Clyde Pangborn
Schneider Trophy
the great air races
Hollywood stunt pilots
early women aviators

the Women Who Dared the Skies

During World War I, some flight schools discovered something that has been noted by air force training programs throughout the century: women make exceptional flight instructors, particularly for male pilots. (The theory is that the cockier male pilots are less stubborn and confrontational with a woman instructor, and are more receptive to criticism and instruction from her than from a man.) The Stinson family of San Antonio, Texas, were all fliers and the flying school they founded there trained many Canadian pilots who went on to serve in the British Royal Flying Corps.

Marjorie took care of the school (becoming a legendary flight instructor), while Katherine supported the school with stunt flying. Both sisters toured the country, flying in exhibitions for Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross, and Katherine was sent on a goodwill tour of Japan and China, where she stunned men and women alike with her stunt flying and her liberal attitudes. Katherine’s flight from San Diego to San Francisco in 1917 set a non-stop long-distance record— or men or women—of 610 miles (981.5km).

The Stinson sisters retired from aviation shortly after the war, but their brother Eddie continued flying and became a builder of airplanes that were widely used in the airmail service in the interwar period. The other great woman aviator of the war years was Ruth Law, also from a family of aviators. Law was a very competitive individual, likely to try anything just because someone told her she couldn’t do it. Just such a dare was responsible for her being the second woman to perform a loop in 1915 (Katherine Stinson being the first, shortly before). She competed in several altitude and distance events, sometimes winning and setting records, but always being greeted by adoring crowds and always demanding that she be evaluated on the same basis as male fliers.

At America’s entry into World War I, Law applied to the United States Army to fly combat missions. She bristled when she was turned down and wrote an article for Air Travel (“Let Women Fly!”) that inspired many future women aviators. After the war, Ruth Law formed a flying circus and became one of the most successful barnstormers of the 1920s. She retired from flying after one of her women stunt flyers, Laura Bromwell, was killed in a stunt.

One of the women inspired by Law was Pheobe Omlie, who became one of the greatest barnstormers of the post-war period. Omlie crusaded for safety markers to assist aerial navigation and, with the help of fliers Blanche Noyes and Louise Thade, flew around the country identifying the best locations for directional markers. Omlie was appointed by President Roosevelt to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), making her the first woman to hold a government post in the field of aviation.

A Frenchwoman named Adrienne Bolland was the first to fly a plane from Argentina to Peru across the treacherous Andes Mountains in 1921. It would be seven years before anything comparable was attempted by women aviators. Many of the women who performed great feats of flying and who won races against all competitors resented being singled out as women and being praised for flying so well “for a woman".

This attitude is evident in the reaction of women fliers to the career of Ruth Elder. Elder was a capable flier who placed high in the competitive Women’s Air Derby of 1929. In 1927 she announced that she would attempt a crossing of the Atlantic with her flight instructor, George Haldeman. The feat was clearly a publicity stunt (as much for the Stinson Detroiter aircraft they were flying as for Elder) and she named the airplane American Girl. In the eves of other women fliers, the photos and the entire project were a throwback to the days when women were thought to he incapable of flying.

At the urging of many women aviators, a second woman flier, Frances Grayson, entered the field, flying a Sikorsky amphibian, Dawn. But the aircraft of 1927 were not prepared for such a trip—something the extraordinary flight of Lindbergh earlier only highlighted— and Elder and Halderman were forced to ditch their Stinson short of the Azores, near a tanker that rescued them. Grayson, who insisted on taking the North Atlantic route instead of the longer but safer South Atlantic course to Europe, was not as fortunate.

She took off from the coast of Newfoundland on December 23 and was never heard from again. A similar conflict surrounded the career of Elinor Smith, an outstanding flier by any standards, who broke records both individually and with her fellow woman flier, Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout. The two fliers teamed up in 1929 and became well-known for establishing an endurance record and for performing the first in- light refuelling by women fliers.

In the thirties, Smith billed herself as the “Flying Flapper” and was  widely photographed by newspapers modelling clothes near airplanes. This did not sit well with other women aviators. One prominent barnstormer of the early 1920s was confronted with an additional barrier: race. Bessie Coleman was born in 1893 in Texas to a poor black family, but  managed to enter college. When she could  no longer afford to stay in college, she moved to Chicago and decided to try to learn to fly. After asking virtually every flight instructor in the country and being turned down (and having built a successful business in Chicago), she went to France and earned a pilot’s license.

some great women of flight (from the left: Katherine Stinson in 1916; Ruth Law, one of the women who came closest to flying combat missions for the Allies in World War I, in 1919; and Elinor Smith, an endurance champ who flew out of Roosevelt Field, New York, in 1929

She returned to the United States and began a barnstorming career that spread her fame throughout the Midwest. Coleman purposely flew a Nieuport (a military plane) and wore military clothes to emphasize that she could fly a plane as well as any military pilot. The participation of the pre-eminent women aviators in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, held at that year’s Nationals, advanced the cause of women’s aviation. The contestants were all accomplished fliers and record holders: Amelia Earhart; Ruth Elder; Marvel Crosson (sister of the famed Arctic flier Joe Crosson and the only fatality of the race); Blanche Noyes; Thea Rasche, the famed German woman aviator; Bobbi Trout; Florence “Pancho” Barnes, acknowledged to be one of the greatest Hollywood stunt pilots and speed racers, male or female, of the day; Ruth Nichols; and the Australian long-distance flier Jesse Miller.

The course was a long and hard one, and there was evidence that resentful individuals had tampered with some of the equipment. The winner, Louise (McPhetridge) Thaden, already a simultaneous holder of speed, altitude, and endurance records for women fliers, was now catapulted into the public spotlight and became a hero to women everywhere.

Another positive result of the Women’s Air Derby was the formation of an association of women fliers called the Ninety-Nines (after the number of charter members) which had Amelia Earhart as its first president. The Ninety-Nines promoted women’s aviation by lobbying for women to be allowed to enter air races (women had been barred in 1930 because of the death of Crosson, but were allowed back the following year), and by publishing The 99-er, a magazine highlighting the latest developments in aviation and the careers of women fliers. Probably the greatest triumph in aviation for women during this period—even more important than the exploits of the great long- distance fliers—was the victory of Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes in winning the Bendix Trophy in 1936.

The pair flew a new design from Beechcraft, the Model 17 Staggerwing, a biplane with the lower wing forward of the upper wing (instead of the other way around, as was the case with most biplanes). They completed the course hours before their nearest competitor. The victory had an electrifying effect on women’s aviation; the victory of Jacqueline Cochran in the 1938 Bendix race was possible only because of the Thaden-Noyes victory two years earlier. One could get a rousing argument going about who was the best woman flier of the Golden Age, but there wouldn’t he much disagreement about who was the grittiest: that would be Ruth Nichols. Nichols was born into a wealthy family and attended the finest schools; she was expected to enter high society and take her place in the Social Register. Because of her blue-blood background, she was called the “Flying Debutante” by the press, a name she hated.  

Louise Thadden was among the most accomplished aviators of her day, wining the 1936 Bendix Trophy in a Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing.

Ruth Nichols  seems  a tad overdressed to pilot her Vega for a 1931 test flight, but she as as rugged and determined as any flyer of the period.

Bessie Coleman, in a 1923 photo became the first black woman aviator but  she had to go to England to get her license.

 As a graduation present, her stockbroker father treated her to a ride in a barnstormer’s airplane, and as she would write years later, “I haven’t come down to earth since.” While vacationing in Florida during a break from her studies at Wellesley, she took lessons from a barnstormer named Harry Rogers, and she soon abandoned plans to enter medical school and took up flying. Her big break came when Rogers asked her to be his copilot in an attempt at a record-setting run from New York to Miami in 1928. She was instantly propelled into the spotlight and was able to dedicate herself to flying full-time. She became a spokesperson for the Fairchild Airplane and Engine Company and toured the country in her trademark custom-made purple leather flight suit and helmet.

With a Lockheed Vega borrowed from radio manufacturer Powel Crosley, and coached by Charles Chamberlain, the noted test pilot for Whirlwind, Nichols set several records in cross-country flying and altitude in preparation for a solo flight to Paris along Lindbergh’s route. Naming the plane the Akita (an Indian word meaning “to explore”), she took off from New York on June 22, 1931, to cross the Atlantic. Instead of stopping to refuel in Portland, Maine, she went to an alternate site, St. John, New Brunswick, with which she was unfamiliar.

The runway was too short for so fast a plane and the Lockheed ploughed into the forest at the end of the field. Nichols was badly injured—she cracked five vertebrae—and was told it would be a year before she could fly again, and even then only with a thick steel body brace. But only a month later, Nichols was supervising the repairs to the Akita and, still in her plaster cast, preparing to take another run at the Atlantic. The weather would not cooperate and, after a month’s delay, she decided instead to try to beat the non-stop solo overland distance record of 1,849 miles (2,958.4km) set by French flier Maryse Bastie. This time, there would be nothing left to chance.

She flew from New York to California, stopping at each potential landing site along the way to become familiar with the runways and the terrain. She took off from Oakland and made it as far as Louisville, Kentucky, short of her goal but still just breaking Bastie’s record. As she took off to finish her journey, a leaking valve caught fire. Nichols managed to land the plane and, now in her heavy and cumbersome steel body brace, to climb out and leap clear just as the plane exploded. The Akita was demolished, and thus ended Nichols’ plans to cross the Atlantic.