embodied the epitaph she left for herself: “Never give up.”