Cincinnati’s First (And Fastest) Aviatrix

Laura Bromwell became a national sensation flying airplanes after WWI. Her short-lived but inspirational career began in Cincinnati.

Like a meteor briefly flashing through the heavens, Laura Bromwell caught the imagination of Americans in the heady days of aviation following World War I. Her short-lived but inspirational career began in Cincinnati.

Image digitized by the Smithsonian Institution Air & Space Museum

She was a farm girl from Switzerland County, Indiana, where she was born in 1897, the seventh of eight children. When Bromwell was 12, her father died when he landed on his head falling out of the hayloft.

A few years later, Laura moved to Cincinnati and found work as a cashier in a Fourth Street restaurant. One day, a customer learned that she’d dived 50 feet into one of Indiana’s flooded quarries, and he suggested she would never jump from the Suspension Bridge into the Ohio River. When the customer backed his statement with a $20 bet, Bromwell immediately took him up on the wager.

Jumping from the Roebling Suspension Bridge had become a minor spectator sport in Cincinnati ever since Meredith Stanley made the first successful leap in 1888. A fair number of folks leapt to their deaths intentionally from the bridge, and others met fatal conclusions unintentionally. The drop was normally 110 feet, and odds of surviving were iffy at best.

Bromwell jumped from the railing of the Suspension Bridge at 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, 1916. She wore a daring single-piece swimsuit for the occasion, somersaulted in midair, landed feet-first and was picked up by a waiting skiff and rowed to the Cincinnati shore. This greatly disappointed a crowd of young ladies on the Covington shore who had bet on her survival—and were happy at the result—but wanted to buy her dinner. After witnessing Bromwell’s fearless plunge, a secret admirer sent a note to The Cincinnati Post:

“I have always admired Miss Laura Bromwell, tho the young lady was not aware of it. I watched and prayed as she was about to dive from the Suspension Bridge last Sunday. When I saw that brave little red-topped head bob safely out of the water and strike out for the Cincinnati shore, I am not ashamed to say that I cried like a schoolboy. I was glad she was safe, tho lost to me forever. She proved herself one girl in a million.”

The river jump made national news, including the entertainment newspaper Variety. Bridge-jumping was a popular pastime, and those who survived often took to the vaudeville circuit—hence Variety’s interest. But Bromwell had loftier plans.

Vanishing from Cincinnati, she showed up in Virginia in 1918, selling war bonds so successfully that she won a ride in an airplane. That flight set Bromwell on her life’s course; within a year she earned her pilot’s license, only the ninth American woman to do so.

Airplanes and flight lessons were expensive even then, but Bromwell was able to get air time because she enlisted in the New York City Police Aviation Service, eventually achieving the rank of captain. To the men in the squadron, she was known as “The Lovely Comrade.” A “girl” flying airplanes attracted a lot of media attention, and Bromwell was always ready for a photograph and a quote. She told a New York reporter in 1921:

“I want to be noticed not for what I wear but for what I do. Dangerous? Sure. But if it wasn’t dangerous everybody would be doing it. I wish more women would take to flying. There’s nothing like the fresh air for one’s brains. Then we could have women’s contests. And have all the men look up to us.”

On August 15, 1920, Bromwell had a lot of men looking up to her. Over the course of a couple of hours, she swooped through a record 87 loop-the-loops, dropping from two miles in the air to nearly tree-top level. She claimed the total was actually 100 loops, but her flight path drifted away from the Long Island airport and clouds blocked the observers’ sight lines for several minutes. The previous record, set in France, was 25 consecutive loops.

Bromwell had an eye for publicity. On taxiing to a stop after her record-breaking flight, she hopped out of the cockpit and borrowed a compact from a waiting admirer. As photographers snapped front-page shots, Bromwell powdered her nose to demonstrate her sangfroid.

Earlier that year, she set an aviation speed record of 135 miles per hour over a two-mile course. Bromwell was the fastest woman alive and found herself in demand as the star attraction for civic events. In June 1920, for example, she got front-page coverage for a week leading up to her appearance flying maneuvers over the crowd at a Pittsburgh track and field meet. The coverage in The Pittsburgh Press [June 13, 1920] indicates she’d developed an entire repertoire of aerobatics:

“Flying has become such second nature to Miss Bromwell that she thinks no more of ‘stunts’ such as looping the loop, flying upside down, doing the ‘falling leaf,’ the nose-dive, the tail spin, and other-like air-acrobatics, than the ordinary woman would think of taking a walk on a safe and sane pavement.”

On May 15, 1921, Bromwell obliterated her own loop-the-loop record by completing 199 loops in an afternoon over Curtiss Field, near Mineola, Long Island. In an interview following this feat, she told a reporter that she had run away from home as a teenager, acted on the stage, and raced automobiles. She may have done so, and may have used an assumed name. No contemporary newspaper records such activities.

A month later, Laura Bromwell was dead. She took up a borrowed plane, swirled through one loop and had just begun a second when the aircraft lurched to the side and began falling. It landed upside-down, crushing the pilot. Although she claimed publicly to have no loves except flying, her fiancé witnessed the fatal crash.

Bromwell’s casket received a hero’s honors in New York City, escorted by her police squadron down Broadway. She was brought back to Florence, Indiana, for burial.

A few months later, an anonymous poet published a eulogy in Aerial Age magazine, titled “The Lovely Comrade.” One stanza reads:

And always for the merry, fearless heart,
Her flyer’s well-worn leather coat concealed,
We came to love her better every day,
Our Lovely Comrade of the flying field.

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